In four Champions Cup clashes Racing 92 remain unbeaten, sitting atop Pool four with four wins of which three are bonus-point wins.
A healthy cushion sits between them and second-placed Ulster, who they blew off the park 44-12 in the comforts of their indoor stadium in Paris. Racing has scored 30 or more in three of their four European wins, however, this high-scoring attack is hardly a clinical well-oiled machine.
Two superstar Celtic recruits – Finn Russell of Scotland and Simon Zebo of Ireland – are building a stellar connection that is powering Racing beyond its collective attacking ability, offering big-play potential at any moment despite the clunkiness of the surrounding play.
With Russell, Racing has a creative ball-playing flyhalf to pair with the electric line running of Zebo, who is playing a roaming role as a wing or fullback. The dangerous pair are integral to Racing’s attack, as demonstrated on set-piece strikes throughout the early pool games.
Against Leicester they successfully used this simple set-piece play around their two weapons, using the speed of Russell’s pass and Zebo’s line running to expose Leicester’s fragile edge.
Russell receives the ball nice and flat from a throw to the tail of the lineout and loads his release.
He throws a simple ‘miss 2’ cutout pass from 10-13, with the centre Virimi Vakatawa running a bounce/fade line to get on the outside of his opposite Manu Tuilagi (13).
Vakatawa will trust the speed of Russell’s pass will beat Tuilagi, and his fade line will ensure the wide pass can be delivered with enough depth to prevent an interception by bailing left and letting the ball come to him a bit deeper.
As the pass is released, Tuilagi still has perfect front-on alignment but we can see Vakatawa starting his break to the outside.
Tuilagi is ball watching inside, which is going to delay his ability to react to the change of angle by his man, giving Racing the slight advantage they need.
Russell’s pass has the required velocity to get Vatakawa on the outside of Tuilagi, achieving two things.
Firstly, Leicester has to change into a slide defence in order to recover which requires the Tigers’ outside backs to make secondary decisions, which could cause disconnection.
Adam Thompstone (14) has to decide whether to trust Tuilagi can recover or whether he needs to break ranks and take Vakatawa himself leaving Zebo and Juan Imhoff open. In this case, be opts to trust Tuilagi and continues to slide out.
Secondly, Russell’s bullet pass has created Racing’s width so quickly it has put Jonny May behind the 8-ball on his sweep coverage route coming across in the backfield.
The gap between May and the fullback George Worth (out-of-picture), who is tasked with the last-man, is now a rather large window.
With Worth rushing up to close on Racing winger Imhoff, May is effectively the fullback and he is little further across the field than Finn Russell himself is.
Even though Tuilagi has recovered, the threat of Vakatawa has the attention of Thompstone who is sliding but looking back over his shoulder.
This is where the expertise of Zebo comes in to rip Leicester apart.
He has slightly straightened his line already, preparing for a sharp cut into the sliding 13-14 channel, reading the situation on-the-fly and adapting, hoping the pass won’t be too heavy.
He will beat Thompstone before he even touches the ball, exploding onto a perfectly timed short ball from Vakatawa.
In perfect synchronization, Zebo cuts off the left as Vakatawa releases the ball and draws contact from Tuilagi, while Thompstone is caught turned out towards the sideline in no position to make a front-on tackle.
Thompstone is left ‘Zebo’d’ as the Irishman hits the gap at full throttle, while Jonny May is limited in stopping Zebo finishing this simple two-on-one. He draws May and Imhoff strolls over for a 50-metre strike.
Racing used the same play a week earlier at home at the La Defense Arena with the same result against a porous Tigers’ defence while Manu Tuilagi was in the sin bin. This time Zebo was playing on the right wing and wasn’t required to open up Leicester.
The Tigers defended with their open side Brendon O’Connor (7) at flyhalf while pushing George Ford (10) and Matt Toomua (12) one wider to cover Tuilagi’s absence in the midfield.
Toomua’s man is Vakatawa but he slips and falls over trying to change direction once Russell’s pass flies by.
At this point, with an inexperienced back three and the speed of Racing’s outside backs, it is game over.
Vakatawa takes Thompstone (14) out of the picture with a draw and pass giving Racing another simple two-on-one, and it’s another walk-in try for Juan Imhoff (11). Sweeper Johnny May is again not even a consideration trying to make it across.
