The 2021/2022 English Premiership season has finally reached the latter stages, with only the best four teams from the campaign still left with a chance of lifting the trophy at the weekend. Both play-off matches were also fierce derbies, with the East Midlands rivalry between Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints taking centre stage on Saturday afternoon. However, before the two locked horns at Mattioli Woods Welford Road, Saracens entertained fellow London side Harlequins at the StoneX Stadium, with this a meeting between last year’s defending champions and the side who were promoted from the Championship.
As this tactical analysis will show, both teams had a chance of winning the game, and what cost Harlequins was that they made costly errors in attack and defence that let the hosts build scoreboard pressure. As well as their mistakes, the analysis will also highlight the positives that they can take from the game and how Saracens’ quick play was essential to their recovery after a slow start.
Saracens had rested the majority of their players for last weekend’s final regular round match against Gloucester, with only experienced lock Tim Swinson and England back Max Malins retained from the team that lost at Kingsholm. As a result, props Mako Vunipola and Vincent Koch, hooker Jamie George, second row Maro Itoje, England captain Owen Farrell and full-back Alex Goode were among those to come back in after a week off, whilst recently-crowned Premiership Player of the Season Ben Earl joined Theo McFarland and Billy Vunipola in what has become a settled back row trio for Mark McCall’s side. South Africa tighthead Koch was playing his final match at the StoneX before joining Wasps, whilst Swinson is widely reported to be considering retirement at the end of the season.
Harlequins, on the other hand, had not rested their first-choice players, with most featuring in last weekend’s defeat at Exeter Chiefs. However, there were a couple not included, with versatile back Aaron Morris missing the trip to his former club after being replaced in the first half at Sandy Park, whilst fellow winger Louis Lynagh, son of former Australia fly-half Michael, was also ruled out with an injury. As a result, South African Tyrone Green switched to the wing with Scotland international Huw Jones included at full-back, whilst Cadan Murley started in place of Morris on the other side of the back three. Jones (Glasgow Warriors), locks Hugh Tizard (Saracens) and Matt Symons and hooker Joe Gray (both retiring, the latter was named on the bench) are all leaving the club at the end of the season and were hoping that this wouldn’t be their final time in a Harlequins shirt.
Saracens’ quick play
With Saracens coming out on top in this encounter, their performance is a good place to begin, and it was clear early on that a lot of their tactical play relied on quick movement and an alertness to potential opportunities to attack.
One player central to that mentality was Owen Farrell, with the fly-half continually dictating phases of play and helping his team to move the ball around the pitch. Here, the England captain has possession after a successful counter-ruck and subsequent penalty tap-and-go by Maro Itoje, and his presence in these areas of the pitch has been really important for Saracens in recent months. Here, he receives the ball from Welsh scrum-half Aled Davies and instantly moves it across his body whilst staying still, which generates ball speed and helps Saracens to keep their momentum going.
His pass to Alex Goode also demonstrates his awareness, because he has seen the space outside the Harlequins defensive line that either Goode or fellow England international Elliott Daly can attack before numbers can get across to close it down. In the end, Daly was tackled well by Huw Jones, but the intent was clear to see and Harlequins had to continually work hard to keep their opponents at bay.
Another key threat was Ben Earl, with the flanker causing all kinds of problems for Harlequins both in attack and defence. In this situation, he is a good distance back from the Harlequins line, which allows him to receive the ball and then run forwards whilst building speed, helping him to break through the line and score his first try of the match, with both visiting loosehead Joe Marler and flanker Will Evans unable to get a hold of him on the way through.
Like Farrell in the previous image, it came down to individual brilliance but also players identifying space and targeting it, and that was key in Saracens establishing themselves in the game after a difficult start.
When defending, it was noticeable that Saracens continually looked to team up and dominate collisions, with Harlequins unable to find an avenue through which they could reach for the try line whenever they did get forward. In this case, South Africa centre Andre Esterhuizen is being pushed backwards by Malins and Wales centre Nick Tompkins, and the fact that Esterhuizen is one of the Premiership’s most powerful ball-carriers shows how good Saracens’ defensive play was.
However, it was the fact that they constantly got across the field to stop gaps opening up that led to Harlequins’ struggles in their 22, with director of rugby Mark McCall highlighting his side’s “resolve, resilience and fight” in his post-match comments.
Despite ending up on the losing side, there were a good number of positives in Harlequins’ performance that they can look back on with pride, even though their hopes of defending last season’s title were ended here by their bitter rivals.
They had a good defensive mindset in the first half, constantly making life difficult for Saracens as the hosts looked to find a way back into the game after conceding two early tries. Here, there are few gaps in Harlequins’ defensive line, meaning that Saracens couldn’t launch an attack through the middle and instead had to keep moving the ball up or down the pitch in order to find space.
