After a couple of domestic rounds of rugby, the European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup returned, with plenty of interesting matchups to whet the appetite. Ospreys are not one of the teams fancied to win the Champions Cup, and the visit of Paris-based Racing 92 to the Swansea.com Stadium was always going to be tough for them. However, certainly in the first half, the Welsh region were arguably better than Racing, and certainly made the French side think at the break about what they needed to do differently in order to win.
In this tactical analysis, we will look in more detail at the positives of Ospreys’ performance, seeing why Racing found it hard to score points against them, and we will also look at the negatives which proved to be the home side’s undoing as the game went on. The analysis will also take a look at the first and second half displays of Racing, seeing how a change in their tactics helped to give them a hard-fought but ultimately deserved victory.
Ospreys made six changes from the 38-19 URC defeat away at Glasgow Warriors in their last game, with Wales loosehead prop Nicky Smith, Tonga hooker Elvis Taione, and scrum-half Reuben Morgan-Williams all dropping to the bench, whilst back rower Morgan Morris and full-back Dan Evans missed out altogether. Former Bath and Toulon scrum-half Rhys Webb came off the bench to captain the side, whilst hooker Dewi Lake and loosehead Gareth Thomas also moved to the starting XV from the substitutes, joining ex-Exeter Chiefs player Tomas Francis in an entirely new front row. The other alterations saw Kieran Williams start alongside Owen Watkin in the midfield, whilst Alex Cuthbert came onto the wing, replacing former Bristol Bears flyer Mat Protheroe, who switched to full-back.
Racing 92 also made six changes from last weekend’s home Top 14 win against Clermont-Auvergne. Georgia loosehead prop Guram Gogichashvili, hooker Camille Chat and young French winger Donovan Taofifenua all moved to the bench, whilst back rower Wenceslas Lauret, versatile forward Bernard Le Roux and back rower Yoan-Tanga Mangene were left out of the matchday squad altogether. Into the XV came Eddy Ben Arous and Teddy Baubigny, who started at loosehead and hooker respectively, as well as lock Boris Palu and back rowers Baptiste Chouzenoux and Anthime Hemery. Argentina winger Juan Imhoff was also given a start, adding more pace to Racing’s attack, whilst the heart of the team was left unchanged, with Scotland stand-off Finn Russell and experienced France scrum-half Maxime Machenaud once again paired together. Gael Fickou led the team from the midfield.
The final scoreline suggests that Ospreys were comfortably defeated by Racing 92, but the reality is quite the opposite, with the Welsh region in the game for a lot of the contest, playing some good rugby and causing plenty of problems for their French opponents.
It took a while for Toby Booth’s side to settle into the game, but, once they did, they began to put together some nice phases of play, making gains and pushing Racing backwards. The key thing that helped them in these areas of the pitch was anticipation, with each player knowing what was going to happen and therefore where to position themselves, and that was important in them turning the control they had at this stage into points.
Here, Rhys Webb is digging the ball out after Gareth Thomas’ charge forward, and is then looking for someone to pass it to, setting up another attack. However, he doesn’t pass it straight to Kieran Williams here, and instead makes a flatter pass to give Williams, in the blue circle, something to run onto. The risk with this is that the Racing players could make an interception, due to the ball being in the air closer to them, but the advantage is that Williams can run onto the ball at pace and use his momentum to break through the defence and score the try, which is exactly what happened.
In the very early minutes of the game, Racing had had some good opportunities to score, but had been wasteful with the ball. This image indicated that Ospreys were the exact opposite, and looked more effective in attack, so this is something that they can be pleased about when reflecting on their performance.
It wasn’t only in attack where the Welsh region caused problems for Racing. Here, we see the French side in possession and looking to launch an attack, but Ospreys have positioned themselves in a way that limits the time they have to pass the ball in, with the yellow line indicating the Welsh side’s aggressive setup, and defending this high up the pitch is a regular feature of their game. As a result, Australia full-back Kurtley Beale is forced to pass quickly to France winger Teddy Thomas, with Ospreys winger Luke Morgan getting tight to the former Wasps player.
Unfortunately for Ospreys, this pass from Beale did allow Thomas to set up a try, with Juan Imhoff the one to eventually go over the line, but the home side were trying to do the right thing here and put pressure on their opponents, so there was no doubting that Racing’s good fortune was against the run of play at this stage of the game.
However, whilst we have praised Ospreys for some of their positive tactical details during the game, they also made mistakes that contributed to their loss, and this is what they need to address ahead of their next match.
As we have already hinted at, the region started the match slowly, allowing Racing 92 to get on the front foot and run into the spaces behind them early on, with both Imhoff and Teddy Baubigny, one of the most impressive hookers in world rugby at the moment, finding it too easy at times to break through Ospreys’ tackle attempts. Baubigny, who will join Toulon at the end of the season, was eventually brought down here by Alex Cuthbert (illegally, meaning the Wales international went to the sin bin for 10 minutes), but not before he had gained a sizeable amount of ground for his team, and that is the key here.
