ONE OF THE most interesting aspects of the first edition of the Champions Cup has been Racing Métro’s emergence as contenders.
The Top 14 club qualified for their first-ever quarter-final in Europe’s top-tier competition as first seeds after winning five of their six pool games. Last weekend’s 32-8 win away to a strong Northampton Saints side was a stunning statement of their growth.
Head coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers clearly deserve a great deal of credit, with Racing also currently inside the top four of the French league, while Jacky Lorenzetti’s generous bankrolling of the club is obviously an important factor too.
The millionaire made some questionable decisions around recruitment last season, notably in bringing in Dan Lydiate without understanding that the Welsh man is primarily a defensive player, but there have also been some supremely wise decisions.
Perhaps one of the most vital acquisitions Lorenzetti has made in the last two years is that of Ronan O’Gara, now the Parisian club’s defence coach.
The Ireland and Munster legend remains a relative rookie in the coaching world and admits himself that he is learning every single day, but what Racing bought in with O’Gara was a world-class winning mindset and a deeply intelligent rugby brain.
The Cork man doesn’t accept losing. He doesn’t entertain the notion of going away from home without an intense desire to win. O’Gara has no time for a lack of effort on the training paddock and on match day.
His technical coaching skills, French language and presentation abilities may still be developing, but in terms of ideas and understanding of the game, there are few minds as sharp as O’Gara’s.
There have been some snide remarks about O’Gara’s second life as a defence coach – given that one-on-one tackling was not a strong point during his playing days – but the 37-year-old has been a success so far.
Not only did Racing Métro qualify out of Pool 6 as top seeds to ensure a home quarter-final against Saracens in April, they also conceded the fewest points of any club across the pool stages with 69 [Clermont were next best with 80].
Only Clermont and Glasgow gave up fewer tries [both six] than Racing’s seven. Admittedly, the Parisians had the benefit of two games against Treviso, but even still the record is impressive.
In the Top 14, Racing are second best in terms of the defensive statistics this season, trailing the hugely impressive Clermont by 40 points and five tries. Last season, Racing also had the second-best defence in the league behind Toulouse.
There is so much more to defence than the simple, stark, arguably meaningless numbers, but it gives us a starting point. Under O’Gara’s direction, the Racing Métro defence has given up fewer points and tries than the large majority of their competitors.
We’ve already alluded to O’Gara’s involvement in Racing changing their mindset, an element that is the foundation to any defence. Regardless of systems, structures, shapes or philosophies, no defence in the world will function successfully if the players aren’t fully committed.
Perceptions of Racing on the outside often focus around their high-profile recruitment, but anyone who has visited the world-class training facility at Le Plessis-Robinson in the southern suburbs of France understands that Racing are a united group.
From post-match sing songs, to the symbolic removal of shoes on starting the training day, and an increased focus on filtering into the lives of the Parisians around them, Lorenzetti, Labit, Travers and O’Gara have gone about building a real sense of the collective.
That buy-in from the players goes a long way towards building a strong defence. When a team has been cut open and the players’ lungs are burning with fatigue, it’s the desire to work hard for each other that clicks into gear. Off-the-field culture is immensely important. Defence is so often a product of that culture.
Holding the Saints at bay
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to examine Racing’s defence in that remarkable 32-8 win over Northampton on Saturday.
It certainly was not a perfect defensive display [is there such a thing?], but it allows us to highlight some of the key areas where O’Gara is driving his players.
There are several elements of the performance that the Irishman will have been unhappy with, and there is clearly still room for improvement. The best coaches in the world will admit that their teams are constantly a work in progress, and Racing’s defence is no different.
That said, there are some excellent foundations in place for further growth, and O’Gara will be keen to drive that as Lorenzetti continues to demand success sooner rather than later.
Starts at set-piece
Defence is a joined-up process, not simple a standalone component of rugby. We can’t think of defending as entirely separate to attacking, set-piece, kicking or any of the other parts of the game.
These elements are all related, all joined-up, and all rely on each other to thrive.
