At Paris La Défense Arena
The Heineken Champions Cup is a regular goal for Racing 92, who have been runners-up three times (2016, 2018, 2020). But this new campaign took a hit from the start, with this defeat at Paris La Défense Arena against Harlequins (28-31). A listless first half, a jolt in the second half, before diving back in to let the game slip away. The Hauts-de-Seine club, far too inconsistent, can blame itself. "Harlequins were really on top of us in the first half," said England manager Stuart Lancaster. In the second half, we were better strategically but we conceded easy tries, the fault of a lot of missed tackles."
In a competition that gives pride of place to the game, the Racingmen were overwhelmed by the speed of execution and the cold efficiency of Marcus Smith's team, author of a remarkable match of control and efficiency. "He's a really special player," said back-rower and captain Alex Dombrandt. He can create something out of nothing. Having him on our team gives us a lot of confidence. He's a great player and we're lucky to have him." The England fly-half enjoyed the Arena's artificial turf, even hitting an impeccable 45m drop goal before the break.
At the other end, the Altoséquan club, despite being leaders of the Top 14, played in reaction. Running after the score and then unable to hold on to it once it was acquired. Siya Kolisi and his teammates led 28-17 at the hour mark. But they collapsed in the face of London's assaults. "Our game plan is to play the rugby that we have, which is expansive, where we play and attack, but we were also rigorous on the basics," Dombrandt said. On the Ile-de-France side, the recurring problem has come to the surface, this season, of failed, passive starts to matches. "We've seen in the last few games that we're struggling to start our matches," agrees Ile-de-France back-row Wenceslas Lauret. We always get back in the game but I think we have to take the games by the right end and start well to put pressure on our opponents."
"It shows us what we still need to improve on"
Racing's lack of control was glaring. "The best teams, and Harlequins are one of them, like to test us and they pushed us to make mistakes defensively. It shows us what we still need to improve on," insists Stuart Lancaster. Already, last season, Harlequins came very close to victory in Nanterre, losing only 30-29 in a game that was already completely crazy. "We anticipated that they were going to come with an attacking mindset. That's what happened last season: these players like to attack," said Fijian centre Francis Saili. " We weren't aggressive enough defensively and that gave space for guys like Marcus Smith to break our lines."
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It's going to be a short week and we'll have to quickly switch to an already crucial match - almost a life-or-death one - on Saturday night in Belfast against Ulster, who also stumbled in the opening against Bath. A second setback would almost doom the Sky and Whites. Stuart Lancaster tried to be positive: "In the end, we didn't do too badly with these two bonus points (offensive and defensive) but now we have to go and win in Belfast." A hostile land where French clubs have rarely triumphed. "It's going to be a game to stay alive," said "Wen" Lauret. Like us, we have everything to play for if we want to stay in the competition. If we want to qualify, we have to win this game." One thing is for sure, Racing will have to show a completely different face, more conquering, less wait-and-see. Otherwise, his Heineken Champions Cup ambitions will come to an end on the second matchday. This would be a first failure for the new Racing Lancaster version.