Two English Premiership sides who have recently undergone changes in management are Harlequins and Sale Sharks. Long-serving Sale Director of Rugby Steve Diamond left the club for personal reasons at the start of December, and was replaced by Saracens assistant coach Alex Sanderson, who returned to the club he had played for between 1998 and 2004. Meanwhile, former England defence coach Paul Gustard left Harlequins in January by mutual consent, ending a two-and-a-half-year stay at the Twickenham Stoop, and has yet to be replaced permanently.
This tactical analysis will look at both sides’ performances in this game, with focus on how Harlequins’ attacking back line played a vital row in helping them win the game, as well as analysis of Sale’s tactics in the first half, and the ways in which they struggled after half-time.
Harlequins Sale Sharks
15. M. Brown 15. S. Hammersley
14. L. Lynagh 14. D. Solomona
13. J. Marchant 13. S. James
12. A. Esterhuizen 12. L. James
11. A. Morris 11. M. Yarde
10. M. Smith 10. R. du Preez
9. D. Care 9. W. Cliff
- J. Marler 1. V. Morozov
- S. Baldwin 2. E. Ashman
- S. Kerrod 3. C. Oosthuizen
- M. Symons 4. M. Postlethwaite
- S. Lewies (c) 5. J. Beaumont
- A. White 6. J-L. du Preez
- W. Evans 7. J. Ross (c)
- A. Dombrandt 8. D. du Preez
Harlequins’ attacking runs
We will first look at Harlequins’ attacking runs forward, which were instrumental in helping them win the game.
Sale Sharks looked to press Harlequins whenever the home side had the ball, as we will look at, but they did have some defensive issues which Harlequins looked to take advantage of. In this image, the Sharks players have all moved towards the same player, as the blue line shows, but this has opened up a gap next to them. Centre Joe Marchant has made a run through this space, as the red arrow indicates, and gains a lot of ground for his team. Although it ultimately came to nothing, as Sale got back and tackled him, this was a warning for Sale of how much threat and pace Harlequins have when attacking forwards, and Sale needed to keep an eye on this as a result.
However, they didn’t, and kept leaving these spaces free. Here, we see how Harlequins have moved the ball across the pitch, but Sale have not got across to organise themselves in defence, leaving gaps open as a result. Number 8 Alex Dombrandt, in the red circle, who is one of the best ball carriers in the Premiership, has been given too much space to play in, and ends up dancing his way through them. Full-back Mike Brown and Marchant also make their way through, with Marchant eventually scoring the opening try of the game from this situation. Therefore, we can see how Sale didn’t learn from their earlier mistake, and this time they were punished by Harlequins as a consequence.
It wasn’t long after that that Harlequins managed to find some more space to attack through, and, here, their other centre, Andre Esterhuizen, in the red circle, has looked to pass the ball towards winger Aaron Morris on the far side of the pitch. Sale winger Denny Solomona, in the blue circle, has moved out of the line too early, leaving the opportunity open for Harlequins to run through and score their second try, also from Marchant.
Harlequins also scored a third try from a similar situation, with star fly-half Marcus Smith finding another gap and sending Dombrandt over to score easily, so we can see how this was a big area of concern for Sale, and something they needed to address in the second half of the game.
Sale Sharks’ first half tactics
Sale Sharks came into this game with a number of tactical ideas to stop Harlequins getting forward and attacking as we know they like to. In the image below, we see how they set up with an almost vertical defensive line.
This showed how they were defending on the front foot, closing down the Harlequins players as early as possible. By doing this, they cut down the options Harlequins had when each player had the ball, and meant they could never make any metres, which was crucial. It also led to Harlequins making mistakes in possession, with flanker Will Evans losing the ball as a result of the pressure he was put under after receiving the ball here. This showed how Sale had a good idea of how they wanted to play, and how it allowed them to cause problems for their opponents throughout the first half.
