The 2021/2022 English Premiership season reached its penultimate round of regular fixtures this weekend, but there is plenty that needs to be decided before the campaign comes to an end. At the top of the table, there are playoff positions still to be secured, whilst the fight for the top eight and a place in next season’s Champions Cup is becoming more intense as each week goes by.
This tactical analysis will focus on two of the sides currently fighting to qualify for European rugby’s premier competition, with Sale Sharks travelling to the Coventry Building Society Arena on Friday night to face Wasps, knowing that a win would take them at least temporarily into the top six. This analysis will look at their tactics during the match, as well as their second half problems which meant that the win was unconvincing. The article will also focus on Wasps’ defensive play during the match, highlighting how it was key to them staying in it and arguably being the better side overall.
Wasps made just one change from their narrow Challenge Cup defeat in Lyon last weekend, with fly-half Jacob Umaga left out after starting at full-back in that game. He missed out on the squad altogether, with Ali Crossdale making a welcome return to play for the first time in four months. The former Saracens back has not been able to play as many games as he would have perhaps wanted to this season, due to injury, but is a tricky opponent when fit. Otherwise, head coach Lee Blackett opted to name the same XV and not cause too much disruption in his squad. Joe Launchbury once again led the team from the second row, whilst the midfield pairing of Jimmy Gopperth and Malakai Fekitoa were making their final home appearances for the club before moving to Leicester Tigers and Munster respectively.
Sale Sharks also made just a handful of alterations to their XV, having lost their previous match at Racing 92 a couple of weeks ago in the Champions Cup quarter-finals. Sam James, normally a centre, was named at full-back for this game in the absence of his brother Luke, whilst Arron Reed returned from a two-match suspension to start on the wing and partner Manu Tuilagi, Rob du Preez and Tom Roebuck in the back line. Versatile back Simon Hammersley was the one who made way, with the former Newcastle Falcons player dropping to the bench.
Wasps’ defensive play
Wasps may have lost this game, but there is an argument to say that they were the better team in this encounter, constantly frustrating Sale Sharks and looking to make it as difficult as possible for the visitors to go above them in the Premiership table. One key component of that was their defensive display when out of possession, as will be shown in this section of the analysis.
It was not an especially pretty game to watch, with a lot of play in tight spaces and players needing to be committed to tackles to limit territorial gains whilst also keeping their discipline to prevent needless penalties from being conceded. This didn’t seem to bother Wasps though, as they had the perfect player for these situations in England flanker Jack Willis, who constantly used his strength to make tackles and win turnovers for his team.
Here, he has supported fellow England back rower Alfie Barbeary’s attempt to drive forwards and push Sale back, but what is particularly notable here is that his involvement has prevented another England international, Tom Curry, from getting his hands on the ball. It is common knowledge that Curry is one of the most effective players in his position when the ball is on the ground or in situations such as this, but Willis was preventing the flanker from playing to his strengths, and it was little moments like this that helped the home side to keep the ball and led to the visitors’ frustration becoming more and more prominent.
The home side’s strong defensive display continued in the second half, with winger Josh Bassett forcing Arron Reed to lose the ball here by wrapping his arms around it and preventing an offload being made to hooker Akker van der Merwe.
This committed defending was particularly important here because Malakai Fekitoa had run out of line to try and tackle Tom Roebuck, leaving the space open for the Sale winger to run around him and into the vacated space. As a result, Sale could create a try-scoring opportunity, with van der Merwe setting up Reed here and opening up a potential 2-v-1 situation. However, Reed opted not to pass back to the South African and instead took the chance on himself, with this tackle by Bassett being the result. Therefore, again, Wasps’ defensive strength was critical to their ability to stay in the game and prevent Sale from scoring more than 16 points.
When in open play, it was evident that Wasps were anticipating the Sharks’ threats and finding ways to deal with them. Ali Crossdale had come out to try and gather a high kick from Sale scrum-half Faf de Klerk just before this, but had lost the ball and given the away side an opportunity to launch an attack in the space that had opened up. Rather than standing still, Crossdale ran across the pitch and ended up putting the ball out of play here with his foot, ending Reed’s hopes of scoring through what had previously been an open route to the try line.
The key thing to note here is the speed of Wasps’ backs when looking to fill in any open holes in the defensive line and provide cover for their teammates, and this was another reason that Sale found it hard to break them down.
