The 2021/2022 European Rugby Champions Cup is quickly approaching its conclusion, and, with three of the four sides in the semi-finals hailing from France, it was guaranteed that the final, which will be held in Marseille, would have French representation. The first semi-final saw defending champions Toulouse sum up an overall disappointing campaign by losing to Leinster, with the Irish giants the first club to guarantee their place in the final, and they were now waiting to see who would join them in the south of France next weekend out of Racing 92 and last season’s beaten finalists Stade Rochelais (commonly known as La Rochelle).
This tactical analysis will look in more detail at that game, which was being held in Lens due to Racing’s usual stadium in Paris being used for a concert. The analysis will look at why the “home” team can take positives from the game but ultimately fell short, as well as La Rochelle’s initial struggles and second half changes that saw them come through a tough test.
Racing 92 made six changes from their quarter-final win against Sale Sharks the previous weekend, with three of those due to injury; lock Baptiste Chouzenoux missed out after coming off in the first half against Sale, whilst full-back Max Spring and South Africa prop Trevor Nyakane picked up issues not long before the match kicked off. That meant that Louis Dupichot started at full-back and France star Bernard Le Roux came into the second row, and Georges-Henri Colombe came straight in at tighthead, whilst Cedate Gomes Sa remained among the substitutes. The other changes saw centre Henry Chavancy and hooker Camille Chat drop to the bench, with Virimi Vakatawa and Teddy Baubigny replacing them respectively, whilst Georgia loosehead Guram Gogichashvili came in for Hassane Kolingar, who was left out altogether.
La Rochelle, meanwhile, made just one alteration to the side that got past Top 14 leaders Montpellier in their quarter-final, with Jonathan Danty returning after missing that game with injury and taking his place at inside centre; Fiji international Levani Botia made way for the France star and was named on the bench. La Rochelle’s pack was left unchanged, with head coach Ronan O’Gara clearly believing that continuity in his XV was key to their chances of making the final.
This was a difficult game to call on paper, but La Rochelle perhaps had an advantage over Racing 92 in that they were the most recent of the two teams to play in a final and so knew what it took to get there. However, despite this, they struggled to establish themselves in the first half, for a few different reasons.
La Rochelle’s first half problems
Their struggles weren’t necessarily their fault though, which is the key point to make, because neither side was leaving much space open and neither was able to do much more than make tackles and try to look for small gains when they had the ball.
However, when it comes to the chances that were created, La Rochelle did look the more likely to break through their opponents. The problem was that small details were continually hindering them, with this situation seeing lock Remi Picquette managing to get behind the majority of the Racing players before being tackled, but his offload to back rower Wiaan Liebenberg didn’t lead to anything as Racing scrum-half Nolaan Le Garrec made a good tackle on him, and this was largely the story of the half.
Therefore, whilst this was good defensive work from Racing, it showed how Ronan O’Gara’s side were putting in a lot of hard work and not getting any reward, which will have frustrated them.
Something that we have come to associate La Rochelle with is kicking the ball behind their opponents’ defensive line and trying to give their quicker players something to run onto, and they used those tactics here as they tried to find their rhythm and settle into the game.
Full-back Dillyn Leyds has often been the source of these kicks, with his vision allowing him to spot gaps and exploit them. In this case, he has sent the ball through for winger Raymond Rhule to get on the end of, but Racing had obviously noticed this and were prepared to limit its effectiveness, as Argentina winger Juan Imhoff managed to reach the ball first. The ball did go loose and Rhule score, but it was ruled out as the South African had picked up the ball before it had properly emerged from the ruck.
Therefore, again, the chance wasn’t taken, but this situation again showed that it wasn’t a case of La Rochelle not trying.
La Rochelle’s second half changes
In the second half, play became more open, which suited La Rochelle and allowed them to play to their strengths, with their performance much more positive as a result.
What was clear after the break was that both teams abandoned their previously tight defensive approaches and instead went for the win, with more tactical features and expressive rugby on show as a result. La Rochelle’s kicking tactics therefore became a bigger weapon, with Leyds gaining a lot of territory with this particular effort, and Racing struggled to deal with his threat in the same way.
As a result, they were forced to stay further back and protect those areas, rather than pressing La Rochelle in the same way as they had done in the first half, which meant that La Rochelle had more time to make decisions in possession.
When we put all of this together, we can see how the second half suited the visitors more, which is one reason that they went on to win this semi-final.
