After a couple of weeks away, the English Premiership returned last weekend, with several interesting clashes taking place. One which particularly caught the eye was the visit of Sale Sharks to the StoneX Stadium, home of newly-promoted but major title contenders Saracens. Given that this was one of the league’s strongest teams against one of last season’s most improved sides, the game on paper looked to be close to call. In practice, however, it wasn’t, as one team was undoubtedly better than the other on the day.
This tactical analysis will look in closer detail at the performances of both sides, focusing on the good and bad of Sale’s performance, as well as the tactics that Saracens used to help them maintain their outstanding league form.
Saracens made eight changes to the team that drew at home to London Irish on 6 November, their last league game, with many of their first-choice players available again. Only influential utility back Alex Lozowski, winger Rotimi Segun, versatile back Alex Goode, England loosehead prop Mako Vunipola, and fellow forwards Nick Isiekwe, Tim Swinson and Jackson Wray were retained in the starting XV, with Goode keeping his place at fly-half in the absence of England captain Owen Farrell. Ethan Lewis, signed permanently over the summer from Cardiff after a loan spell last season, started at hooker, and South Africa tighthead prop Vincent Koch was also in the XV after his return from international duty. England internationals Max Malins and Maro Itoje, number 8 Billy Vunipola, Wales centre Nick Tompkins and scrum-half Aled Davies were the others to come in, with Itoje partnering Swinson in the second row and Isiekwe switching to flanker.
Sale Sharks also made alterations to their starting XV for Director of Rugby Alex Sanderson’s return to the club he coached at between 2008 and 2021. Scrum-half Gus Warr, tighthead prop Coenie Oosthuizen and lock JP du Preez all dropped to the bench, whilst winger Marland Yarde missed out altogether. Into the pack came Nick Schonert, who replaced Oosthuizen in the front row, and South Africa star Lood de Jager, who returned from the Autumn internationals to take his place in the second row. The changes among the backs saw new England international Raffi Quirke reclaim his place at scrum-half, whilst Tom Roebuck started on the wing in Yarde’s absence. Twin brothers Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez were again deployed at lock and number 8 respectively, whilst older brother and fly-half Rob was once again on the bench.
Sale Sharks’ poor play
Sale Sharks were one of 2020/2021’s biggest improvers, impressively sealing a place in the season-ending play-offs before being knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual runners-up Exeter Chiefs. However, they have not kicked on in this campaign, and are now languishing in 10th place in the league (out of 12), with only three wins from nine games.
They didn’t start this game too badly, and played some nice passes to try and find ways of opening Saracens up. This involved some clever movements by individual players, with Raffi Quirke’s pass here finding centre Sam James, who then ran behind the scrum-half to change the direction of play and attempt to expose a gap in the defensive line. Building play through phases was something both teams had to do a lot of in the first half, as clear opportunities to break through were few and far between, so it did prove to be a physical encounter where both teams needed to be patient.
However, the problem for Sale was that Saracens were organised and looked unwilling to let them through. As a result, every attempted break was ended prematurely by the home side, usually with them ripping the ball during rucks. Sale had plenty of possession in the first half, but didn’t find a way of converting that into points, and this was a running theme throughout the game.
Their mistakes were constant too, and quite basic, which will annoy the coaching team. In this game, they were often untidy in possession, and communication between players was also lacking. This image shows a pass from Quirke to Dan du Preez, in the blue circle, but England back rower Tom Curry, who replaced captain and flanker Jono Ross early on, has got in the way and obstructed Saracens from making a tackle, therefore handing the home side an easy penalty and the opportunity to push Sale back towards their own try line.
Saracens, as a result of these errors, didn’t need to force their way into the game, because Sale were proving to be their own undoing. There is no doubt that the first half will not be one that Sale will be proud of, and their lack of points at half-time reflected how poor they had been up to that point.
Sale Sharks’ improvements
They looked a little better in the second half, with a definite improvement in intensity in some situations, but they still made too many errors in possession which continued to hurt them.
This image shows one occasion when they did manage to break through the Saracens line, with Ben Curry, twin brother of Tom, passing to Dan du Preez. The South Africa forward then ran between Mako Vunipola and Tim Swinson, before passing to USA fly-half AJ MacGinty, with this quick passing giving Sale a good opportunity to score a try, as well as making it harder for Saracens to organise themselves as well as they had been doing in the first half.
