The English Premiership is approaching the end of its regular season, and every game is crucial for at least one team involved, with play-off places and Champions Cup places still to be decided. This game saw Sale Sharks, who are hoping to seal a place in the top four, travel to Wasps, who were beaten finalists last season, but whose hopes of getting into the play-offs are all but over for this season, in what proved to be quite a cagey game. This tactical analysis will look at Sale’s attacking tactics, as well as the positives and negatives of Wasps’ attack and defence, seeing why they found it hard to keep Sale out in this match.
Wasps Sale Sharks
15. M. Minozzi 15. L. James
14. Z. Kibirige 14. B. McGuigan
13. M. Fekitoa 13. S. James
12. M. Le Bourgeois 12. R. J. van Rensburg
11. J. Bassett 11. M. Yarde
10. J. Gopperth 10. R. du Preez
9. D. Robson 9. R. Quirke
- B. Harris 1. B. Rodd
- T. Taylor 2. A. van der Merwe
- K. Brookes 3. C. Oosthuizen
- J. Launchbury (c) 4. J.Beaumont (c)
- W. Rowlands 5. C. Wiese
- B. Shields 6. J. L. du Preez
- T. Young 7. C. Neild
- A. Barbeary 8. D. du Preez
Sale Sharks’ attack
We will first look at Sale Sharks’ attack. Both sides were struggling to break each other down in the first half, leading to a low-scoring 40 minutes, and both therefore had to think more creatively to try and find a way through each other’s defence.
Here, we see how Sale full-back Luke James has the ball, seeking a route through the Wasps defence. However, because Wasps were defending well and crowding the midfield, there is no way through. James therefore kicks over the top, before making a run through the defence to meet the ball on the other side, but can’t reach it in time. This shows one way that Sale looked to mix up their attacking approach, finding different ways to get into the space behind, and this ability to analyse situations and act accordingly is one reason why they are currently sitting in the play-off positions.
Ultimately, this image highlights the overall point being made, which is that both sides were giving the other no space to attack into.
However, as the game went on, Sale began to find a few more spaces in the Wasps defence. Here, fly-half Rob du Preez, in the blue circle, is charging into a gap ahead of him, as the blue arrow shows. The support from South African centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg, in the yellow circle, ensures that, when du Preez runs out of space, the attack can continue. A clever short offload from the fly-half also helps with this, and, even though nothing came of this, Sale were showing the power they had at the back.
This was only one example of this, but Sale constantly probed Wasps’ defence, with the likes of hooker Akker van der Merwe constantly looking to win ground, getting them closer to the Wasps try line with every charge forward. Wasps continually left gaps to allow them to play this way, and it was a clear warning that Sale would punish their defensive errors.
The theme of Wasps leaving gaps in defence was a constant throughout the match, and meant that Sale Sharks always had opportunities to get behind them when in possession.
Here, we see how Luke James, who was a thorn in Wasps’ side for the majority of the game, has a gap in front of him, between Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson and prop Kieran Brookes. As mentioned, Sale, and James in particular, were looking to be creative with the way they were attacking. We have already seen how they kicked over the top on one occasion, but forward attacking sprints like these also forced Wasps back. Again, it doesn’t come to anything, which reflects how neither side was allowing the other to make clear breakthrough runs, even with gaps available. It also shows how Wasps were giving Sale chances to get behind them, and needed to be more aware and close these spaces off more.
Wasps would no doubt have mentioned this at half-time, but they were still leaving too much space in the second half too. Here, we see how Sale number 8 Dan du Preez is able to run through the Wasps defence and create another opportunity for his team to score. His pass to winger Byron McGuigan shortly after was timed well too, as it allowed the Scotland winger to kick forwards and test the Wasps back line in catching the ball cleanly under pressure.
What was particularly notable was that Sale only had 13 players at this point, and so this type of attacking play was particularly brave from them, and it is this that has seen them currently occupy a comfortable place inside the Premiership’s top four. Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson deserves huge credit for instilling this mentality in the team, because it has definitely made them harder to beat.