Another thing Sale looked to do was to stop Harlequins clearing the ball forwards with kicks. Two of Harlequins’ best players are experienced former England scrum-half Danny Care and young fly-half Marcus Smith, so, by charging down their attempted kicks, it stopped them creating too many opportunities for their teammates. This image shows just one example of this happening, with Sale captain and flanker Jono Ross jumping across from a scrum to block a kick from Care, which ends up going into touch instead. The fact that this was not the first or last time this happened again showed how Sale had looked at Harlequins’ main strengths, and come up with a few ideas to stop their opponents using them.
In this image, we see the final tactic that Sale used. This one is not a unique approach, as many teams look to use it in certain games, but the Sharks wanted to ensure that the Harlequins’ defenders’ attention was not on the ball as it was passed down the line. Here, South African flanker Jean-Luc du Preez, in the yellow circle, makes a run into the home side’s line, meaning the attention is on him. However, this is just a decoy run, as scrum-half Will Cliff here passes the ball to Marland Yarde, shown by the blue arrow. This is not a complicated pass, but it’s the decoy run that makes it really effective. This was a constant feature of Sale’s attacking play in the first half, and helped to create gaps in the defensive line, so it was definitely something they had discussed beforehand.
Sale Sharks’ second half struggles
However, we have already mentioned how there were a few issues with Sale Sharks’ performance in the first half, and their struggles continued in the second half as well.
We will start with the positives. Here, Sale number 8 Dan du Preez has made a run through the Harlequins defence, after escaping a tackle by Dombrandt. This has allowed him to get into space behind, and he is being supported by hooker Ewan Ashman, who is in the yellow circle. However, they don’t get too far here, because the Harlequins players get back to tackle him and organise themselves behind the ball. This shows how Sale ran forward with vigour, aiming to gain as much ground as possible whenever they got opportunities to do so.
However, what this image as well as the last show is that Harlequins are a difficult team to break down, and are arguably the best defensive team in the Premiership at the moment. In the last image, Dan du Preez and Ashman couldn’t advance too far before being brought down, and here, we see how replacement back Connor Doherty, who showed great energy when he came on, is looking to run into the defence at pace, hoping to force his way through. Despite this, Harlequins held firm, and this defensive robustness was the reason Sale weren’t able to attack as much as we know they can do.
In the first half, Sale hadn’t used their wingers in attack as much as they perhaps could have, and had looked to keep the ball reasonably narrow when attacking. However, in the second half, as we see in this image, they tended to pass out to the wings much more, making long passes to find Yarde and Solomona quicker. This stretched the play much more, as the away side tried to find more space to run through, and it did have the desired effect at times. However, whilst Sale could push forward much more, they still struggled to find a breakthrough, again due to Harlequins’ defending.
Their second half substitutions definitely helped them in speeding up the play, with Doherty and replacement scrum-half Rafi Quirke both playing quicker passes, and that meant Harlequins had to get back quicker, increasing the chance of them leaving a gap open. However, they didn’t, and that was why Sale, despite having some good opportunities in this game, ultimately struggled to convert them.
However, Sale also made their own errors with the ball, which also didn’t help their efforts to break down the home side’s defence. This image comes from the closing stages of the game, with Sale looking to create an opportunity to perhaps gain a losing bonus point. However, centre Sam James, arguably one of the most underrated players in the league, knocks the ball on, handing the ball to Harlequins to clear up the field.
We know that they are still in transition as far as the coaching goes, and the signs are that Alex Sanderson is still working on improving their attack (and defence, given what we saw in the first section of this analysis). However, the season is now in it’s second half, and we need to see the Sharks start to pick up a few more wins and play with a little more confidence, otherwise they risk being cut off from the play-off race altogether.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown us how this game was tightly fought by both sides throughout, with both still adjusting to new ideas on the pitch. However, Harlequins have responded better to their coaching change, and are looking much better in all areas, but especially in defence. Sale Sharks had their moments, but a combination of a lack of quality from them and some excellent organisation from Harlequins meant that they never looked like winning the game. This is something they will need to look at, because they currently sit in fifth place in the Premiership, and overall performances like this will not give the fans encouragement that they can break into the top four before the end of the season.