REFEREE JP Doyle called players by name during today’s European Champions Cup semi-final.
He turned to pack leader, CJ Stander, asking ‘how many in the lineout?’; he turned to Racing 92, and did not need his well-versed French. He just asked Donnacha Ryan: ‘how many?’
Tipperary man Ryan, in his first season with his new side, with a new language, led the lineouts in their semi-final. He led the lineouts in Munster for many seasons, having learned his craft from the likes of Paul O’Connell.
He served his apprenticeship and then led Billy Holland and Peter O’Mahony, testing them in training, so that quick thinking and adapting became second nature. His contract sat on the desks of the IRFU head office and they declined the renewal.
In their opinion, he did not warrant a central contract and had nothing left to offer. He seems to have plenty to offer Racing 92, as they march toward the final against Leinster, in Bilboa, in May.
Munster looked shell-shocked in the opening 22 minutes. Racing stormed into a 21-3 lead. We have so often seen Vakatawa’s powerful runs on the wing. At 13, he was finding yards after the tackle, getting his hands free and releasing Teddy Thomas.
Vakatwa was again the creator for Thomas’s second, as he stepped inside Conor Murray, breaking through the tackle; his pace beat the cover and Thomas dotted down.
Usually, the scrum-half would stay as a sweeper, in behind the first-up defensive line, to be able to cover any breaks.
Munster were so stretched at times that Murray was forced to join the line and plug holes, and, in a scramble across left his inside shoulder, was too easy a target for the big Vakatawa.
Teddy Thomas, the winger, was on for a hat-trick, as he again found himself racing clear of the Munster defence. He even had the time to run across under the posts, and he turned, declined the try for himself, and gifted his captain, Machenaud, the score. It was a demoralising sight for the men in red, but Munster were struggling to get any foothold.
Their lineout was being dismantled and disrupted and was in disarray. Munster were panicking, searching through their menu of options. They tried a quick ball to the front; Scannell’s foot was in touch.
In the end, they turned down the kick to corner instead, going for the scrum, despite not being entirely dominant in that facet.
The championship minutes are those on either side of half-time. Munster were chasing the three-try deficit. They turned down posts and went for the scrum. The scrum wheeled up on the left. Stander picked left and looked to maul into the opposition nine.
The rest of the pack were slow to react and the maul broke down. The chance was lost. Luckily, Racing were offside, so Munster got another bite at the cherry. This time, they went to the corner and their lineout. The resulting overthrow and turnover summed up their luck in this first-half.
Racing’s rush defence from 13 was killing the back-line. Often, Murray, Keatley, or Scannell were forced into carrying, as outside options had been cut off. When they spun the ball wide, it was usually over the heads of defenders. Some of these were called back for forward passes.
Munster needed an out-the-back option. Even a loop may have held those inside defenders and sit down those on the outside. Leinster and Jonny Sexton have lived off it for years.
Or, we see teams use the forward and then pull it back to the playmaker, who then has time to play it wider. It adds a shield to the back-line, a threat in the front to force defenders to hesitate, if even for a second, and then a shorter passing option to add width.
When Munster did go wide, it was with a long, looping pass that allowed the drift defence time to get there.
Munster used this later in the game. Although successful, it was too little too late. Munster were rattled by a quick start from the French and failed to adapt their game plan quickly enough. It will be a valuable lesson, but at a very dear cost.