Last season’s play-off semi-finalists Sale Sharks edged Bath by a single point on the opening weekend of the new English Premiership season, but faced a tricky trip to the Brentford Community Stadium on Sunday, with London Irish comfortably beaten by Worcester Warriors in their opening game and looking to ignite their season. Both sides had periods of domination in the game, and both will have areas that they will want to improve on, as this tactical analysis will show. The analysis will focus specifically on Sale’s tactics, both in attack and defence, as well as London Irish’s poor first half play and vast improvement after the break.
London Irish made just one change to the XV that lost at Sixways Stadium, with new signing Bernhard Janse van Rensburg moving to the bench, allowing Terrence Hepetema to partner Curtis Rona at centre. Kyle Rowe kept his place on the wing, whilst Ben Donnell again started at flanker, alongside captain Matt Rogerson. Another of the Exiles’ new signings, South African former Edinburgh hooker Mike Willemse, was named on the bench, and former Leinster and Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien also returned to the matchday squad.
Sale Sharks were forced into making changes for this game, with injuries to hooker Akker van der Merwe and flanker Cameron Neild necessitating the promotions of Tommy Taylor, who re-signed this summer from Wasps, and back rower Sam Dugdale to the starting pack. Last week’s half-back pairing of Raffi Quirke, who was also injured, and Rob du Preez was also changed, with Will Cliff and USA international AJ MacGinty coming in at scrum-half and fly-half respectively, whilst Jono Ross skippered the side from number 8. The bench was also different, with hookers Curtis Langdon and Ewan Ashman, tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen, scrum-half Gus Warr and winger Denny Solomona all returning as replacements.
Sale Sharks’ tactics
Sale Sharks played with a high intensity in the opening stages, taking early control of proceedings. They looked inventive and were happy to play forwards, and this confidence is something Alex Sanderson has implemented since his appointment as the Sharks’ Director of Rugby back in January.
What was evident was Sale’s desire to play quick rugby, passing the ball across shorter distances and not risking any interception attempts by their opponents. In doing so, they kept momentum on their side, which was an important factor in their dominance. London Irish continually left spaces open for them to exploit, as is the case here, and we can see how Tommy Taylor, Jono Ross and flanker Sam Dugdale are all in close proximity to each other, helping to move the ball out to Dugdale, on the outside, before the home players can make a tackle attempt. The ball was eventually kicked through the gap for Sale to chase down, and, whilst this didn’t lead to anything, as home fly-half Paddy Jackson caught and cleared the ball, the intent was there.
The other key tactic in Sale’s first half play was the two wingers coming inside when the team was attacking. Here, Marland Yarde has carried the ball inside and is looking for a gap to break through and score. We know the former Harlequins player is a quick runner, and London Irish’s defence was not strong enough in these instances, meaning Yarde went through too easily to score the Sharks’ second try of the game. However, as we had already noticed that Scotland’s Byron McGuigan was cutting inside in the same way, it was obvious that this was something Sale had been working on before the game, getting their quicker players into the middle and exposing gaps with more success. This was one of the reasons why the Sharks dominated play in the first half.
They had to rely more on their well-drilled defence after the break, though, as London Irish were pushing forward with more vigour and asked more questions. As the blue line shows, Sale had players in every area of the field, ensuring that they could repel any attempt by their hosts to break through. Denny Solomona, who had come on at full-back, was behind the main defensive line, giving the Sharks layers and ensuring they had a player who could see the whole picture, moving around to fill gaps as needed. This particular push from the Exiles eventually led to a penalty for Sale, so it shows how strong and organised their defence was, and how this was key to them staying in the game amid the home side’s advances in the second half.
London Irish’s first half problems
London Irish needed a reaction after their opening weekend loss, but didn’t begin this game at all well, with Director of Rugby Declan Kidney’s frustration obvious. Most of their poor play came down to individual mistakes, as this section will show.
In this image, Sale Sharks fly-half AJ MacGinty has kicked over the top of the Exiles line, looking to find the space behind, indicated by the blue square, and McGuigan has come inside to help out. He makes the run through to meet the ball, and is helped by London Irish opening up the space for him to go through, with both captain Matt Rogerson and Paddy Jackson concentrating on the ball and not on their positioning. As a result, both drifted away from each other, giving McGuigan a free route to the ball.
London Irish on this occasion were helped by the bounce, which was not kind to McGuigan, but they had lost a lot of ground by allowing Sale to play through them so easily. However, another gap only a few phases later rewarded the Sharks, as former Leicester Tigers centre Manu Tuilagi broke through and MacGinty grounded the ball under the posts, whilst their other centre, Sam James, scored their third try from another line break.