Sale Sharks’ tactics
The away side came into this match knowing what they had to do in order to maintain their hopes of a top eight finish. As a result, they had a clear game plan and sought to apply as much pressure on Wasps as possible, hoping that they would make errors which could be capitalised on.
In the early stages, it did appear as if this would be the case, with Sale Sharks continually sending high box kicks into the air and trying to use the breezy conditions to make life difficult for Wasps, as well as giving them time to position their own players underneath the ball and behind the hosts’ main defensive line. In this case, it is Rob du Preez making the kick into the sky following a lineout, but his effort goes slightly too far and ends up being caught by Wasps’ Francois Hougaard, with the scrum-half-turned-winger catching the ball in his own 22 and calling for the mark.
The fact that de Klerk attempted the same type of kick shortly afterwards indicated how it was clearly something that they had spoken about beforehand, and it was a tactic that did have some success for them.
Another area of their game plan was to work hard in defence and limit Wasps’ ability to move the ball around the pitch at speed, as this would have given them opportunities to break through the gaps on either side, as shown by the black arrows, and potentially score tries.
In this case, Wasps fly-half Charlie Atkinson is looking to pass the ball to Jimmy Gopperth, but Manu Tuilagi comes in and makes a tackle attempt, which doesn’t manage to force Atkinson to the ground. However, it does slow the play down and enable Curry, Rob du Preez and Reed to run across the pitch and block the space indicated by the red line. As a result, when Gopperth gets the ball here, he no longer has space available in front of him, and Curry coming out to close him down forces the experienced back to kick the ball forwards instead, where Sam James gains possession and ends the danger.
Therefore, again, Sale knew what they had to do to keep Wasps’ key attackers from having too big an influence on proceedings, and, at this stage of the game, it looked as if this would lead to a really important win for Alex Sanderson’s side.
Sale Sharks’ second half problems
The problems came in the second half for Sale Sharks, with Wasps continuing to defend well and cause them problems at the breakdown, and this section will highlight where they lacked quality and could have done better in periods of play.
Whilst there were plenty of good moments in the visitors’ performance at the CBS Arena, they didn’t have enough consistency, and that will be the biggest concern for them when reflecting on their performance. This lineout came just after they had scored a really good try through van der Merwe forcing his way over the line from close range, but the hooker passed short at this lineout to number 8 Dan du Preez, who was then under pressure from Wasps scrum-half Dan Robson, and the return ball was not gathered cleanly by the hooker, ending the attack prematurely.
Therefore, it seemed to be a case of the Sharks having a good spell in the game and then losing the ball through an error like this and having to build again, which is perhaps a reflection of their season, leading to them not being one of the main playoff challengers in 2021/2022. Therefore, regaining their quality in some situations will be essential if they want to keep progressing in 2022/2023.
There were also moments when the Sharks lacked any urgency around the field, with this breakdown coming just in front of the visitors’ try line. The forwards have just emerged from a scrum and de Klerk is pointing to where he wants them to go, but they walked around and never looked like they wanted the ball. Wasps must have sensed this, because Jack Willis initiated a counter-ruck and replacement hooker Dan Frost went in to steal the ball, looking to get the hosts moving back towards the try line, and Sale didn’t seem to notice the danger until it was too late and Wasps had possession.
Wasps did eventually give them an opportunity to clear their lines when Fekitoa, who didn’t have his best game, knocked the ball forwards, but this was only after 13 phases of continuous pressure. Therefore, whilst Sale did win this game, their performance left a lot to be desired at times.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Wasps and Sale Sharks at the Coventry Building Society Arena, with both teams still in the hunt for the top eight and next season’s Champions Cup. Given what was at stake, it was perhaps understandable that it turned out to be a scrappy game, but it is also worth noting that both sides had a clear idea of how they wanted to play, which was why the result was close and points were at a premium.
It is not often that the losing side is praised in a rugby match, given that losses are normally attributed to the errors that they have made. However, Wasps were arguably the better side here, as mentioned at the start, and they will be disappointed to have nothing to show for their efforts. Sale, meanwhile, know that they got what they came for in the win, but lacked consistency across the 80 minutes, so this is what they need to look at ahead of the next campaign.
The final round of the regular season of Premiership fixtures takes place in two weeks’ time, with Wasps finishing at Leicester Tigers in what looks to be a tough game for them, whilst the Sharks end their domestic season at home, with Bristol Bears the visitors to the AJ Bell Stadium.