A stunning long-range try in the dying minutes of the Champions Cup semi-final to Juan Imhoff saved Racing 92’s European hopes, securing a late 19-15 win over Saracens in Paris.
The key play was sparked by a Finn Russell chip kick that found the open arms of in-form centre Virimi Vakatawa.
Despite being deep in their own half and playing a high number of desperate phases, going over the top proved to be a daring risk worth taking.
Finn Russell has always been an avid user of short attacking kicks to unlock a defence, but the method in which Racing opened up Saracens to win the game is fast becoming the latest trend in professional rugby in 2020.
The era of dominant defences is upon us, with punishing front lines forcing ball-in-hand, high phase attacking rugby to wilt and raise the white flag with an eventual territorial kick.
Leinster found this out last week for the second time in 12 months with their detailed phase play snuffed out and hammered backwards repeatedly by this Saracens outfit.
An accurate short-range attacking kicking game can counter a dominant defensive line. Racing is the latest team to find this new ‘blind spot’ to create kick breaks.
The kick pass to the winger became a fast way to get the ball to the open man in recent seasons but this kick was always faced with a one-on-one assignment after the catch or an aerial contest with a fullback closing down with the ball in the air.
The latest zone being targeted is closer infield in a difficult position for the defence to cover, using the centre as the kick chase option.
The Hurricanes successfully used this short kick option outside the midfield pod for Peter Umaga-Jensen (13) during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
‘Last man’ defences dictate that the defending fullback on the open side, Will Jordan (15) above, must take the last man out wide.
Therefore he is not ideally placed to cover this kick as he needs to cover the space towards the touchline.
The kick is in the ‘sweet spot’, too far for the halfback sweeper (9) to reach, and not far enough for the fullback in the backfield to come back to.
Making matters more difficult is the outside centre can time the run from deep without being sighted, often running unchecked through a part of the defensive line covered by forwards.
The pod outside Jackson Garden Bachop (10) is the primary defensive target for the line, drawing most of the interest, allowing Ngani Laumape to gather pace for the kick chase.
It only becomes apparent late to the defence that a hard-running midfielder just outside of the pod is a threat to be covered.
And worse, the best-placed defender to cover the kick are those in the front line, who need to turn and chase.
If those players are forwards, it is a clear mismatch against a midfielder already reaching top speed.
Even for an outside back, it is a challenge. It is the kind of task asked of NFL cornerbacks, requiring the fast change of direction to decelerate, turn and chase.
Even Elliot Daly (15), one of the fastest men in rugby, couldn’t cover Virimi Vakatawa with the Racing centre getting just enough separation to get clear.
Racing are deep in the phase count and show a typical open side set-up after a pod carry, with Finn Russell (10) in the driver’s seat with options around him: An inside forward runner, his two-man pod with Simon Zebo (15) out the back, and Teddy Thomas (14) hugging the touchline for the cross-field kick.
The innocuous Virimi Vakatawa (13) is the target for the exact same chip kick the Hurricanes devised.
Saracens only have one man in the backfield, flyhalf Alex Goode, which plays in Racing’s favour once the ball is regathered.
Sean Maitland (14) is up in the line and Elliot Daly (15) is playing centre.
Vakatawa’s original disinterest on the play quickly becomes a threat to the defence, his timing on the run is perfect and even though Daly makes the read he cannot get a block in or turn fast enough.
The kick from Russell is perfectly placed where only Vakatawa can get it on the full, leading to a fast break opportunity for Racing.
The work of Russell and Imhoff to follow up the kick is crucial. The Hurricanes often were able to get Umaga-Jensen in the backfield with regathered possession, but with no support to continue to break.
Such is the class of Vakatawa, he is able to commit the sweeper Wigglesworth and the fullback Alex Goode. Imhoff has a clear run to the line on the second pass from Russell and the pace to outgun the chase of Daly and Maitland.
The value of a triple threat flyhalf who can kick, run and pass, in Finn Russell is clear – this is the type of skill needed to flip the script on dominant front line defences in this age of crushing your opponent with line speed and dominant tackles.
Designed short kicks that are regathered are effectively line breaks and, put simply, line breaks create try-scoring opportunities.
Instead of trying to batter through a defence, going over the top of it may be easier with a skilled kicker like Russell. It may not come off every time, but having the option available gives the attack variety and unpredictability.
As modern patterns have developed into fine-tuned machines, structured down to the last detail, it is forgotten that unpredictability is a Cryptonite for defences.
Great defences feed off predictability which most patterns inherently possess, and Racing’s calculated gamble is a reminder of the worth of a multi-skilled player like Finn Russell brings.
He may pull something out of the bag to send your team to a European final.
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