From Wasps’ point of view, they needed to use their numerical advantage to attack Sale and find the gaps that would now appear in their defence, but open space like this meant that Sale constantly pushed them backwards, preventing Wasps launching any meaningful attacks of their own, and that is why it is such an important thing in the context of this match.
It wasn’t just small gaps that Wasps were leaving either. Here, Sale winger Marland Yarde has claimed the ball after it hit the ground in front of him. This came from a miscommunication from Wasps winger Josh Bassett, with his pass along the line too strong for one opponent and too weak for another, bouncing in between them as a result. Therefore, Wasps have looked to build an attack, but have given the ball away to Sale instead, allowing Yarde to unleash the pace we know he has and force Wasps back again.
Although this again didn’t come to anything, as Wasps’ other winger Zach Kibirige got back to tackle him well, it was yet another warning sign for them that Sale would look to punish their positional and handling errors. Given they had 15 players on the pitch for the majority of the game, it wasn’t a good defensive performance from them. Being tighter at the back is something they need to improve on to regain a play-off place, because their leaky defence was the main reason for their problems over the last few seasons, leading to former Director of Rugby Dai Young’s departure partway through last season.
In attack, Wasps also made mistakes that let Sale Sharks off when the away side were on the back foot.
Here, in the second half, we see how Wasps are looking to launch a counter-attack. Fly-half Jimmy Gopperth has the ball, having received the pass from Dan Robson. Gopperth uses his experience to see what his options are, and, as the red arrow shows, he looks to move it out to the wing for Josh Bassett to catch and run forward with. However, the cross-field kick is too hard, and goes over Bassett and out of play. Whilst this does show how Wasps were trying different things to get into the game, it also highlights how they were lacking quality in all areas, and were unable to make their chances count.
Another key characteristic of Wasps’ attacking play was a lack of good decision-making at times. This image shows one example of this, and how it prevented them making the most of good situations. Replacement back row forward Sione Vailagu, in the red circle, has the ball, but the Tonga international needs to make the pass out to Bassett, in the outside yellow circle here. This, as we can see, would give Bassett an opportunity to get behind Sale before the gap is closed off, potentially leading to a try. However, Vailagu charges into the Sale defence instead, before offloading poorly to centre Malakai Fekitoa, who is in the other yellow circle here. Fekitoa has to run backwards to control the ball, thereby allowing Sale to come forwards and press him, ending the opportunity.
Therefore, we can see how this 3-v-2 in Wasps’ favour, which could have led to them scoring some much-needed points at this stage of the game, was an opportunity missed. This was not the first time that poor decision-making happened, and, when we consider the final score of 20-19 to Wasps, we can see how it was moments like these that cost them.
This image shows another situation where they failed to use the space available when it was there for them. This time, centre Michael Le Bourgeois, in the red circle, is trying to collect a pass from Robson, with open space ahead, but doesn’t manage to control the ball. Admittedly, a deliberate knock-on from Sale substitute fly-half AJ MacGinty just took it out of Le Bourgeois’ path, but it still supports the wider point made in this section about the home side lacking quality in attack. This was why Sale ended up as winners, and why Wasps are struggling for consistency, near the bottom of the table at the moment.
However, it wasn’t that Wasps had no opportunities to attack and score. This image shows how they got their first half try, drawing level following Akker van der Merwe’s opening score for Sale. Here, Gopperth is looking to find Bassett on the far side wing, playing the long pass out to him. Bassett again has support from Fekitoa, which creates a 2-v-1 situation against Luke James, who is out of picture at the moment. Bassett draws James in, before releasing Fekitoa to run over the line and score the try. This is in contrast to the earlier example of Vailagu, who didn’t make this pass, and so wasted the opportunity. Therefore, from Wasps’ point of view, when they play well, they always pose a threat, particularly when their quick backs get forward to join the attack. This is something they can build on in the remainder of the season.
In conclusion, we have seen in this analysis how both sides had positives and negatives in their performance. However, given Sale Sharks claimed a very late try to win the game, they will be the happier of the two. Wasps will be pleased with elements of their performance, such as Malakai Fekitoa’s first half try, but will know that they need to play this way more consistently now. If they can do this, as well as being more compact in defence, it will help them to regain their form from last season, and to mount more of a top four challenge next season.