A star at Grey College, a Currie Cup and Super Rugby regular for the Free State Cheetahs as a teenager and a capped Springbok shortly after his 20th birthday, this was not the trajectory that many expected Johan Goosen to follow. The prodigiously talented fly-half – still only 23 years old – saw his promising career in his homeland waylaid by a series of long-term injuries, and the emergence of starlet Handré Pollard in their wake; in August 2014, he joined up with Racing 92 in the Top 14 in search of new challenges and – as he has openly admitted – financial stability. His first two seasons in Paris have seen a run in with first-team coach Laurent Labit, and opportunities in his favoured 10 shirt limited by the presence of established stars Jonny Sexton and Dan Carter. He made only 8 starts in the Top 14 in the 2014/15 season, and during the majority of this campaign has rotated between starts at fullback and a role on the bench. However, during the knockout stages of the Champions Cup he has been utilised in an unfamiliar role at outside centre and has played well individually in some impressive team performances over the last couple of months. His contest with the impressive Duncan Taylor will be one of many captivating match-ups in Lyon tomorrow afternoon, and it will be intriguing to see how Saracens attempt to attack a player who – out of his natural position in the centres – may represent the relative weak link in Racing’s excellent defence.
Below, I will take a look at some of the qualities Goosen displayed when he came on to the scene in the southern hemisphere in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and examine his semi-final performance in detail to look at what he offers the Parisians in this position and potential weaknesses Saracens may exploit.
Goosen’s defining characteristic as a prospect was his kicking ability (once landing a 67m penalty for Grey College in a schoolboy game), but coupled this important aspect of fly-half play with impressive physical capabilities and open-field running. The Cheetahs teams in which he featured from 2012 to 2014 played fast and loose on the counterattack, with the maverick Willie Le Roux and Blitzbok Cornal Hendricks in the back three outside midfielders such as Johann Sadie, Francois Venter and the Ebersohn twins. His proficiency kicking out of hand – particularly launching towering high balls – still formed an important part of their gameplan and was an invaluable tactical asset:
However, on occasion he could be too ambitious in seeking distance and hang-time, and in the game above (from the 2013 season, away at the Waratahs) there were late-game scenarios where – with the away side looking to protect a lead – his decisions of where and how to kick almost got his team in trouble. In the Champions Cup semi-final against Leicester, he was not used as a consistent option in the tactical kicking game by Racing; the left foot of Carter at 10 was called upon for all of their strategic exit plays. However, having a boot like Goosen’s in the midfield is a great bonus and there were a couple of occasions where he was able to gain territory with clever kicks in broken play. In addition, his long-distance goal-kicking is an especially valuable asset in knockout rugby; Marcelo Bosch’s match-winner for Saracens in last year’s tournament undoubtedly prompted this realisation, and the difficult penalty which took Racing’s lead the semi-final beyond a converted try was another great example of this.
In attack, with Willie Le Roux often slotting in to the first receiver position from the blindside wing (a tactic used often by the Cheetahs) he was deployed as a playmaker and decision-maker at second receiver and in wider channels, and this is undoubtedly a positive factor in his development at outside centre. Despite his age and frame he was always confident in taking the ball to the line and cutting good angles of running, as was evident in his first Springbok start vs. Australia at Newlands in 2012:
This ability has also been shown for Racing in flashes throughout the season, with this try from fullback against Stade Français an excellent example:
The line he took off Joe Rokocoko for his disallowed try in the semi-final again showcased his open-field instincts and eye for a running line:
The inside-out arc is a thing of beauty, and he is acutely aware of his opposite number’s movement and positioning; as soon as Niki Goneva turns his back, the South African seizes his chance and takes the gap with a step off the right foot.
He also showed signs of warming to the breakdown work required by a centre in the professional game against Leicester. ￼￼Early in the first half, midfield partner Alexandre Dumoulin took a flat crash ball directly from scrum-half Maxime Machenaud off first-phase lineout ball. Goosen was on hand immediately and executed a positive clear-out on Freddie Burns; importantly, he cleared the fly-half well past the back foot of the breakdown and took him completely out of the game on the next phase:
This clearance of Burns also impacted on Graham Kitchener working around the corner to support the Tigers’ defence on the next phase – the second row collides with Burns after Goosen’s intervention and is slowed, increasing the distance between Kitchener and Tuilagi as Dan Carter takes the ball flat:
Carter attacks and holds Tuilagi on the gain line, feeds hooker Virgil Lacombe on the inside to send him through the gap created by the obstruction of Kitchener, and Racing are away: two quick positive phases have created a fracture in the Leicester defence, but unfortunately Rokocoko spills after contact as he carried strongly with the flow off Machenaud on the next phase. The margins by which opportunities for line breaks created are so fine at the top level, and this kind of intervention from Goosen in the centre could prove pivotal for Racing in tomorrow’s Final.
The most closely scrutinised part of Goosen’s game in Lyon tomorrow will undoubtedly be his defence, as he lines up in an unfamiliar position against a Saracens backline which has shown the ability to cut well-organised teams apart with ball in hand at times this season. In his early years with South Africa in the Rugby Championship and the Cheetahs in Super Rugby he proved himself a willing and capable tackler, but was at times targeted by the opposition for his tendency to go high in the contact area:
This is still a tactic he employs in defence, and as he matured physically he has become able to use it more and more effectively; against Leicester he was able to hold Telusa Veainu with a choke tackle to effect a turnover in a dangerous situation. As an individual defender he shows good awareness and lateral movement, able to jockey quickly to cover space and showing good technique in the tackle. On a number of occasions he showed this athleticism and skill in cutting down Leicester’s dangerous outside runners in space:
As an individual defender, therefore, he showed great competence in the semi-final, but how Saracens will likely look to attack him by focusing on his positioning and relationships with those around him – in particular the outside channels between the outside centre and his two wingers (Rokocoko and Imhoff). As Charlie Morgan noted in his excellent preview of Saracens for Rugby World, the movement of Alex Goode and Chris Ashton in attack hold the key to the English side’s attacking game; Ashton’s try against Northampton – where he popped up on the opposite wing running a great support line – was a perfect example of this. As well as neutralising the physical game of his opposite number Duncan Taylor, Goosen will also have to contend with the intelligence and incisiveness of the two English internationals in the Saracens back three.
In the semi-final, Leicester were not able to take advantage of the few positional errors which Goosen did make; on one second half kick chase which he led with Juan Imhoff, it was clear that he is still building defensive relationships with the players around him in this role. Mathew Tait brought the ball back with Veainu in support, and the Tongan international’s running line sat down Goosen; however, Imhoff didn’t read his partner’s movement and Tait was able to ghost through the gap. Another occasion which Leicester failed to exploit was a numbers-up situation on the blindside, created by Goosen (circled) creeping too close to the ruck and leaving two defenders exposed on the outside against three opposition attackers:
Ben Youngs and Peter Betham (at first receiver on the short side) failed to take advantage of this, but these small errors are the kind which Saracens will need to exploit tomorrow against a Racing side who have been a defensive rock throughout this year’s competition.
Goosen endured a difficult first year for Racing, but over the course of the 2015/16 season he has found a number of roles within an excellent side in which he has been able to add value and contribute to their considerable success. In the short term, it will be interesting to see whether he is the target of Saracens’ attacking plans tomorrow, and whether he is able to exert as positive an influence on the game as he was on the semi-final; over the long term, it will be intriguing to see whether the South African can use the impetus of this successful season in France to find his way back to the top of the international game.