La Rochelle also showed more creativity in possession, trying to force spaces to open up in front of them, and this situation is one example of when a quick decision led to them gaining a good amount of territory and pushing Racing back towards their own try line.
As mentioned, Jonathan Danty missed the last game with injury, but he is a centre who always thinks quickly and makes good choices when attacking, which is why he was a key part of the Six Nations-winning French national side earlier this year. Here, he has changed the direction of play and made a short pass back inside the field to midfield partner Jeremy Sinzelle, which caught Racing out and gave La Rochelle the extra second they needed to break through the defensive line with a strong carry, as the yellow arrow shows.
Whilst Sinzelle was tackled, the next break from scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow led to Racing losing a player, with replacement Camille Chat going to the sin bin, and this indicates just how much pressure the home team were under in the second half due to La Rochelle creating and using the spaces available to them, which was another reason that they won this match.
Having said all this, they still struggled to make the crucial final phase count when in Racing’s 22, with the home side keeping their organised defensive approach once back to 15 players. This situation came after several phases of hard driving from La Rochelle, who knew at this stage that a try would seal their place in the final, but what led to the try was the decision here of captain Gregory Alldritt to take the ball forwards himself, rather than passing to a teammate either side of him.
By gaining ground here, he forced Racing to bring more players inside the field to keep La Rochelle out, but this left the wider spaces unguarded and available to score in, which fly-half Ihaia West did only a few moments after this carry from Alldritt.
Therefore, what was clear was that, whilst the match continued to be tough for both sides, La Rochelle adapted to it better and made some changes to their play that created more spaces, which allowed them to play to their strengths, and that is what O’Gara will be most pleased about.
Racing 92’s positive performance
Despite Racing 92 losing this match, we should still praise them for their efforts. As mentioned throughout this analysis, they made La Rochelle work hard right up until the last minute of play and really earn their win, and that is what they need to take as a positive from this match.
Like La Rochelle, Racing didn’t manage to create many clear-cut opportunities in the first half, with spaces at a premium, so they too had to build play and look to keep possession instead. Here, Le Garrec, whose vision and ball distribution was impressive throughout the 80 minutes, is looking to set up Georges-Henri Colombe to run onto, with his pass aimed slightly ahead of the tighthead and allowing him to use his momentum to push the defenders backwards when colliding with them.
Racing’s squad is clearly built for this type of game, with their players happy to go through phases of play and wait for their opportunities to come, which is what makes them a tricky side to play against, and the fact that Virimi Vakatawa’s opening try came just a few moments after this drive from Colombe demonstrates that point.
We have also mentioned how they were robust and difficult to break down in the first half, and in flanker Ibrahim Diallo they have a player who loves to make powerful tackles and get over the ball, with his quality proving key in a number of Racing’s games this season. Here, he has forced Liebenberg backwards and prevented the South African from gaining any ground after receiving the ball, and the force of the tackle meant that the ball actually went loose here and gave Racing the opportunity to counterattack.
La Rochelle’s style of play, as well as kicking forwards, is to play quick passes and expose spaces, but they couldn’t do that here due to this defensive pressure, so this is something that Racing have to be given credit for.
However, despite the positives, we cannot escape from the fact that Racing lost this game, and that was largely down to individual moments of poor quality. Here, France winger Teddy Thomas has the ball and needs to pass out towards Imhoff, who has a clear route through to the try line, but he instead opts to run into the La Rochelle defenders and try to force his own way through. However, with opposing winger Jules Favre tackling him well and being joined by other La Rochelle players, Racing not only failed to score but then couldn’t recycle the ball at speed and go again, meaning that the chance had been wasted.
The other thing was that Imhoff had had to come in and join the tackle, meaning that, when the ball did come out, there were no players available to score in the open space on the wing. Therefore, this was a big error of judgement from Thomas, and one that proved costly at the end of the match.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final between Racing 92 and La Rochelle, looking at why this tight game went the way of last season’s runners-up. What we can take from the game is that both sides had aspects of their performances that they can be pleased about, but both will also know that there were some situations where they could have done better.
It will be interesting to see if La Rochelle can maintain their momentum and ability to find a way to win when they face Leinster next weekend, given the many different weapons that Leo Cullen’s side possess, and it will be intriguing to see how both sides look to limit each other’s threat. Racing, meanwhile, will be disappointed to have exited at this stage of the competition, but can still hold their heads up high when they reflect back on their strong performance in this semi-final.
Both sides are back in Top 14 action this weekend, with Racing travelling to Montpellier, whilst La Rochelle host Stade Francais.