The Russell-Zebo phase play connection
Where we really see this combination building is during Racing’s phase play. The two have a license to attack as they see fit, working in tandem building one of the more prolific partnerships in Europe this season.
With other quality strike weapons in Juan Imhoff, Teddy Thomas and Virimi Vakatawa, Racing have a ‘pitchfork’ attack around three or four elusive runners Russell can choose to use in search of a line break, although Zebo is fast becoming Russell’s number one go-to man.
Racing’s system is very similar to Ireland’s base pattern, a 5-3 forward split using one three-man pod to carry, setting up a wide open side for phases two and three in the same direction.
Russell will take over first receiver from the second phase, generally with a two-man pod outside with a backdoor option like below. He also often has an Inside Runner (IR) available on his inside hip, which is either one of the aforementioned wingers or a ball-carrying forward.
Russell has a prominent play-making role to play like Sexton, looking to create line breaks and earn his side possessions inside the 22. From there, Racing’s pack takes over with tight, hard running off 9 until they hit pay dirt.
The problem for Russell is he often gets a two-man pod like this instead, with runners failing to get into position. Here he has taken it to the line and is about to get crunched with little chance of reward – he has no flat options to work with.
Racing has a quality pack in terms of size, power and some possess unique offloading skills like Leone Nakarawa, but attention to details, line running timing and nous, mobility and anaerobic capacity are not generally part of the pack’s identity.
Racing lacks the clinical play of a team like Leinster and their play as a collective unit is rather clunky as the pattern breaks down quite often.
It then falls on players like Russell and Zebo to find ways to open up the opposition, which is when they combine together to take things ‘off script’.
Zebo will roam off his wing or freely around as a fullback and find his way into the inside runner role in Russell’s pocket.
Here they identify Ulster playing two-deep backs, with one being the halfback just in sight above. With no sweeper, there is acres of space in behind the line.
Russell drops a perfect chip over the top and Zebo finds a way through the traffic to pull it down, creating an open field opportunity.
It seems at times the only thing stopping them are their own teammates, who aren’t always aware of their pet plays during phase play.
Racing looks to run a screen pass to free Zebo outside on the third phase but Teddy Thomas is anticipating running a flat option for Russell.
Thomas has to stop himself and then becomes ineffective, unable to provide a wider option outside Zebo on the play.
He is able to recover a little bit and offer support but could’ve opened up more space for Zebo by dragging the second-defender-in further outward. Zebo still is able to burst through the arm tackles for a nice gain but the interference limited the effectiveness of the screen.
On this occasion, after multiple phases Racing’s pattern has fallen apart despite the efforts of the organizers to patrol the forwards into the structure.
Working phases to the left Russell has his backs outside and Zebo in the hip pocket.
Russell’s ability to play at the line and dance with the defence is a real asset. His left foot step can catch the inside defenders napping or over-committing, and he has used it to great effect so far this year.
Leicester’s inside defence, two of which are tight five forwards, push off up and out off the line. Ellis Genge (1) tries to pressure Russell but comes from a bad angle towards the flyhalf.
This is where Russell’s running game really flourishes and where the inside runner becomes a valuable insurance policy. He doesn’t have to break the line all himself, just poke through enough to feed his option, which in this case is Zebo.
Russell beats Genge one-on-one cutting back off the left and now puts serious pressure on Sione Kalamafoni (8) and Harry Wells (5) to push across and cover two backs.
Russell straightens upfield while Zebo (14) positions for an outside lane. Zebo’s support play is outstanding, mirroring Russell and anticipating an opening for the offload.
Russell also doesn’t try to overplay his hand by stepping once more, knowing he has done enough already, he anticipates the tackle in submissive fashion and throws a backhand flick to the open Zebo, who sheds a diving tackle from Wells and scores under the posts.
Finn Russell’s attacking play so far in the pool stages of the Champions Cup has been majestic, using all three facets of his game – kicking, passing and running to ignite Racing in the absence of a highly efficient forward pack.
His combination with Simon Zebo is becoming uncontainable and if Racing is to push through to the late stages of the competition they will both need to continue their high level of play to fuel Racing’s scoring. Whether they can sustain this level of play past the pool stages remains to be seen, but they have enough quality playmakers to make a serious run at Europe’s top club prize.
As the competition gets tougher, that will be no easy task, but right now they are making the difficult look easy.
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