The second weekend of the 2020/2021 European Rugby Champions Cup saw many games called off for a variety of reasons. However, one game which did go ahead was Harlequins against Racing 92, played at the Twickenham Stoop. Harlequins have made a mixed start to the new English Premiership season, winning twice and losing once, whilst Racing currently sit third in the French Top 14, with seven wins in their ten games so far this season. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics in defence and attack that Racing used to stop Harlequins playing their normal style of rugby, as well as the mistakes that Quins made that stopped them getting any momentum going during the match.
Harlequins Racing 92
15. M. Brown 15. S. Zebo
14. N. Earle 14. T. Thomas
13. J. Marchant 13. K. Beale
12. B. Tapuai 12. H. Chavancy (c)
11. C. Murley 11. D. Taofifenia
10. M. Smith 10. F. Russell
9. D. Care 9. M. Machenaud
- J. Marler 1. E. Ben Arous
- S. Baldwin 2. K. Le Guen
- W. Louw 3. A. Oz
- H. Tizard 4. B. Le Roux
- G. Young 5. D. Bird
- T. Lawday 6. W. Lauret
- W. Evans 7. B. Chouzenoux
- A. Dombrandt (c) 8. F. Sanconnie
Racing 92 attack
We will start this analysis by looking at Racing 92’s attacking tactics, analysing the reasons why they scored so many tries and carried such a threat.
The main tactic that we noticed from Racing in attack was that they were kicking balls into the wide areas and behind the Harlequins defensive line. Scotland fly-half Finn Russell, who is one of the best fly-halves in the world at the moment, has the ball, in the white circle, and you can see how his only thought is to get it over the Quins players and into the space marked by the yellow square. Racing have a lot of pace in their team, and having a creative player like Russell at the heart of everything means that they can get the ball into areas where the quick players can run onto it.
This time, it didn’t come to anything, but this situation shows how much space there was behind the Harlequins defensive line, and therefore why Racing saw kick passes over the top as the way to access that space and run for the try line.
Here, we can see how France winger Teddy Thomas, in the white circle, is running through to meet the ball. It was the likes of Thomas and Donovan Taofifenia, the other Racing winger, who were mostly getting into these areas, and, in doing so, they were pushing Harlequins back towards their own try line, putting pressure on them whenever the home side were looking to collect the ball and clear it. Here, Thomas chases down Quins full-back Mike Brown, who knocks the ball forwards as a result, so we can see how this kick and chase tactic was working for Racing.
It wasn’t just Finn Russell doing the kicking either. Here, Australia’s former Wasps centre Kurtley Beale, in the white circle, has seen the space out wide, and has kicked the ball into that area for Taofifenia, in the yellow circle, to run onto, as the two arrows show. This time, the ball was too long for the winger, but it was another clear attempt to find the space behind the Quins defence, aiming to create try-scoring opportunities from it.
It is important to note that Racing were not just kicking forwards throughout the whole match. They were also happy to play through the phases when they had to, taking the ball into the tackle and slowly gaining ground. However, when they had the opportunity to, they switched this up and played the kick pass. Therefore, we can see how they are flexible in their tactics, and this was a key reason why they controlled the game so much.
In the second half, with the game becoming a little more sticky, the French side looked to run through gaps much more, which is what we can see happening in this image. Russell has received the ball from experienced scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, and now looks to move through a gap in front of him in the Quins defence, as indicated by the red line.
The aim of this was to draw the home side inside a little more, opening up the space for the kick pass to be made out wide. This particular run through eventually led to a try for Taofifenia on the far side, so we can see that it worked as intended. This tactic was again helped by quick passes and excellent carries, which made it harder for Quins to steal the ball, and it again shows how Racing adapted to the different situations and attacked accordingly.
Racing 92 defence
As well as having a well-drilled attack with some good tactical play, Racing 92 also defended well too. In the image below, we can see how Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith has the ball, and is looking to make a run through the Racing defensive line.
Smith is a livewire, always looking to make runs through and create opportunities for his team. Here, he has seen some space, and has passing options either side of him in Mike Brown and centre Ben Tapuai, as shown by the red arrows. Therefore, Quins can move the ball to whichever side the space appears in, once Racing commit to tackling one of them.
