Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes on Leicester's woes and the form of Finn Russell
Last Updated: 17/12/18 11:47am
Stuart Barnes breaks down Leicester's loss to Racing 92 in the Heineken Champions Cup, and reviews the subsequent fall-out.
Last week we trawled through ten European games for our weekend coverage. Today the focus is on just the one game. That game was Sunday's clash in the East Midlands between Leicester and Racing 92.
1. Monday's papers are full of Leicester crisis talk. Eight straight defeats in all competitions is their worst run since 1975 - when I was playing for Bassaleg School Under 14s.
They have the worst, most porous defence in the elite English game. Out of Europe and a congested eighth in the Premiership. They play Harlequins at home on Saturday. 'Home' used to be a near enough guarantee of a win but the Welford Road factor no longer exists. The Harlequins will fancy their chances.
In the face of some justifiable criticism I read Ellis Genge defending the effort Georden Murphy and his Tigers are putting into training and games. No doubt, Ellis, but as the Americana singer-songwriter, Slaid Cleaves, wrote, "no one remembers your name just for working hard".
2. In contrast, there was much to admire in the way Racing 92 sealed the bonus point with the final play of the game as Juan Imhoff sprinted beneath the posts for the all-important fourth try to keep them clear of Ulster in a pool that has developed into a two-horse race.
The timing of the try reminded me of Munster in their great days when no one judged the fractions - to borrow from American racing - quite like Ronan O'Gara. Racing celebrated their fifth point of the day while Leicester looked a past force. The Parisians are definitely one for the present.
Put them up there with Leinster and Saracens as the third of the big three. Toulouse need to tighten their game before they can be considered serious contenders.
3. Racing impressed with the devastating nature of their support play. When someone - often the outstanding Finn Russell - made a break, they flooded players either side of the ball carrier. Better teams than Leicester will be left with problems when the Frenchman get behind enemy lines.
4. Amidst the doom and gloom for Leicester, spare a thought for the supreme scrambled defence of George Ford. He made a magnificent tackle on Wencelas Lauret (what a fine player he has matured into) tracking fifty metres back to make the tackle.
Alas for the Tigers, the exquisite support lines of the visitors meant it was all in vain as Vakatawa took the pass and dived over for the try.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched Leicester capitulate in Bristol, with the exception of Ford who made a pair of wonderful scrambling tackles. The captain is setting an example his team-mates are finding hard to follow.
5. I couldn't work out what was going on at the scrums, could you? I don't think the commentators or referee had any more idea either. Is there any sport with such a subjective element to the game and its laws as rugby union and its scrums?
As the quest for entertainment and clarity grows they'll come under pressure to be simplified. I love a scrum and recognise the benefits it gives a powerful team as well as the scope for different styles of play, but there are times when a referee guesses and you think, 'Is this professional?'. To the credit of the players, they don't make much of a fuss when penalised, just a weary shake of the head.
6. Few do the weary shake/shrug better than veteran Tigers prop, Dan Cole. Yesterday I thought the replay machine broke when we watched a non-stop series of angles showing an elbow rising to the neck of a Racing player.
The referee was in a magnificent position to see what happened but we had to go through the endless tedium of replays before the yellow card was awarded. Referees need to be more decisive, unless they are unsighted. That was not the case in this incident.
7. A moment's pause to consider how a malfunctioning set piece can alter the course of a game. Not that I am suggesting Leicester were ever going to beat Racing, but think back to a pair of five-metre lineouts. Neither found their man.
These are regarded as potential scoring positions. Had the Tigers taken their chances the 34-11 scoreline would have looked very different. Key moments can change games; Leicester have to make sure they get them right ahead of the Harlequins match.
8. I enjoyed the counter-rucking of the French side. The sport is blighted by teams afraid to put numbers into the contact situation, leaving two lines of defenders strung out across the field. Racing are good at identifying when opposition are light on numbers and will send four or five forwards into the contact in a bid to turnover ball. Take note, Premiership clubs.
9. Finn Russell is rightly gaining most of the headlines, but watching that game yesterday made me think that France are missing a trick if they don't select Teddy Iribaren. Magnificent in last season's final against Leinster, here is a player with the temperament for the big time.
The little man is in the best tradition of French scrum-halves. Swaggering, he bosses the forwards, not the other way around. He keeps the tempo high, kicks sweetly from a tee and into the box and reads the game supremely well. He tackled well and was always the man on hand when Leicester kicked behind the French side. He's ready to play Test rugby.
10. As for Russell, he is a revelation. Playing much flatter on the gain line than either Johnny Sexton or Dan Carter before him, he is benefiting from quick ball. Maybe he is the man demanding it. Either way, it's all very impressive.
His combinations with Simon Zebo are working beautifully and his decision-making of when to run and when to play the corners has never been more assured. Glasgow's loss - Adam Hastings is playing well but Russell is on another level - will prove to be Scotland's gain.