It is safe to say that the 2021/2022 English Premiership season has so far given us plenty of drama, with two of the pre-season title favourites, Bristol Bears and Exeter Chiefs, initially languishing near the foot of the table, whilst Leicester Tigers have four wins from four and are top after this weekend. However, one team who have made a better start than most were expecting are Newcastle Falcons, who had won two and lost one before this weekend. The trip to the StoneX Stadium, home of newly-promoted Saracens, was always going to be a test for them though. As this tactical analysis will show, both sides had different approaches to the game, with Newcastle needing to force a way through the Saracens defence, whilst the hosts lacked quality in the first half but came back to win an entertaining match.
Saracens made four changes to the side that was defeated at Leicester last weekend, with Wales centre Nick Tompkins moving to the bench, whilst winger Rotimi Segun, loosehead prop Ralph Adams-Hale and flanker Jackson Wray missed out altogether. In came Dom Morris and Callum Hunter-Hill, who started at centre and lock respectively, whilst Nick Isiekwe, who was on loan at Northampton Saints last season, switched to the back row to cover for Wray’s absence. Scotland winger Sean Maitland and England prop Mako Vunipola also returned to the starting XV, whilst England captain Owen Farrell and Welsh scrum-half Aled Davies continued their half-back partnership.
Newcastle Falcons, meanwhile, made five changes to the team that gained a home win against Wasps last Saturday. Full-back Tom Penny was suspended after picking up a red card in that game, so ex-Harlequins and England international Mike Brown made his first start for the team. Elsewhere, academy fly-half Will Haydon-Wood moved to the bench, and tighthead prop Mark Tampin, South African second row Philip van der Walt and experienced back rower Carl Fearns were all given the weekend off. Trevor Davison came in as the starting tighthead prop, Sean Robinson partnered Italy international Marco Fuser in the second row, and Scotland star Gary Graham returned at flanker, with Callum Chick moving to number 8.
Saracens’ good and bad play
Saracens began the game poorly, with their overall performance lacking quality, and it was not hard to see why Newcastle Falcons were faster in thought and had such a big lead at half-time.
Here, England number 8 Billy Vunipola is attempting to break through the Newcastle players, but without support from his teammates. As a result, Newcastle swarm around him and make it difficult to run forwards or release the ball, with Falcons’ fly-half Brett Connon eventually stripping it and allowing centre Ben Stevenson to score the visitors’ second try, with Stevenson running through Dom Morris in order to do so.
There are a couple of points to make here. Firstly, as mentioned, Vunipola needed support, as he never had a chance of breaking out with this many Newcastle players focused on him, even with his natural strength. This comes down to a lack of cohesion in the home ranks, with players not awake to what is going on around them, and this lack of communication was a noticeable feature of their first half performance. Secondly, the missed tackle by Morris on Stevenson highlighted their poor individual quality, and showed again how they needed to improve in all aspects of the game to match Newcastle.
This is another example of Saracens’ lack of quality in key moments. This time, the home side are looking to break through Newcastle’s line and access the space behind it. Owen Farrell is passing to winger Alex Lewington, in the yellow circle, but the next offload goes loose, allowing Newcastle to regather the ball in a very easy manner. They were playing a penalty advantage for Saracens, so this never led to anything for the Falcons, but it was another instance of the home side struggling to establish themselves in the game.
There were some good moments for the hosts, though, as they looked to use the open wings to get around their opponents when possible, as is one of their main tactics.
This is where they carry a major threat, but Newcastle were asleep to this, and have drifted inside the pitch here. Lewington and Sean Maitland are both try-scorers, as has been proven on the domestic and international stages, and this image shows the first time they combined with each other to get behind the defence. Whilst Newcastle got back to stop the attack on this occasion, this was the first sign that Saracens were settling into the match, and another break a few phases later almost led to lock Tim Swinson scoring a try. Newcastle were beginning to show a few cracks, and small positives like this gave Saracens the spark they needed to increase their control of the game.