We know that Ospreys did grow into the game and begin to defend better, but Racing should have taken these opportunities, which would have made it harder for the Swansea-based side to get back into the game as they did.
In the second half, perhaps rattled by the improvements made by Racing, Ospreys didn’t have as many opportunities to attack, and the ones they did manage to fashion lacked composure, with this situation a prime example of that. Ospreys have won a penalty from the scrum, and substitute flanker Will Hickey instantly looked to go quickly, getting his team on the front foot.
However, whilst his pass to replacement fly-half Josh Thomas was good, Thomas’ decision to then pass long to Mat Protheroe was perhaps one step too far, as it allowed Racing to get across and close off the spaces that Ospreys had been trying to exploit. Under this new pressure, Protheroe, in the yellow circle, knocked the ball forwards whilst trying to find a way through, meaning that Ospreys had not taken their chance and given the visitors the ball back without really gaining anything.
This summed the home side’s second half performance up, as they couldn’t get themselves into the game for a number of reasons. Racing, on the other hand, seemed to have everything going their way after half-time, meaning that they were the team who took the win at the Swansea.com Stadium.
Racing 92’s two-half performance
We have looked at different aspects of Ospreys’ performance, but we will now turn our attention to the good and bad of Racing 92’s display. They were the opposite of the Welsh region in this match, playing badly when Ospreys had control, and then improving as the second half progressed.
Despite managing to break through the Ospreys line with ease, as already analysed, Racing’s biggest concern in the first half was a lack of quality when they had chances to convert their early dominance into points, and that was what gave the Welsh region the confidence they needed to grow into the game. Racing like to play quick rugby, passing the ball at speed and making it hard for opponents to intercept it, but they lacked their normal precision in situations like this one. Australia lock Luke Jones is looking to move the ball down the line and towards where the space is, but rushes his pass to France star Virimi Vakatawa, meaning that the powerful centre ended up dropping the ball, giving Ospreys the chance to clear their lines.
This was not the only time that things like this happened, and we needed to see more quality from the visitors before half-time, as a lack of it was costing them points in key moments.
Their second half showing was much better, as they played with more creativity and controlled proceedings for the majority of the second 40 minutes. Fly-half Finn Russell is the type of player that can be relied upon to create chances and dictate play, but Ospreys’ ability to close him down and limit his influence in the first half was perhaps one reason for Racing’s initial struggles.
However, he found more space after the break, which meant that he was making good kicks into open areas behind the Ospreys line, testing their catching abilities and giving his teammates something to run onto. On this occasion, captain Gael Fickou is the one who reaches the ball, before passing to Baptiste Chouzenoux, who had joined him in a support role, and this situation showed the newfound freedom that Racing seemed to have with Russell able to create more chances for them.
The pressure that this put on the home side was showing, with flanker Will Griffiths the second Ospreys player to be shown a yellow card after a deliberate knock-on, so the kick from Russell and the run from Fickou to meet it paid off, earning Racing a penalty in a good area of the field and allowing them to launch another attack.
Racing didn’t only kick forwards in the second half though, as there were also some good attacking runs from them, with this image showing Fickou behind the Ospreys line once again, having run inside Wales fly-half Gareth Anscombe. His diagonal run allowed Vakatawa to move behind him in a scissor formation and take the ball into clear air and over the try line, as the yellow arrow shows. We didn’t see enough of these types of attacking runs from Racing before the break, but their response after half-time meant that Ospreys were finding it harder to keep them back, and Fickou was especially influential in getting his side back into the game.
Another player who contributed a lot in the second half was back rower Ibrahim Diallo. He was exceptional at the breakdown, always getting involved and ensuring that Racing had a chance of either keeping the ball or winning a turnover, and that was also key to Racing controlling the second half. Here, Griffiths has been taken down by replacement tighthead Cedate Gomes Sa, and Diallo is the first one to the ball, taking it off the Ospreys player and helping his team to build another attacking opportunity.
What was key here was that Griffiths’ run forwards had come after Owen Watkin had intercepted a pass by substitute fly-half Antoine Gibert, but the fact that Racing didn’t drop their heads and instead looked immediately to win it back shows why they ended up winning the game. As a result of Diallo’s speed and determination here, Racing eventually scored another try, with Teddy Thomas the one to get the ball over the line, and so we can see why having a player who stands out at the breakdown is important in winning games, and Diallo was that player for the visitors.
In conclusion, this game was a bit of a seesaw affair, with Ospreys and Racing 92 each having moments of quality and moments of poor play, but it was the second half performance of Racing that ended up deciding the outcome of the game. Ospreys can be happy with strands of their performance though, as highlighted in the first section of this tactical analysis, and this will give them something to build on ahead of their next game. Racing, meanwhile, will know that, whilst their second half showing was much better, their first half inaccuracy needs to be tidied up, so there are things that they too can work on.
Both teams will play in their final pool games during the coming weekend. Ospreys travel to Sale Sharks on Sunday, hoping to finally secure their first win in this year’s competition after three successive losses. Racing, meanwhile, host Northampton Saints in Paris, hoping that this win will give them a boost in an otherwise inconsistent season so far.