In that sense, defence starts at the set-piece. Whether it’s a kick-off, restart, scrum, lineout or goal kick, these are the points in the game in which one of the two teams is going to have to start their defence.
O’Gara is not a scrum or line-out coach, but he understands that ensuring his players acknowledge the importance of the set-piece as a means to disrupting the opposition’s attack is pivotal.
Let’s use the above lineout as a particularly strong example. This comes early in the Saturday’s game and with Northampton in a hugely threatening area of the pitch, from where they would expect to come away with at least three points.
Racing steal the ball at the tail, win a penalty and immediately the pressure is lifted. Their defence hasn’t even had to make a single tackle.
Forwards coach Travers is the man who comes up with the defensive lineout system that leads to the steal, but we can be sure that O’Gara has drilled into the pack the importance of them disrupting the oppositions’ set-piece.
Making lots of superb tackles is great, but even more desirable is preventing the opposition from running at you at all.
After the above steal, Racing went on to win three more of Northampton’s lineouts, as well as ensuring possession was scrappy from a host of others.
Similarly, the pressure Racing exert at the scrum above is critical. It denies Northampton a platform to send the explosive Samu Manoa crashing forward, and in turn means the Saints are under strain as they move into their exit routine [kicking out of their territory].
Racing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud is in on top of Manoa before the ball is even out, testing the limit of the law, while openside Bernard Le Roux is doing the same in breaking off the side of the scrum early.
The intention is to stifle Northampton at source. It’s almost certain the English side would have kicked out of this zone no matter what, but more pressure from Racing means a greater likelihood of a poor kick. That in turn means a better attacking chance for the Top 14 outfit when they field the kick.
Indeed, Racing were highly committed to pressurising the kicking game of Lee Dickson and Stephen Myler, as we see in the clip below.
There’s no block, but Le Roux and Charteris are on top of Dickson as he goes to kick the ball. It’s a reminder for the scrum-half that he’s going to have no easy ride with his boxing.
Putting pressure on the kicking game of the opposition is a key part of any defence, even if the act of putting boot to ball seems so seperate. O’Gara wants Racing to see defending as a means to getting possession back in favourable positions, whether that involves turnovers in contact or simply pressuring the opposition into poor kicking.
All the best teams in the world are strong in this area of the game, given that turnovers are a means to scoring tries. New Zealand, for exampe, are brilliant in this aspect of the game, scoring close to half their tries off turnovers and kick reception.
Let’s take a look at Racing attempting to do something similar in the GIF below.
Jamie Roberts puts the low grubber kick deep behind Saints left wing George North, with fullback James Wilson covering across to scoop it up. Note how Racing’s outside centre, Henry Chavancy, glances to his right, slows his run and allows Teddy Thomas to get up in line with him defensively.
Allowing Thomas to catch up means Chavancy is ensuring Racing have a strong, unified defensive line in front of Wilson. That in turn means the fullback is less likely to run and will be forced into kicking the ball under pressure.
It’s a tiny detail, but it shows how swiftly Racing are clicking into their defensive duties after the kick. They force Wilson into a poor return kick and that allows Racing to attack from a really favourable, unstructured situation.
They end up in touch when it looks promising, but the premise is clear. Defence for Racing isn’t simply about making tackles and preventing the other team from scoring; it’s about winning the ball back in strong positions to allow their attack to flourish.
O’Gara himself admits that much of the system he has introduced in Racing is heavily influenced by what he knew as a player with Munster and Ireland.
That much is obvious in how often Racing ‘jockey’ in defence, whereby defenders back off to buy themselves time and allow additional defenders to drift across the pitch and aid in the contact.
It’s not always the default for their defensive set-up though, and O’Gara has also encouraged Racing’s players to get linespeed into the game when they have width and bodies in their line, as below.
We also see a low tackle focus and subsequent jackal in the example above, something that Munster have built their defensive efforts on in the modern era. Competing for the ball on the deck is a way of life in Munster and O’Gara has evidently been quick to encourage his players to do the same.