However, because Harlequins knew that that was what would happen, they could focus on targeting individual players whenever they received the ball, with flanker Theo McFarland receiving a pass from Davies here and instantly being closed down, before Earl eventually had possession and was also targeted, this time by England international Danny Care.
The scrum-half was outside the main defensive effort here, but knew that he could make a run forward because the ball would be travelling in that direction. As a result, he could time his run well to ensure that he didn’t concede a penalty, although Harlequins’ good work was later let down by England number 8 Alex Dombrandt breaching the offside line whilst trying to collect a loose ball.
Whether this was part of their tactics or not, it was a good example of Harlequins’ strong play and ability to anticipate and, at times, dictate where Saracens would transfer the ball to, and this was one reason that the hosts took a while to really establish themselves in the match.
Harlequins also had some positives in the second half, despite being second best for large parts of it. Here, they have a numerical advantage, with Saracens down to 13 players, which means that they can attack these areas with a better chance of successfully exploiting them than before.
This eventual try from Cadan Murley did originate through clever play from England fly-half Marcus Smith, who held onto the ball for a fraction of a second longer than he might normally have done here, which forced Davies to focus on him and not the other players outside him. The knock-on effect of that was that Malins was forced to hold his position rather than drifting across, as that would have given Smith a gap in which he might have tried to score through.
Therefore, when Smith passes to Tyrone Green outside him, the former Lions player only has Goode in his way. By running at the full-back and Goode subsequently losing his footing, all of the Saracens defenders are taken out of the game and Murley has a clear route through to score. It looked a simple try, but it was only possible because the visitors identified the space left open by Saracens’ missing players and worked together to exploit it.
This was something they had been doing a lot throughout the game, but they had not been able to make the final pass or drive count, so it was a reminder of how dangerous they are when at their full capability.
However, despite those positive moments, what let Harlequins down were individual or team mistakes. These came mostly in the second half, meaning that a lot of the good work in the first 40 minutes was undone, and senior coach Tabai Matson would have no doubt been frustrated at some of what he saw.
Perhaps the biggest example of their errors came less than thirty seconds into the second half, with Saracens on the front foot and looking to take control early on. Care is once again on the outside of the defensive line, having come around the back of his teammates to fill the gap, but he goes too far forward on this occasion and leaves a gap open for Saracens to exploit, allowing Goode to run between him and Murley and set up Earl to score his second of the match in a very simple manner.
At this stage, Harlequins were down to 14 players, with hooker Jack Walker in the sin bin, and that will not have helped. However, Saracens proved late on that they could defend well with a numerical disadvantage, so this situation came down to poor individual play and not bad luck, and it ensured that any chance of the visitors scoring first and re-establishing their lead had vanished.
The visitors also had problems when attacking up the pitch, with a lack of intensity and anticipation in this situation allowing Saracens to regain the ball and launch their own offensive move. Smith has kicked up the field to give his teammates something to chase, and what should have happened is that either a Harlequins player caught the ball or a Saracens player did and was then put under instant pressure.
However, only Esterhuizen and Green made any effort to get underneath the kick, and both were too late. As a result, McFarland had time to gather the ball and move it out towards the wing before progressing into Harlequins’ half. Therefore, again, mistakes were costing them and lessening their chances of getting back into the game.
When going through phases of play, Harlequins also seemed to lack communication at times, with Smith once again trying to set up an attack here and being let down by his teammates. This time, there is space available around the side of the Saracens defensive line, but Green and replacement centre Luke Northmore both run forward too early and Smith’s pass goes loose behind them, forcing Green to get back in order to gather it and being tackled by Scotland winger Sean Maitland.
Ultimately, a tackle by Daly on Smith led to the former’s yellow card and spared Harlequins’ blushes, but these were the moments where they made life difficult for themselves and where they know that they could have done better.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the first of the two English Premiership play-off semi-finals for 2021/2022, finding the reasons why Saracens progressed to the final and Harlequins fell short. The home side will be pleased with the way that they dug in and got themselves back into the match after a mediocre start, but will also know that next week’s final at Twickenham against Leicester will be very different and they will need to have a better start to have any hope of lifting the trophy.
Meanwhile, Harlequins will be disappointed with elements of their game, not only the mistakes already highlighted but also their lineouts, which were stolen more often than not, and the fact that they showed little desire to make territorial gains and instead tried to win penalties on the ground. This is not the way that they would have wanted their strong campaign to end, but they now have a chance to reset and reflect on the positives and be ready to challenge again next season.