However, even when they had broken through the line, they still lacked quality on the ball. Once MacGinty was tackled here, Quirke tried to play a quick pass to Scotland winger Byron McGuigan, but Jean-Luc du Preez ran into his view and might have momentarily distracted him, with the ball going behind the winger and not to him. As a result, Sale lost their momentum and had to build again, with Saracens now able to get back and set up between the ball and the try line. Therefore, whilst it was an improvement to see the Sharks moving the ball quicker and breaking through the Saracens line, they still lacked communication, leading to these chances being wasted.
What was noticeable about Sale’s second half play was an increased level of creativity and movement. They never looked like scoring until the hour mark, but little things like Tom Curry dropping back to catch Saracens’ kicks, the inside positioning of Tom Roebuck in this image and the passing options provided by centres James and Rohan Janse van Rensburg on the outside changed this, with the Sharks being a little less predictable.
It was obvious to everyone that they needed to try something different after their flat first 40 minutes, and this particular run and pass from Roebuck came during a set of phases where Sale posed a genuine threat, so changing small details around definitely gave them a chance of getting on the scoreboard. However, this came too late in the game, meaning that the difference was too big for them to make up during the remainder of the match.
As we have mentioned already, Saracens didn’t need to work too hard during this game to have possession. However, they did display the same level of organisation and quality that we have come to expect from them this season, and the fact that the win here took them up to second is a just reward for their good performance.
A lot of the home side’s early play revolved around testing Sale Sharks and trying to find their weak spots, and kicks into the air exposed one of them, with the Sharks continually struggling underneath high balls. Full-back Simon Hammersley was particularly susceptible to dropping catches, so, by continually kicking high and forcing Sale to play where they were weaker, as Aled Davies is doing here, Saracens were able to dictate large parts of the game.
Saracens didn’t just kick forwards though; their tactics also revolved around passing the ball across the pitch with speed, good communication and composure, and this led to them creating some really promising attacking situations and pushing the Sharks backwards. This image comes after a lineout, with Max Malins finding Rotimi Segun. Segun had a quiet game by his standards, given that the majority of play took place in the middle of the field, but he looked dangerous every time he had possession, especially when he had spaces like this ahead of him.
As well as the contrasts in composure and speed, the third difference between the two teams in possession was that Saracens were passing in front of the next player down the line, rather than to or behind them. As a result, each player was able to run onto the ball and keep the momentum flowing, again making it harder for Sale to keep them back. With this in mind, it is not hard to see why Saracens were the better team for most of this game.
The space they had available to them increased after Byron McGuigan’s red card for Sale, with the visitors finding it understandably harder to cover all the gaps around the field. Saracens therefore looked to expose these with clever details in their play, such as Billy Vunipola dummying a pass to draw Sale hooker Akker van der Merwe out of line, before then passing long to another Scotland winger, Sean Maitland, who went over for Saracens’ second try here. The fact that Nick Isiekwe had run a good supporting line ensured that Vunipola had a range of passing options, and this was the first indication that the home side were taking control and turning their dominance into points; something that Sale had so far been unable to do.
The home side continued to show confidence in the second half, using the spaces available to them and getting forwards as often as possible. Alex Goode was at the centre of a lot of their creative play, and his delayed pass here was the start of another attack which ended in a try. Initially, he seemed likely to offload to Nick Tompkins, but instead made the longer pass to Malins, who took the ball whilst running into line.
The full-back’s presence gave Saracens an overload on the outside, again created largely through McGuigan’s absence, and Segun almost managed to reach the Sale try line when given the ball, before being brought down by Roebuck. However, only a few phases later, Goode again linked up with Malins, allowing the latter to add his name to the scoresheet and ensure that the scoreline reflected the home side’s control of the game. When we contrast this with Sale’s inefficiency when near Saracens’ try line, it is not hard to see why the home side won and the visitors didn’t.
In conclusion, this analysis has shown how Sale Sharks’ struggles in this game reflected their season so far, with a lack of energy the biggest concern for Alex Sanderson and his coaches. He will be pleased with their second half response, though, as they looked a little more like themselves when going forwards, displaying a more creative edge, but it was a case of too little, too late for them. Saracens, on the other hand, showed why they are so high in the table and challenging for the title, and their only loss of the season remains the defeat at Welford Road to leaders Leicester Tigers.
Saracens’ next game sees them travel to Sandy Park for a highly-anticipated clash with Exeter Chiefs, their main title rivals from previous seasons. Sale Sharks, meanwhile, have next week off, and will return to Premiership action on Boxing Day, after the European rugby break, when they travel to Kingston Park to face Newcastle Falcons.