After reaching the 2021 European Rugby Challenge Cup final with a win over Ulster, Leicester Tigers travelled to the AJ Bell Stadium to take on Sale Sharks, who have risen to third in the English Premiership since Alex Sanderson came in as Director of Rugby. Sale have ambitions of reaching the season-ending play-offs, whilst Leicester are looking to secure a place in the top eight, and a Champions Cup place as a result. This tactical analysis will look at this encounter in more detail, with focus on Sale’s tactics in attack and some of the areas where they went wrong, as well as Leicester’s mistakes in possession and improvements as the game went on.
Sale Sharks Leicester Tigers
15. L. James 15. Z. Henry
14. B. McGuigan 14. K. van Wyk
13. S. James 13. M. Moroni
12. S. Hill 12. D. Kelly
11. M. Yarde 11. K. Murimurivalu
10. A. MacGinty 10. J. McPhillips
9. F. de Klerk 9. B. Youngs (c)
- B. Rodd 1. L. de Bruin
- A. van der Merwe 2. C. Clare
- C. Oosthuizen 3. J. Heyes
- C. Wiese 4. C. Henderson
- J. Beaumont (c) 5. T. Lavanini
- J.L. du Preez 6. G. Martin
- T. Curry 7. C. Brink
- D. du Preez 8. H. Liebenberg
Sale Sharks’ attacking positives
Sale Sharks were on the front foot from the first few minutes of the game, looking to keep Leicester Tigers in defensive mode as much as possible. This is because, once Leicester get an opportunity, they tend to build on it and drive forwards more.
Sale fly-half AJ MacGinty played a major part in his team’s play, directing the game from the centre of the field. In this image, the USA international has received the pass from South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk, but immediately turns to run the other way, with both players facing different directions to highlight this.
By switching the direction of play, Sale wanted to force a gap to open in Leicester’s defence. However, instead of taking the ball through those gaps, they chipped it over the top of their opponents, meaning there was less risk of a tackle being made. This happened a few times in the early stages of the game, so was clearly a part of Sale’s game plan. Their attempts with this were being stopped by Leicester, but they were clear signs of the threat that Sale posed.
Sale continued to find spaces in Leicester’s half throughout the first 40 minutes. This image shows how the away side have drifted inside to stop Sale breaking through centrally, but have left the wide space open as a result. It is there that MacGinty passes into, with Scotland winger Byron McGuigan, in the yellow circle, running through to score the first try of the game. The home side’s spatial awareness was a key part of their tactics, helping them to control the game for the majority of the first half.
Even when out of possession, Sale were relentless in their intent to dominate the game. Here, we see how Leicester flanker Cyle Brink has the ball, but is being closed down at pace by Sale hooker Akker van der Merwe. This forced Leicester to pass backwards under pressure, eventually giving away a penalty for fly-half Johnny McPhillips holding onto the ball. Therefore, we see just how hard the home side worked, and it was a key reason for them going in at half-time in the lead.
Sale needed to play more defensively in the second half, with Leicester dictating more of the game, but the home side were still causing problems and making life difficult for their opponents. This image shows flanker Jean-Luc du Preez ripping the ball from Leicester substitute flanker Jasper Wiese, preventing the away side from launching an attack. This shows how, even as the game was ending, Sale kept their high intensity, which is something we have associated with them over the last few months, and is one reason for their likely top four finish this season.
Sale Sharks’ errors
However, despite these positives, there are still areas that Sale Sharks need to work on if they do make the play-offs and potentially the final.
In this image, Sale centre Sam James has moved too far out of line, leaving the space open for Leicester Tigers to attack through. Centres Dan Kelly and Matias Moroni have both moved into that space, as the red arrows show, and better combination play between full-back Zack Henry and winger Kobus van Wyk might have given the visitors a try here. However, they couldn’t make it count, letting James and Sale off. Against other opponents, they might not be so fortunate, as they will be more clinical than Leicester.
