The Gallagher Premiership made its long-awaited return to us this weekend, with the first game seeing Harlequins host Sale Sharks at the Twickenham Stoop. We were perhaps expecting this game to be tight, and it was, but in terms of performances, there was one team clearly better than the other on the pitch. Sale Sharks didn’t seem to be able to get any rhythm going, and every time they did, they conceded a penalty that put them back to square one. This article will try to analyse why they get going, and highlight the reasons why Harlequins’ tactics helped them to win this match.
We will first begin this analysis by looking at Sale’s lineouts. With Rob Webber now retired, it was always going to be difficult for Sale to adjust to playing without the Sharks’ long-serving hooker. As we said, the long break meant that we weren’t expecting too much, but Sale just couldn’t make their lineout work to start with, and it cost them. The image below was one example from early in the match of them losing a lineout.
You can see how this is in the second minute of the game, but it summed up their rustiness in these areas. South African hooker Akker van der Merwe has thrown the ball towards his teammate, and fellow South African, lock Lood de Jager, but the second row has let the ball slip through his fingers, and Harlequins are now in a perfect position to catch the ball and move it forwards, as the blue arrow shows. Therefore, from a good attacking position, and with the ball in their possession, Sale have lost the ball and the ground they had gained up to this point. Admittedly, it was raining, so the ball would have been slippery and difficult to catch, but it was just a case of de Jager mistiming his catch attempt, and that was all it took to give possession back to Quins.
This was not the only lineout error, but it is the one that sums up how much Sale need to focus on their lineouts in training this week, because we have seen from them this season a team that can attack and punish opponents. However, this example showed something that we have become used to not seeing from them this season.
Comparison of Harlequins’ and Sale’s full-backs
When we look at both Sale’s and Harlequins’ full-back choices for this match, we notice a small difference.
This is not an error from either team, but it’s a point worth mentioning. In modern rugby union, full-backs are not just defenders, and most like to attack and join in when their team need an extra player on either wing, often playing as the last man when the team are running towards the opponents’ try line. There are a few full-backs who are true attacking players; Exeter Chiefs’ and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg is one obvious example, but Mike Brown is another. Whenever he played for England, he always got involved in the action, rather than staying back and protecting his try line. He has been out injured since November, so this was an opportunity to see him back to his best.
In this image, you can see how far forward Brown has come to catch the ball, and this means that Harlequins can attack much quicker, catching their opponents out when they can. This is what we can see in the images below.
This is how Brown’s attacking instinct can help his team to attack quicker. In the first image, we see how Quins fly-half Marcus Smith has kicked the ball out to the wing, where Brown is situated, and the Sharks have left the space open for Quins to attack and use this area.
However, it is the second image that shows even more how having an attacking full-back is a useful thing. We can see how Brown, in the blue circle, has advanced forward with the ball, and is now between the 22m and 10m lines of his own half. He is now also behind the majority of Sale’s players, which is what comes from his pace and ability to see where the space is.
He looks to kick the ball forward, as the blue arrow shows, and it is then picked up by centre Joe Marchant, who has made the run through a poor Sale defensive effort, giving Brown the option of getting the ball forward. Marchant is a player who we know has pace, and so what we can see from all of this is that Harlequins can attack quickly, and have a full-back who is very happy getting into attacking positions.
If we compare Brown to Sale’s full-back, Simon Hammersley, who did attack, but also tended to stay back a little more, it highlights one possible reason why Harlequins perhaps had the attacking edge over their opponents – they had the extra player in key areas. Hammersley is not wrong in wanting to be a little more defensive, but simply this was perhaps one reason why Quins were able to edge the Sharks in this game.
Sale’s and Harlequins’ defences
The biggest area that went wrong for Sale was their defensive line. If we look at the image below, we can see one big thing that they got wrong.
To provide some context, Harlequins back row forward James Chisholm has taken the ball to ground, before Argentina scrum-half Martin Landajo has taken it from him and passed it to Marcus Smith. In this area, Smith has been really clever. He has seen how Sale are charging forward to stop him passing the ball, but this is what he wants. We can see how he is looking to shift the ball towards his teammate on the nearside of the pitch, but this is just a dummy.
In Sale’s enthusiasm to run towards Smith, they have left the space open behind them, marked by the yellow square. This has been created because Sale have not run forwards as a team, which would have stopped the gap being opened. Therefore, Sale should have held firm here, which would have then allowed Smith to make the pass, but there would have been no way through for Quins afterwards, and they would have had to take the ball into the tackle. But Smith now has the space behind him, which he moves into.
Ultimately, the move didn’t come to anything, as the England fly-half was tackled by Lood de Jager, but it showed the big issue with Sale’s defence throughout the first half.
In this final image, we can see how Harlequins’ defence set up. You can see how they have moved into a diagonal line, matching Sale’s attacking structure. This takes time away from the Sale attackers, preventing their pacy players, such as Manu Tuilagi, who was kept very quiet in the game, from gaining any ground. Quins are working as a team, with no player moving further than necessary, ensuring no gaps are opened up, and this was a big reason for Sale going in at the break without any points on the board.
Therefore, we can see the difference in both sides’ defensive structures. Harlequins did flatten theirs out much more in the latter stages of the game, but it was still even and working together, and no players were moving forward when they didn’t need to, so the discipline was there too.
In conclusion, this was an interesting game to watch, because it gave us an insight into the standard of rugby we can expect after such a long break. We have tried to analyse the key reasons why Sale struggled to get going against Harlequins, and, whilst it is clear that there are some areas that Director of Rugby Steve Diamond will want to work on over the next week, the big thing that counted against them was the penalties they conceded, as we have mentioned. To put a number onto this, the Sharks conceded seven penalties in the first 15 minutes of the game, for simple things like lineout errors, passing errors, handling errors and side entries, and this meant Harlequins just had to sit back and wait for the chances to come their way. The handling errors in particular were a low point for both sides, again due to the lack of match practice, but for Sale, they always came when they were in good attacking areas, and this meant they could never get any rhythm going in the first half.
Aside from one try for each team, which were both well taken, the second half didn’t show us much that was different from the first. Ultimately, the game was low on quality at times, but all the players will have been rusty, having not played a competitive game for five months or so. For Sale, their game was summed up when they had Simon Hammersley sin-binned on 55 minutes, after continuous pressure from Harlequins meant the Sharks had already been penalised twice in the same area in the space of a couple of minutes. This one man advantage was one reason for Quins’ try managing to squeeze over the line, so you can see how Sale’s constant errors throughout the first and second half really did count against them.