It was an unpredictable opening round of Champions Cup rugby and one that provided us with plenty to talk about. Leinster’s performance was the stand out of the weekend’s action. Racing looked shell-shocked from the first minute, almost like an All-Ireland League side playing against a professional outfit for the first time.
Leinster found their groove effortlessly and did what they so often do; outworked, outmuscled and outsmarted their star-studded opposition. The most impressive part of a perfectly-rounded display was the level of intellect they showed in their approach to the game. When people seek to explain how Leinster have remained so dominant for so long, they invariably point to the conveyor belt of talent they have pouring out of the Dublin school system each year.
While this is obviously a huge element of their success, it’s simplistic to pretend it’s the only piece in the puzzle. Leinster have continued to thrive because they evolve and adapt to an increasingly fickle game, where there is no guarantee things that work one season will be effective in the next. They have set the standard for 13 years because they are so difficult to emulate. Just when you think you have figured out what they have in their armoury, they whip out a brand new bow and a fresh set of strings.
Two of the six tries they scored on Saturday were perfect examples of this. After Andrew Porter’s maul try in the fourth minute, you would be forgiven for thinking they would maul Racing up and down the park all day. They actually did the opposite, launching the majority of their lineout attacks by setting up a dummy maul and getting the ball into the backs’ hands through Josh van der Flier or Dan Sheehan.
The dummy maul was very much in fashion six or seven years ago. It faded away for a while and has seen something of a resurgence this season. When done well, it has a lot going for it. Mixing a dummy maul with an actual maul throughout a game means the opposition pack are under pressure to make the right decision.
If they decide to engage and the ball is moved on, they can be exposed by strike plays on either side. If they hold off to see what’s happening and the ball is kept in, they can concede the first, crucial, couple of yards of momentum and be in a very weak position to stop a trundling maul. It has the added bonus of allowing the scrum half to act as first receiver in the backline, giving more options to attack out wide and creating more uncertainty for the defence.
As impressive as the handling, pace and footwork that went into the move were, the key element was the decoy lines that sat the Racing defence down and created the space for Lowe to break the line. First, Doris ran hard to draw in Ibrahim Diallo and Francis Saili. Gibson-Park threw it across him to Charlie Ngatai, who left it up for Ross Byrne on his inside. Ringrose then came thundering into the space on Byrne’s outside shoulder, forcing Finn Russell to bite in and give an extra metre of an opening for Lowe to exploit.
Russell ended up on his belly; the ball ended up over the line. Like the dummy maul, when you have world class players running hard lines in the middle of the pitch, defenders have to respect it. It’s the little things like this – often unseen – that weaken a link in the chain ever so slightly for a quality side to exploit.
When van der Flier stretched out and touched down his first try in the 62nd minute, Leinster’s ingenuity was on full display once again. Exeter can be credited with bringing back the old school ‘tap and go’ from five metres out, and it played a huge part in their double-winning 2019/20 season. Many teams have copied it but few have gotten creative. Leinster, once again, showed how it’s done.
Sheehan passed to Doris, who shaped to carry hard with Ala’alatoa and Porter supporting on either side. Naturally, the Racing pack is focused on stopping this sizeable trio in its tracks and four defenders bit in to make this happen. At the last minute, Doris pulled the ball back to van der Flier who moved laterally at speed, finding the outside shoulder of Baudonne – the last forward in the line – and breaking his tackle before stretching over.
Forwards are told to try and find the seam between the last forward and the first back in the defensive line when they are carrying the ball. This is a natural weak link in the defence; backs and forwards aren’t used to defending as a unit the way two forwards or two backs would be.
It’s usually easier said than done but when you have the cunning that Leinster have at their disposal, you can find ways to make it happen. In Champions Cup rugby, a half a metre of space can be crucial, and Leinster showed how crucial with these perfectly executed scores.
In fact, you could say that cunning and creativity were two things missing at times from a very encouraging Munster performance on Sunday. There were many things to take solace from, one being how well Munster’s set piece performed against an enormous Toulouse pack.
John Ryan in particular had an excellent 50th European game, both in the tight and around the pitch. If rumours of his departure to New Zealand in the new year are true, it will represent an own goal for Munster, who surely could have tied him into a longer deal as soon as he appeared on the market in October.
Munster went toe to toe with Toulouse up front and got themselves into scoring positions on plenty of occasions. My feeling watching the game was that when Gavin Coombes or Tadhg Beirne couldn’t find a way to push deeper into the Toulouse 22, there was no clear and obvious back up plan for Munster to switch into. The final quarter was exactly the setting where you would like to see Dave Kilcoyne unleashed to carry the ball like a maniac, and his absence from the matchday squad weakened the ball carrying impact from the bench.
With the exception of Carbery’s try in the 10th minute, Toulouse ramped up the aggression and accuracy in defence as soon as Munster got into the danger zone. Their momentum was killed repeatedly as the French side’s line speed and physicality increased. It was in these moments you were hoping to see what Leinster showed 24 hours earlier; a dash of creativity and something different to force open some space where there appeared to be none.
Unfortunately it didn’t come and having an alternative to fall back on when the physical confrontation isn’t paying dividends is something Munster will need to develop as the season goes on. Two key areas that need to be addressed ahead of next Sunday’s game in Northampton are the defensive maul and their accuracy at the breakdown.
Both of Toulouse’s tries came from penalty advantages at the maul, first when they were hauled down seven metres from the Munster line after running them back ten metres, and second after an illegal entry and poor decisions from Munster’s forwards after a five-metre lineout. A pack with Toulouse’s size and power will always look to impose themselves through their maul and Munster failed to neutralise this threat.
For the coaches, the most frustrating part of the review will be the six points that were gifted to Toulouse from two penalties for holding on at the breakdown. In a game of such fine margins, failing to secure your own ball within kicking distance of your posts is a cardinal sin. It’s easy to blame the ball carriers for not getting more yards out of the collision but ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the support players to react more quickly and protect the ball.
It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means and was far from an ideal result. It was, nonetheless, a game that should do more to build Munster’s confidence in this make-or-break block of the season than dishearten them. While there is always a risk that Northampton will bite back viciously after being destroyed in La Rochelle on Saturday, I would be surprised if Munster don’t put them to the sword and keep rumbling along in the right direction.