When in possession, the home side lacked quality, with this pass being dropped under no pressure highlighting that. Prop Will Goodrick-Clarke is offloading to Terrence Hepetema, in the yellow circle, but the loss of concentration gave Sale the put-in at the resulting scrum. London Irish had not had much to do in the first half, and that seemed to rattle them, as they lacked rhythm in the first half. As was noted during the game, they needed to have possession and put some phases together to find their confidence, but moments like this prevented that happening.
When trying to carry the ball out from the back, they lacked the strength necessary to break through Sale’s line, and we have already seen how the Sharks’ defensive play was a strong feature in their game. Here, Fiji number 8 Albert Tuisue has the ball, with four Sharks players closing him down and limiting his options. However, Tuisue is a powerful player, capable of forcing his way through defensive lines, so we expected him to break through here, but he instead went to ground too easily and gave away a penalty for not releasing the ball. It was moments like this that demonstrated how London Irish were the source of their own problems, and needed to be better in all areas in the second half to take anything from the game.
Despite what we have looked at, there were positives for the Exiles, as they did have two tries on the board at half-time, and this image shows the build-up to their second. Argentina hooker Agustin Creevy, in the green circle, has taken an extra step before offloading the ball, which has forced the Sale players to commit to tackling him. However, by doing so, they have left a gap for lock Rob Simmons to run through, with scrum-half Ben White, who joined from Leicester this summer, running a good support line, as the red arrow shows. Whilst White doesn’t manage to reach the try-line, Creevy comes in to finish off the move that he started. It comes down to little details here and there, but these moments of positive attacking play gave the home side something to build on in the second half.
London Irish’s second half improvements
As was perhaps expected, London Irish’s reaction in the second half was excellent, and they looked more like a team capable of competing against Sale Sharks.
The biggest improvement was in their overall physicality. Sean O’Brien was introduced early in the second period, replacing Ben Donnell, who hadn’t offered much in the first half, and the former Ireland international instantly began to find gaps and get the Exiles playing forwards, which kept Sale pinned back. His experience and leadership also gave the home side a focal point, and he was involved in a lot of their good play. If we remember how, in the first half, they lacked the strength to break through Sale’s defensive press, then this was the exact opposite, showing the positive impact that O’Brien had on their attitude and performance.
In attack, the Exiles were more creative, pulling Sale around and using the width to force gaps to open in their defensive line. Curtis Rona is running across winger Kyle Rowe here, before offloading to allow him to cut back inside, as the yellow arrow indicates. Whilst Rowe fumbled the ball here, ending the move, the intent was there, and this again highlighted the increased pace and urgency in their play. They still needed more individual quality to make these chances count, as this could very easily have led to a try, but the fact that these opportunities were more frequent is the key point.
On this occasion, London Irish did take their opportunity, with Jackson, in the green circle, passing out to O’Brien, who then set up Rona to score the try. Again, the length of Jackson’s pass indicates the increased pace and width that London Irish played with in the second half, and the fact that this came after several phases of pushing against the Sale defence shows their increased confidence too.
They were also thinking ahead much more, with Rona moving out to the wing before O’Brien received the ball, anticipating the play and ensuring that there was a passing option ready for the flanker when he needed it. This was again in contrast to the first half, when they lacked quality and weren’t working together as much, so this is the style of rugby they need to play with from the start of games, which would give them a better chance of winning matches and not just coming back to draw them.
It wasn’t only in attack where they were better. This image shows their increased teamwork ethic when out of possession, with players working together to repel each of the Sharks’ advances. Here, Sale lock JP du Preez is being forced back by Rogerson and replacement hooker Mike Willemse, and this came moments after O’Brien and Jackson had teamed up to end another attempt by Sale to break through. The gaps left open in the first half had been closed off, and the Sharks were unable to find a way through as a result. The visitors didn’t score a single point in the second half, which is testament to how hard London Irish worked in all areas of their performance.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has shown how both sides had moments of domination in this game of two halves , but London Irish would have been happier with the result. Sale Sharks admitted afterwards that it felt like a loss, which is understandable, but the Exiles deserve credit for the way they got back into the game, and their improvements prove that they can compete in this league. There were several factors for their comeback, ranging from tactical changes, substitutions and increased individual quality, but the main thing was their newfound confidence in the second half, knowing that they could compete with a Sale side who finished in the top four last season.
London Irish’s next game sees them travel to Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, where they will face another tough match against a so-far unbeaten Northampton Saints side. Sale Sharks, meanwhile, are back at home, where they will host an Exeter Chiefs team at the AJ Bell who have lost both league matches so far.