Something we haven’t touched upon yet is the actual contact element of defending, something we probably shouldn’t take for granted.
We see Roberts putting in a nice solid hit on George Pisi in the clip above to force a turnover of possession, and this is the kind of contact O’Gara and every other defence coach in the world looks for.
Whatever about the set-up and shape of the defence, making the hits is obviously the cornerstone. Again, that team culture and ethos goes into it, although 25 missed tackles against Northampton suggests Racing still have notable room for improvement.
More positively, it was encouraging to see Racing tackling hard in the closing stages of the game, even with the outcome sewn up at 32-8. The Saints pushed hard for consolation scores, but Racing upped the linespeed and kept on working.
Above, we see the Saints spilling the ball on phase eight of an attacking passage late on, with the mental pressure on them and Racing’s linespeed getting in their faces.
That Racing work rate was a key in this fixture, particularly when the Top 14 side were cut open or made defensive errors. As we’ve already mentioned, defensive perfection is an unrealistic, if laudable, ideal.
Every team in the world gets broken down at times, so it’s often about how they respond to those moments and work back into shape that marks out the best from the rest.
We get an example of this after the incident above, as Machenaud puts in a really poor box kick and then Racing’s chase follows that up with two badly missed tackles on the counter-attacking Ken Pisi.
The Saints wing rampages into the French side’s 22 and sets up an attacking ruck from which Jim Mallinder’s team would hope to score. However, Racing manage to get some shape back into their defensive line to prevent any further damage.
Superb wing Juan Imhoff initially bursts up out of the line with the intention of making a ball-and-all tackle to stop the attack dead, but realises that he needs to jockey out and give his teammates inside a chance to get connected in the defensive line.
That’s exactly what happens as Dimitri Szarzewski and Chavancy work hard to get back into position. The Saints push the pass and it goes to deck, meaning Racing survive thanks to their efforts to scramble back into shape after their initial errors.
Indeed, Racing’s ability to survive these incidences of getting broken down was notable in Franklin’s Gardens, as illustrated again below.
Clearly, Racing will want to avoid any scenarios like the one above in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup and Top 14, but again we get a demonstration of their willingness to work hard and track back into position after a bust.
It’s replacement wing Yoan Audrin who makes the intervention this time, opting to shoot up and force Myler to throw a far riskier pass than he would ideally had liked to. The Racing man then gets up off the deck and attempts to paw the ball down.
It’s a knock-on and the Saints get the scrum, but even still a likely try has been prevented.
We’ve seen above how an individual’s decision to shoot up prevents a potential score, but this side of defence is something O’Gara has had to struggle with in his time at Racing.
The traditional French way of playing rugby is very much built around players backing their instincts and going with gut feelings, their own reading of a particular situation. That applies both in attack and defence.
O’Gara has had some frustrations in seeing individual players break out of Racing’s defensive system on occasion, simply because that is how they’ve been brought up to understand and read the game.
Coaching that entirely out of the French players and clubs is certainly not desireable unless we want everyone in the world playing the same brand of rugby, but there is a balance to be found between the French ‘jouez’ mentality and the more structured and rigid approach elsewhere.
The impression is that Racing are starting to find that happy medium.
That the player to shoot up from the defensive line above is Welshman Roberts means it’s perhaps not the best example, but the idea remains the same. O’Gara doesn’t want Racing’s defence to be free of individuals making reads and going it alone, as long as those decisions are calculated and based on an assessment of the situation.
Headlessly sprinting out of the line to make a glamour hit is never appreciated if it leaves teammates in a poor position, but closing down the outside passing option when there are defenders in place closer to the ruck is.
This wasn’t an unblemished defensive outing from Racing Métro as they missed those 25 tackles, gave up seven linebreaks and conceded a try. As ever, those numbers just don’t tell the whole story though.
The Top 14 club are working hard, have clearly built a strong sense of togetherness and are increasingly making good defensive decisions and contacts. O’Gara’s charges are buying into the Irishman’s ideas and if the club are to continue their European progress, the defence will have a vital part to play.