However, Racing always like to defend and tackle together, which makes it harder for them to be broken down. Here, Smith is faced with three Racing players in front of him, and the attack is extinguished. This idea of tackling with numbers is something we will come back to.
However, we first need to look at how Racing stopped Smith, meaning Quins didn’t have their creative edge. Here, we can see how the England international, in the red circle, has the ball, and is looking to pass it to one of his teammates. However, they have not come up to join him, making it harder for Quins to carry any momentum into their run forward. The gap between the two groups of opposing players highlights this problem.
From a Racing point of view, this image shows how they have Smith exactly where they want him; in front, and lacking passing options. Smith causes problems when he gets in between defenders, because he is nimble and able to change direction in an instant, which leads to the large number of carries he makes. When he is in front of the defenders, they just need to make sure he stays there, closing off any gaps, and that is what they are doing here.
When Smith did get into dangerous areas, Racing used a clever tactic of surrounding and then closing him down. We can see that happening here, with four Racing players in a square around him, and they then all move inwards together, which ends his attack. The away side eventually win the penalty a few phases later, so this tactic did work in keeping Smith’s threat subdued.
What we saw in the last image was an example of Racing coming together to defend as a small group, and this was a key theme of their defending. In the image above, we can see how Harlequins are looking to run forwards, but there are four Racing players ready to meet the player with the ball, all working together, as shown by the white line. This was happening throughout the game, and it meant that Harlequins struggled to gain much ground with these carries. Any time that they did manage to break through, they were swiftly brought down in a tackle or conceded an error, giving the ball back to Racing.
We have seen how Racing 92 were strong in attack and defence, and had a plan for how to play against Harlequins in both areas of the game. However, they were helped by a poor Harlequins performance, with plenty of errors being made and penalties conceded.
We have already mentioned how Marcus Smith was constantly trying things out, but his teammates weren’t on the same page as him. The image above shows an example of Smith making a pass, but his teammates aren’t ready for him. Instead, the ball lands on the ground from the pass, and is picked up by Racing. However, it is knocked on, meaning any possible counter-attack doesn’t happen, and Quins are let off.
The point to make about this though is that there was a lack of communication in the Quins ranks throughout the game, which meant that, any time they did look like making something happen, they were let down by players not supporting or anticipating what would come next. This led to a general lack of threat for much of the game.
However, the main issue with the home side’s performance was that they constantly left spaces open on the wings, which is where we have already seen that Racing were looking to play in. This image shows how former Ireland winger Simon Zebo, playing at full-back in this game, has linked up with Taofifenia, as the white line shows. The red line indicates the amount of space that they have to get through, and therefore how narrow Harlequins were playing. The yellow arrow shows the run through, and this move leads to the third try of the game, scored by Zebo. The fact that this was the first move of the second half shows how Harlequins never looked to be in this game, whilst Racing were quick and saw the spaces around the pitch to get into. Therefore, leaving these spaces open all the time was a key reason for Harlequins’ struggles.
Having Zebo as the full-back really helped Racing in these areas, because he is a skilled player and excellent under the ball. Therefore, he could run forward and catch the ball, before setting attacks going, as was the case here. This helped his teammates, as they could focus solely on getting into good areas to receive the ball and run forwards with it, getting attacks going much quicker.
This image shows another example of this problem for Quins. Here, the spaces on the far side of the pitch have been left open, and that has allowed Racing captain Henry Chavancy to play a long ball over the top of the defenders, and into an area where his teammates can run onto it and get behind the defence. Kurtley Beale is the player who catches it from his fellow centre, and we know that Beale is a dangerous player in these spaces, and he was a constant menace in the second half in particular. In this example, he carries the ball a long way, before offloading to flanker Wenceslas Lauret, who is brought down just short of the try line. However, the fact that this all came from Harlequins leaving the space open on the wing shows how damaging it was for them.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis how Harlequins faced a strong Racing 92 team and struggled to break them down. This was because of a combination of good play by Racing in attack and defence, as well as plenty of errors from Harlequins at key moments. For Racing, who have been finalists in two of the last three years in this competition, this was a big win that left them with a good chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals, but Harlequins have now had two losses in this year’s tournament, and will need to work out quickly what went wrong in this performance.