The weekend saw compelling victories for Leinster and Racing 92 in the semi-finals of the Champions Cup. The Dubliners smashed the Scarlets 38-16, while Racing beat Munster more comprehensively than the 27-22 scoreline suggests, Munster scoring near the end when the result was already confirmed.
As we know, there was no English representation in the last four, but the games still give plenty to mull over and lessons to learn from the manner of the victories.
Power and Leinster’s rucking game
Leinster have some extremely powerful ball carriers – the likes of Cian Healy, Scott Fardy, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan – but the real impact they made with their physicality was in clearing out the rucks.
It may seem obvious to highlight the importance of power to a contact sport like rugby, but while you can have as many gain-line breakers as you want in a team, if the unit of forwards arriving at the ruck is unable to clear the contact area quickly and provide clean ball to the half-backs, that momentum generated by the ball carrier is lost.
Leinster had a whopping 66% possession against the Scarlets, with 126 rucks taking place on their possession. Leinster won all but one of those (99%), with the likes of Ryan and Fardy especially bulldozing opposition out of the contact area with exceptional speed and ferocity. The benchmark for ‘quick ruck ball’ is three seconds, with the most effective sides sides managing to get it closer to two. New Zealand regularly achieve below the three-second mark and it was something I noted frequently with Leinster in this game.
Contrast that to the acknowledged issues England had at the breakdown in the Six Nations, where their lethargic breakdown work had a success rate of 91% in the ruck against Scotland and 93% against France. More importantly, even when successful it did not allow enough quick ball for Danny Care to utilise effectively. Leinster’s number nine, Jamison Gibson-Park, in contrast had the ball on a plate and – crucially – that gave Jonny Sexton the time to do his thing.
Scarlets, as it happens, had a 100% success rate in the ruck, but it was slow ball compared to the Leinster’s and they had too little possession.
The Scarlets have rightly been praised for their bold and exciting attacking play, but they simply could not compete with the power and efficiency of Leinster at the weekend. Rugby can be a deceptively simple game at times and the Irish side did the basics brilliantly. They won 100% of their set piece, kept a low error count and time and time again generated quick, clean ball for their key players to exploit.
Remember the chop?
Over in Bordeaux, Racing 92 also kicked off their game in style thanks to some lethal running courtesy of Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa. Thomas scored a brace, and basically scored a hat-trick apart from his selfless decision to gift his third to Maxime Machenaud (given I captained Thomas in my Superbru fantasy side, I did not overly appreciate that Teddy).
While these early scores established Racing’s lead, it was some brutal and highly efficient defence which closed the game out for them – in particular, some textbook chop tackling from the likes of Yannick Nyanga and Wenceslas Lauret.
Specific types of tackle and defence go in and out of fashion (more in vogue currently are the upper-body smash, a particular favourite of our cousins in rugby league as it helps stop and offload, and the choke tackle, so beloved of the Irish sides), with the chop tackle having fallen slightly out of favour since it was all the rage during the Welsh grand slam of 2012 and Dan Lydiate was the poster-boy for the chop.
When used correctly it can be an exceptionally effective tackle – with real stopping power. Racing had clearly identified ball carriers like CJ Stander as Munster’s main attacking threat and employed the chop to stop them in their tracks. Nyanga in particular was brilliant on Sunday and scythed down Munster attackers before they could build momentum. The chop tackle also has the useful side effect of helping to isolate the attacking player – allowing the defensive team to slow down the ruck and stifle quick attacking ball. Interestingly, it could be one of the most effective ways to take on Leinster’s power game and quick ruck ball… we have an exciting final ahead.
Two for England
While there was no English club in the top four of the Champions Cup, on Friday over at Kingsholm, Gloucester and Newcastle duked it out for a place in the Challenge Cup final.
The Cherry and Whites ended up 33-12 victors, thanks in no-small part to two uncapped, English qualified players: fullback Jason Woodward and lock Ed Slater.
While Woodward will get the headlines for his impressive strike running – and the 27-year-old will certainly give Eddie Jones food for thought as he looks to lock down one of the more unsettled positions now Mike Brown is not as indelibly-inked onto the team sheet – it is Slater I want to highlight.
About four years back, I though he and Joe Launchbury would be the lock pairing for England going forward, and while Slater captained England in a no-cap game against the Crusaders on the New Zealand tour in 2014, an injury then stalled his international career and he fell somewhat into the wilderness as his form struggled.
I was still surprised when Leicester allowed him to go as part of the deal for Jonny May – his form had been off, but he is a brilliant player and enjoying a new lease of life at Gloucester. There is something of the old-school about him: grit, power and aggression.
He also captained Gloucester on Friday, getting through an impressive 16 carries and smashing Newcastle forwards from the contact area. His powerful rucking and physicality could be a real asset to England, especially if they look to take a leaf out of Leinster/Ireland’s playbook…
England are not short of second rows with the likes of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and George Kruis – not to mention the likes of Charlie Ewels and Nick Isiekwe, while Jacob Bassford advocated the big lad Will Spencer in his recent England squad for South Africa. But with Kruis not in his best form, Itoje looking tired and Lawes injured, England need to look at other options.
Slater would be my choice – he has the valuable leadership skills Eddie Jones has highlighted as somewhat missing from the England squad, plus his physicality and aggression would be welcomed into an England pack which was often second best in the contact area during the Six Nations.
By Henry Ker