Racing 92 ground-out a slightly fortuitous 29-22 victory over Stade Francais in the Parisian derby at Stade Yves du Manoir marked by testosterone-fuelled collisions and belligerence at the breakdown.
There were precious few subtleties from either side, players choosing contact rather than space for the most part as the game degenerated into a staccato affair, relentlessly punctuated by the whistle of referee Laurent Cardona. He’d little choice in the matter, rucks and scrums, lawless in the eyes of the players.
The exceptions to the general torpor were the fullbacks Racing's Brice Dulin and Stade's Hugo Bonneval.
Munster travel to Paris next Sunday and their director of rugby Rassie Erasmus will be slightly perplexed as to what awaits the Irish province; a team that won last season’s French Top 14 title or the one that has lost all four matches on the road in the same tournament this season.
Racing are a very different prospect at home, illustrated by victories over Toulouse, Toulon, Stade Francais and Brive. On Saturday they were without Dan Carter, Dimitri Szarzewski and Ali Williams to name three. Casey Laulala picked up a head injury.
Replacement hooker Camille Chat’s 79th minute try allowed them to pilfer a victory that looked unlikely for much of the first half in which they were second best, everywhere except the scoreboard.
The previous weekend Stade Francais conceded 18 penalties and against Racing, 12, allowing the home scrumhalf and French international Maxime Machenaud to kick five in a tally of 19 points.
The visitors also gifted their hosts seven points try in the first half, when Argentine wing Juan Imhoff was handed an intercept try, thanks to a woeful pass from Julien Dupuy just outside the Racing 22. The bigger picture is that the winners didn’t have to demonstrate much invention.
Munster will focus on the manner in which Stade were able to create space on the outside. They made eight line breaks during the match and but for some misfortune and a misplaced pass or two could have scored more than the one try from Jimmy Arias.
Stade had only 33 per cent possession but managed to make a whopping 466 metres – the majority came from the three quarters and the wonderfully gifted young flanker Sekou Macalou – compared to Racing's 210 metres from 67 per cent. Racing rely heavily on Machenaud's box-kicking as an attacking gambit.
It’s interesting that Racing have added to their coaching team. Joining Laurent Travers, Laurent Labit and Ronan O’Gara is Argentine-born, former Australian prop and one time Wallabies scrum coach, Patricio Noriega. .
Stade, with former Leinster prop Heinke van der Merwe and French international Rabah Slimani as pillars, troubled their Racing counterparts at times in what descended into a scrum lottery.
The lineout too was inconclusive but Racing will be a little happier than they were the previous weekend in Brive when they lost four on their throw; this time it was two.
Racing run hard and mostly straight behind the scrum and in Imhoff they possesses the leading try scorer in the French Top 14 – he has seven – and a player who won’t be content to work in the orthodox wing channels.
His relationship with Dulin and Rokocoko, often used off the outhalf, as a carrying exit strategy from the 22, means poorly directed punting will be punished. Flanker Yannick Nyanga remains an athletic presence but Stade nicked several balls at the breakdown.
The task for Munster next Sunday is far from insurmountable, provided the bring a physical intensity in defence, width and variation in attack and a solid set piece.
Ulster’s Champions Cup opponents next Sunday at the Stade Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux Begles, managed a narrow 27-25 victory over Brive in the French Top 14. Ian Madigan was an unused replacement, with the outhalf with whom he shares game time, Lionel Beauxis kicking 17 points.
Leinster’s opponents on the opening two weekends of European competition met in the French Top 14 with Montpellier 28-19 victors over Castres Olympique. The latter travel to the RDS next Saturday while Leo Cullen’s charges head for Montpellier the following weekend.
Leinster will be hoping that Castres’ indiscipline continues as they conceded seven kickable penalties at the weekend. Connacht’s opponents at home next Saturday night, Toulouse, lost narrowly 29-25 against French Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Each side scored two tries apiece but Morgan Parra’s 19 point tally, allowed the home side to squeeze home.