Champions Cup: Five takeaways from Racing 92 v Harlequins as Parisians edge thrilling contest

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

Following a 30-29 win for Racing 92 over Harlequins in their Champions Cup fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match on Sunday.

The top line

An absolute nail-biter in La Défense saw Harlequins brave fightback cruelly nullified in a game of controversy, errors and at times, breath-taking brilliance as Racing’s 12 men on the pitch took the spoils rather fortunately 30-29.

The match ebbed, stuttered and flowed in equal measure. In the first half, Racing 92 dominated ruck and recycle speed, gaining a substantial advantage with speed of ball from the base. Tries from Gael Fickou and Kitione Kamikamica saw them take a half-time lead, but with scrum dominance, Quins mounted a huge fightback, catalysed by the power of Joe Marler on the loosehead but orchestrated and finished by the absolute genius of the returning Marcus Smith on the other.

In the second half, we saw more cards littered hither and thither, a total of five dished out by Andrew Brace for a variety of transgressions, one of which saw Finn Russell leave the pitch and a penalty try awarded to take Quins into the lead. But a last gasp penalty from Nolann Le Garrec, when Quins had a three man advantage, was enough to see Racing home – their first win since the start of December.

Decisions, decisions

There were a lot of angry Quins supporters aiming their ire at the officiating team, but ultimately the Englishmen did not handle the pressure moments well enough. Sure, we understand their frustration with a few of the calls, but the referee did not botch lineouts or fail to take crucial kick-offs, which directly led to 10 of Racing’s points.

Too often people are quick to point their finger at those overseeing the encounter, but they were not the ones who were slack defensively or dropped too many balls in the first half. Head coach Tabai Matson will no doubt have a word with those at the top about certain things which went against them, but more importantly he will want to rectify their own issues which cost them the game. This situation is compounded by the complete recalcitrance of French broadcasters to show any decision that might cost their own team.

La Défense effect

La Défence’s stadium is a place that polarises every part of your senses. The ground is hollow, unforgiving and echoes; the lack of wind and almost thick humid eeriness in the atmosphere plays havoc on spatial awareness and of course, the ground welcomes running rugby and daring kickers.

However, when you have attacking forces like Smith, Le Garrec, Danny Care and Russell, those heightened senses relish the feast of rugby you’ll see. If we’re completely honest, the battle of the 10s was won by Smith by some distance. His run out of defence that almost ended up in a try for himself but saw Cadan Murley scoot over was something out of the nearby Louvre itself. He showed no loss of pace through injury and he’s just said categorically to Steve Borthwick that “I am your starting 10”.

Russell too had some magical moments but for every two flashes of brilliance, such as his cross field kick to Francis Saili in the second half, he made a cock-up of significant proportions – a dropped up and under, the deliberate knock on and more. However, when two players cut from the same cloth are on the pitch together, rugby is a joy to watch and both played up to their billings as consummate entertainers.

Racing fortitude

Racing have a lot to thank Saili, Cameron Woki, Donovan Taofifenua and Kamikamica for. The latter pair dominated the lineout alongside Baptiste Chouzenoux and their steals on the line on three occasions saved their side, especially towards the end when even the commentators couldn’t keep up with the numbers of players entering and leaving the pitch, and with Racing down to 12 men.

Woki wasn’t at his best but his workrate and disruption are so relentless that even today his impact was huge. Saili was Racing’s most potent force in attack and his power running against the side that released him caused Quins all kinds of problems.

Together with Fickou the job they did on stopping Andre Esterhuizen and containing Joe Marchant was quite outstanding, especially in the second half where wave upon wave of hard running came out of the Quins midfield. Racing started the day picking Quins apart with their attack; they finished it with a brilliant defensive effort with only 12 players on the pitch.

International watch

There’s no doubt that Smith inked his name not only into the 36 man squad named tomorrow by England’s Steve Borthwick, but he also demonstrated that as an attacking 10, there’s few better in the world. His kicking off the tee, nailing two wide kicks, was sure and his industry was notable.

Elsewhere, Murley knocked as hard as he can with less than 16 hours to go; England need to select at least one flyer and his all-round game and pace should see him selected. Joe Marler also reminded us of the queue of quality at loosehead. With Mako Vunipola and Val Rapava-Ruskin all having fine personal weekends, with Ellis Genge the favoured incumbent and both Bevan Rodd and Trevor Davison also around, Marler might find his colourful career at Test level is over. However, based upon what we saw today, as he disposed of two international quality tightheads with ease, he is still the best pure scrummager England have, something that Borthwick has already admitted will be a focus.

For France, they know all about Woki and they have a long line of great nines available, but Le Garrec must now come into consideration as an option, especially considering his place kicking off the tee.

READ MORE: Racing 92 withstand Marcus Smith-inspired Harlequins comeback to keep hopes alive

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