Munster can take leaf out of Racing's book to unsettle Leinster
Now that they have the Champions Cup trophy back in their cabinet, Leinster can look forward to being the benchmark team that everyone wants to have a crack at. First up, it’s Munster in a PRO14 semi-final and as intriguing a match-up as we’ve had all season.
This rivalry has been crying out for a high-stakes encounter. They may be forced to rotate, but the European champions will field their strongest possible team, while Johann van Graan has had a two-week window and no distractions.
He is an admirer of how this Leinster team play the game, but the Munster coach’s primary focus for the past fortnight has been working out how to limit their opportunities.
Munster will want to impose their own style on proceedings, but are away from home and against a team that has lost just six of 30 games this season.
While many didn’t appreciate the borderline turgid nature of events in Bilbao last weekend, the South African would have been an intrigued onlooker and has undoubtedly been through the footage several times to see just how Racing 92 nearly halted Leinster’s unstoppable march.
It was a relatively simple game plan, well executed and the Blues’ coaching staff and players are all too aware that it was highly effective.
“They worked us out and that’s what you do,” scrum coach John Fogarty said. “You think about the games we were mentally or physically off in and we’ve come undone in similar areas when we’ve been slowed up.
“I watched that Edinburgh (v Munster) game and I think they snagged the scrum-half four times and the collisions, there was a lot of impact.
“Racing had that energy at the weekend and they slowed us up. We really didn’t get into a flow, we didn’t launch the set-piece effectively off our lineout.
“That’s the template and for us and our guys, we’ve enjoyed the last 20 minutes of some games this year because we put points on the board but for us to be in that position with 10-15 minutes to go, we had to go and win the game. We learned from that.”
The rain in Bilbao helped and the forecast for tomorrow is for far better conditions which should help Leinster play their own game, but there are lessons Munster can take.
Unlike most French teams for whom size matters, Racing fielded a side packed with athletic forwards who treated every ruck as an opportunity.
The conditions allowed them to bank on Leinster not being able to shift the ball wide, which meant the French side could throw more bodies into the breakdown and make life awkward for Luke McGrath and slow the ball getting out to Johnny Sexton.
Turnovers were at a premium and the work was tiring, but Leinster were looking for lightning-quick ball to release their outside backs but instead they were forced to kick.
If Munster can force Leinster into kicking, they’ll know they’re unsettling their hosts.
Leinster thrive off their lineout, but Racing’s forwards were brilliant at getting into the air and spoiling.
They picked off two of Sean Cronin’s throws, but also disrupted the setting up of any mauls or transfers by putting pressure on the lifted player.
That, once again, puts pressure on McGrath and forces the backline to re-align.
In Peter O’Mahony, Munster have one of the best defensive lineout operators around and a man who knows Devin Toner and James Ryan’s cues.
If they can disrupt Leinster at source, they can stop them getting into their rhythm.
Get off the line
Racing’s ability to get off the line and into Leinster’s faces was a telling force.
Although they coughed up a couple of offside penalties that ultimately proved costly, the French side harried some of the most composed distributors in Irish rugby into errors.
Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold will be tasked with leading a defensive effort.
Throw a punch
As Racing discovered, excellent defensive work and pressure rugby simply isn’t enough. You have to make the most of your own opportunities.
Chances will be at a premium — Munster must take them if they are to win.