As a result, they created more opportunities to break through Newcastle’s players, with this run from Callum Hunter-Hill coming after Max Malins’ outstanding advance from full-back, which had forced Newcastle into a retreat and got the ball into the midfield. Whilst both Malins and Hunter-Hill were brought down by individual Falcons players, the gains they made again encouraged Saracens to persevere with their newfound attacking confidence. They still made errors at times, but they undoubtedly had a better second half, and this confidence boost was a key factor in their win.
Newcastle Falcons’ problems
Newcastle Falcons would have been delighted with the way the opening stages of the game went, and their half-time lead was well-deserved. However, they did still face some issues around the pitch, which made it harder than it might have been for them.
Neither side looked capable of breaking the other down in the early stages, with Newcastle generally resorting to colliding with the Saracens defensive line to test their strength and resolve. Saracens were at this stage down to 14 players, with Maitland in the sin bin for making head contact in a tackle, so Newcastle were happy to move the ball around and push the home side back as much as they could.
However, the downside of this was that the chance of them giving the ball away through a mistake on the ground increased, and an illegal clearout was made here only a few phases later. Therefore, whilst Newcastle were in control of the game, giving the ball away cheaply was one issue that they had to deal with.
In the second half, Saracens created more problems for them, as we have already mentioned, and Newcastle had to rely on their defence much more as a result. However, whilst their shape was organised, they conceded a lot of penalties, allowing Saracens to continually force them back towards their own try line. On this occasion, Newcastle regained possession when replacement prop Kyle Cooper scrapped for the ball on the ground, but a high tackle meant that his excellent individual effort was wasted, and Newcastle at this stage couldn’t afford these errors. Therefore, whilst they fought bravely, the Falcons increasingly caused problems for themselves as the game went on, which meant that Saracens’ comeback victory was inevitable.
Another issue was that star winger Adam Radwan, who many are tipping for an England appearance in the near future, was unable to get into the game and make his usual quick breaks through the opposing line. This image shows how Saracens have formed a diagonal defensive structure which stretches out towards Radwan, forcing him to offload the ball to centre Pete Lucock instead. However, Lucock takes the ball into touch, again handing Saracens possession through a poor mistake.
It is significant to add that this was the first time we saw Radwan make any kind of impact on the game, which highlights how Newcastle were unable to play their usual style of rugby. The Falcons were definitely feeling the pressure at this stage, with their mistakes the evidence of this, and we see again how they had problems throughout the game.
Mike Brown’s impact
One positive for Newcastle Falcons was the performance of Mike Brown. He will be a crucial player at Kingston Park this season, with his experience helping them in both defensive and attacking situations.
The former England international has an on-field awareness that not many others have, and this image shows his opening try for Newcastle. Saracens’ Mako Vunipola is drifting away from Italy tighthead Marco Riccioni here, which has left the space open for Brown to run into at pace and score in an easy fashion. Being an attacking full-back, Brown is the type of player who punishes individual errors like this, and it was his presence that contributed to Newcastle’s early confidence. Therefore, his addition to the squad gives them an added threat which they will benefit from, and means that the two-game ban for Tom Penny, who was the regular Falcons full-back last season, will not be felt as badly.
In defence, Brown is calm under pressure, controlling his team’s half of the field. Here, the ball has been kicked high into the air by Saracens, with winger Nathan Earle, another former Harlequin, looking to get underneath it. However, Brown instead moves to catch it, with this defensive leadership another thing that the Falcons will benefit from. Once he has the ball, his vision comes into play, and it was obvious throughout the game that he was continuously communicating with those around him, organising the defence and telling them where to go and how to keep Saracens back. Therefore, again, we see what he will bring to the team this season.
In conclusion, this analysis has shown that both Saracens and Newcastle Falcons had good and bad moments in the game. However, it was Saracens who came out on top, which was likely a result of their being behind at half-time, meaning they needed to play much better in the second half after their dismal start, whereas Newcastle Falcons needed to maintain their level of play, which was a harder ask. They have still made a really promising start to the season, which needs to be remembered, and, if they play the way they did in the first half of this game, then they are capable of securing a Champions Cup place for next season.
Saracens’ next game sees them travel to the Rec on Sunday, where they will face a Bath side who have lost all four games this season, but who will still be tough to beat. Newcastle, meanwhile, are back at home, hosting a Bristol side who are showing signs of stirring at last.