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‘Vakatawa and Russell were the only two in the know’ | BOD on Racing's secret play

Stephen Kisbey-Green
Stephen Kisbey-Green

19:17 15 Oct 2020


Brian O’Driscoll looked ahead to the European final this weekend, highlighting Racing 92's secret play between Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa on Off The Ball.

Racing will take on Exeter in Bristol on Saturday for the Champions Cup, after a moment of magic from Finn Russell and Virimi Vakatawa helped the French side to victory over Saracens in the semi-final.

The semi-final was on a knife-edge for much of the game, until Russell spotted an opening in the back field and chipped the ball ahead for Vakatawa to collect.

The Fijian-born centre regathered the ball, before offloading back to Russell who eventually got it into the hands of Juan Imhoff who scored the match-wining try.

Russell and Vakatawa made the call

For O’Driscoll, it was not merely the tense nature of the game that made that try so special.

“What I loved about the act in itself was the way that Racing lined up,” O’Driscoll said.

“We’ve seen Finn Russell go to the chip game before, but I think sometimes it’s been telegraphed.

“[Sometimes] before he does it, you can see four guys outside him lining a lot flatter, because they want to get on the offside line as he is kicking the ball.

“The opposition immediately realise, ‘mayday, mayday, there is a kick coming over the top.’

“That is easy pickings for a 13 or a blind winger to chase across.”

Finn Russell (R92) during the European Rugby Champions Cup Racing 92 (R92) v Saracens (SAR) semi-final match at the Paris La Defense Arena, in Nanterre, France on September 26, 2020. Racing 92 won 19-15

O’Driscoll noted that on this occasion, the Racing backline looked set up as if the ball was going wide, instead of to Vakatawa through a kick.

“I don’t even know if Finn Russell told the rest of his players that he was going to chip it over,” O’Driscoll said.

“I think he had a word to Vakatawa; he was the only one charging.

“What he did was: the line looked as though he was just going to be screened; like the ball was going to be thrown out the back to him.

“[Simon] Zebo was animated, looking as though he was about to get it; I feel as though he expected to get it.”

Zebo had confirmed that he did expect to get the ball when he spoke on Off The Ball the week after the semi-final.

He said then that Vakatawa and Russell were indeed the only ones that knew that the chip kick was coming.

The Irish backline, from left, Gordon D'Arcy, Ronan O'Gara, Brian O'Driscoll and Girvan Dempsey get ready to break forward as soon as the ball comes out of a scrum. RBS Six Nations Championship, Wales v Ireland, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wale

ROG and Sexton did it too

The concept of a ‘secret play’ is not new, according to O’Driscoll.

He suggested that, when he played with Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton, he would often give a subtle sign to his flyhalf that they should do the opposite of the signalled call.

“We used to do that sometimes, playing certain moves,” O’Driscoll said.

“I’d talk to Johnny or to ROG and we’d call a play and then I’d give them a wink, which meant we will do the opposite to that.

“You’d get guys still running with the same enthusiasm to get the ball [even though] they weren’t getting it.”

This tactic is similar to an audible in the NFL, when the attack changes what they are doing based on how the defence has lined up.

O’Driscoll thinks that there is a fundamental reason behind why these types of plays are particularly effective.

“It is a subconscious thing,” O’Driscoll said.

“When you are not getting the ball, it is very hard to get your timing spot on, but it is also very hard to get you enthusiasm up to the same level as when you think you are going to be hit on the advantage line.

“All of those things added to this being a perfect play.”

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Brian O'Driscoll Champions Cup Europe Exeter Finn Russell Racing 92 Saracens Virimi Vakatawa

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