There were also times, particularly as the first half was drawing to a close, that Sale’s passing became sloppy and loose, allowing Leicester to make easy interceptions and launch attacks. Here, MacGinty has played the ball out to the wing, but it travels into the open space and not to a teammate. This allows Leicester’s Fiji winger Kini Murimurivalu to run onto it, and, whilst he doesn’t get too far, this was a warning for Sale that they couldn’t lose focus at any time, because that was what Leicester were looking for and could build on.
Leicester Tigers’ mistakes
Leicester Tigers have not had a bad season, showing signs of major improvement tactically and in squad depth. However, this game exposed some of the errors we have come to associate with them over the last few seasons, and showed that there is still a long way for them to go before they reach their former levels again.
We have already mentioned how Leicester were not allowed to play their usual attacking rugby by Sale Sharks, but, when they did have opportunities to attack, they made errors that prevented them from making them count. Here, McPhillips has dropped the ball, with van der Merwe again closing down and tackling him, leading to a penalty being awarded against Leicester for not releasing the ball on the ground. Sale were alive to every mistake that Leicester made, with moments like this highlighting their constant focus.
These mistakes continued in the second half, with substitute winger David Williams, who is on loan from Championship side Nottingham, dropping the pass from Kelly. It was the quality with the final pass that was missing for Leicester throughout the game, which continually let them down in dangerous areas, so they need to continue working on this ahead of next season.
Leicester Tigers’ improvements
However, despite a poor overall first half by their standards, Leicester Tigers did have some positives during the game, mainly in the last part of the first half and in the second half.
Zack Henry was Leicester’s best player in this game, but, because he was playing at full-back, he couldn’t control it from the middle as he normally likes to do. However, his positional switch with McPhillips during the first half gave Leicester more threat and greater creativity.
This image shows how Henry looks to drive between opponents, and he constantly made gains behind Sale Sharks whenever he was passed the ball. This allowed Leicester to deploy their attacking game, which is where they have been more dangerous this season. Therefore, it was clear that moving Henry into the midfield made a big difference to their play.
The away side continued to find gaps between Sale players in the second half, with England scrum-half Ben Youngs here going between prop Bevan Rodd and hooker van der Merwe, before offloading to number 8 Hanro Liebenberg behind the main defensive line. This particular move almost led to a try for flanker George Martin, but the home side managed to get back and prevent it being scored. However, the fact that Leicester continually pushed to find these spaces highlighted the contrast between their first and second half performances, and showed how they changed the game tactically.
The big difference came when Freddie Steward entered play for Leicester at full-back. He replaced Johnny McPhillips in the second half, with Henry keeping his place at fly-half and dictating play from the centre of the pitch. Steward gave Leicester more threat going forward, and another player capable of covering ground quickly, helping Henry out.
In this image, we see how Steward has a gap ahead of him to run into, and Sale found it hard to stop him when he did run between them. His and Jasper Wiese’s introductions gave Leicester more pace and power in possession, which they had lacked for the majority of the first half. Sale were down to 13 players at this point, which may explain why there was so much space available, but the underlying point is again that Leicester made changes tactically, helping them to cause more problems for their opponents.
This image highlights the partnership that emerged in the second half between Henry and Steward. McPhillips hadn’t offered much going forward in the first half, but this was rectified with Steward’s introduction, as it allowed them to get forward and meet the ball when it was kicked forward, giving Leicester a greater chance of launching attacks from further up the pitch. Leicester looked much more like themselves after half-time, with a better balance throughout the team, and this was why.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis how Sale Sharks had the better start, preventing Leicester Tigers from playing in their preferred attacking way. However, we have also seen how Leicester did have some moments of quality, with Zack Henry undoubtedly their most influential player on the pitch. However, ultimately, their hand was forced in the first half by Sale, and they needed to come up with an alternative way of playing to get into the game. They did manage to do this, but it was their simple mistakes that let them down when they had good opportunities to score, and this is what they need to keep working on.