The highly anticipated match of round two of the European Rugby Champions Cup ended all square as JJ Hanrahan fails at the death to oust genius of Russell and Racing 92.
Pool Four of this year’s Champions Cup is shaping into the classic ‘pool of death.’ Only one of Racing 92, Saracens, Munster and Ospreys are guaranteed progression to the quarter-finals as the winner of the group.
Racing have assembled a squad of rugby galacticos who illuminated the game, at times their back play was mesmeric. Finn Russell was the first to cross the try line with a piece of individual brilliance.
The Maverick Scot is known for the sublime but his megnut of Scannell and subsequent try was pioneering in its audacity. Sure, it’s unlikely Russell foresaw his grubber bisecting the defenders’ open gate, but that only happened because Russell plays closer to the line than anyone else and indeed identifies space better than anyone else.
It is by playing so close to the gain line that makes Russell so difficult to defend against and his dexterity of skill means he can exploit any space given to him.
If Racing’s first try was individualistic, their second, scored by Teddy Thomas, showcased a frightening array of back field runners. It began with a smart carry from ex-Munster man Zebo who managed to target soft defensive shoulders to get over the gain line and create a quick ball.
Iribaren then briefly fixed the defence with a short step carry from scrum-half before firing a miss pass to Thomas. The speed and accuracy of the pass cut out the Munster defensive line and Thomas was away. Perfect execution of the chip and chase saw Thomas go over for the second try.
Two JJ Hanrahan penalties kept Munster in touch in the first half before a Keith Earls try just before the break. The try rounded of some accurate, old school phase play coupled with disciplined running lines which set Earls free down the flank to touch down in the corner. The sides went into half time with the score at 11-14.
Another Hanrahan penalty early in the second brought Munster level but Racing immediately went ahead again through another breathtaking score.
Argentinian speedster Juan Imhoff ran a clever trailing line in support and had enough pace when he received the ball to round the last defender and finish under the posts. After fifty minutes, Racing were ahead by seven.
Munster were able to keep the pressure on Racing and much of the denouement of the game was played deep in the visitor’s territory. Racing’s resolute defence meant it took until the 74th minute for Munster to work an opening.
Some strong forward carries left men over on the right-hand side and an inch-perfect pass from Hanrahan, above the blitzing defence, set up Conway in the corner. Crucially, Hanrahan nailed the conversion from right on the touchline to tie the game.
After the kick-off, Munster again kept possession and were able to work themselves into a good position to steal the game. With just a minute left, the ball was played back to Hanrahan in the pocket twenty metres out – a perfect position for the drop goal. His attempt can best be described as a snatch and missed way right of the posts.
What until then had been a polished performance from the out-half ended in disappointment. Hanrahan really should have converted, and the draw will not please the Irishmen.
It is a truism of this competition that you have to win your home games. Though the sides are level on points going into the back-to-back rounds three and four, Racing will be the happier side.
Saracens were able to park the controversy surrounding their salary cap breach in despatching Ospreys at home and showed that whatever side they choose to put out they will be tough opposition for Munster. Racing, on the other hand, will expect to take maximum points of Ospreys both home and away which could see them through.