Friday night saw two sides who have started the season in very different ways go head-to-head in the English Premiership, as Sale Sharks hosted London Irish at the AJ Bell Stadium knowing that a win would send them to the top of the table, for one night at least. Meanwhile, London Irish have been struggling to turn performances into positive results, and so found themselves nearer the bottom of the league, with a second win of the season needed sooner rather than later.
As it turned out, the match was very closely contested, with both sides having chances to score and both showing good tactics as they looked to break their opponents down, and this brief tactical analysis will go into those as well as showing why Sale got the win in the end and why London Irish once again came up short.
Sale Sharks’ clever play
Sale Sharks were undoubtedly the better side on paper, having won all three matches before this encounter, but they needed to work hard on Friday against London Irish, who showed that they were more than up for the challenge.
With that in mind, a lot of the early play saw both teams kicking high into the sky and trying to test each other out, looking for a weakness that they could exploit. However, when this ended, it was Sale Sharks who had the first opportunities to score, with them getting on the board early through number 8 Dan du Preez, who finished off a rolling maul by touching the ball down over the try line.
However, they did encounter problems when moving forwards, with the main one being that London Irish generally set up with a compact line and packed players together in order to prevent gaps from being created, as shown by the white line here. This meant that the Sharks had to be clever about how they ran at their opponents, as they needed to build momentum before they met the defensive line in order to have the best possible chance of breaching it.
With that in mind, fly-half Rob du Preez sends the ball backwards to Sam James, in the blue circle, without waiting for the centre to get forward first, which meant that James could hit the defensive line at pace and have a better chance of forcing his way through. However, as was the case on plenty of occasions in the opening stages of the game, London Irish stayed strong and managed to end the attack, with centre Benhard Janse van Rensburg tackling James and forcing him to lose the ball forwards once he hit the ground, showing again how this was not going to be a straightforward match for the home side.
However, Sale persevered and kept trying to find ways to break their opponents down, and they were the more clinical side in this game when chances came their way, with clever passing central to a lot of their attacking play.
Here, their players never held onto the ball for longer than was necessary and were constantly looking to draw their opponents in, which would leave space open on the wing for them to score in. James is once again involved in this, with him finding Rob du Preez here, but the key thing to mention is that Sale had decoy runners constantly making their way between those moving the ball around and looking to distract the away side, with the Sharks’ other centre, Sam Hill, running between James and du Preez here but never looking to get his hands on the ball. When the fly-half sent the ball out towards full-back Joe Carpenter, winger Tom Roebuck did the same thing, and the result was that Carpenter was able to score without any tackle attempt being made on him.
This is a tactic that has become more and more prevalent in rugby matches, but getting it right relies on the whole team working together and being aware of each other’s position, and Sale got that right here which was why it gave them so much success.
It wasn’t only when attacking that Sale played well though, as they were strong when out of possession and constantly thwarted London Irish’s attempts to drive forward, especially in the closing stages of the game. Here, lock Rob Simmons is trying his luck, but has been repelled by the combined effort of hooker Akker van der Merwe and lock Josh Beaumont, who both came off the bench in the second half.
Again, this showed how much Sale were working together around the pitch in order to take the win, and, even though possession couldn’t be secured here as two of London Irish’s substitutes, Josh Caulfied and Chandler Cunningham-South, pushed van der Merwe back, this didn’t bother the home side as they knew that a chance would come to clear their lines if they remained resolute and focused, and their reward came when a long pass from fly-half Paddy Jackson to winger Logan Trotter allowed the Sharks to surround the latter and win the ball.
Where London Irish went wrong
For London Irish, they will know that this was always going to be a tough match on paper, and one that not many expected them to win. Nevertheless, they will be disappointed by their poor execution at key moments, as that was what prevented them from turning their chances into anything more than that.
Their game plan was evident in the first half with them looking to move the ball around the pitch at speed and to try and create gaps in the centre of the field, and the fact that they were passing the ball down the line here when players had not taken up their usual positions demonstrated the urgency with which they wanted to play.
On this occasion, they managed to move the ball right across the pitch and then back inside it, but were unable to create the gap that they were looking for, and the chance ended when tighthead prop Lovejoy Chawatama lost the ball on the ground and Sale were able to clear their lines. As mentioned, what London Irish will be disappointed with was how they couldn’t take their chances, and this was one of those moments where they will feel that they could have done better.
The visitors also made poor decisions at times, which was another aspect of their game that they will know could have been better. In this case, London Irish had an advantage and so were playing freely, and centre Will Joseph has a chance to pass the ball towards winger Ollie Hassell-Collins here, with the latter having space ahead of him to run through and, in his current form, potentially score a try.
However, despite looking at his teammate, Joseph opted instead to keep the ball and take it into contact instead, slowing the play down, and the speed with which Sale got over the ball, led by England flanker Tom Curry, meant that the centre was then unable to make an offload. Therefore, whilst London Irish didn’t lose anything by having a go, they will feel that this was a wasted opportunity.
Hesitation was also prominent in their play, particularly when they were on the back foot, and Sale found it too easy at times to make territorial gains and keep the pressure on their opponents.
One thing that had become clear about London Irish’s performance in this match was that they were not comfortable with high box kicks, which had been spotted by the Sharks and so kicks were continually sent in the visitors’ direction. Visiting full-back James Stokes struggled especially underneath them, which, in fairness, was largely down to the ball being slippery due to it being a wet night in Salford, but their constant fumbles allowed the Sharks to keep moving closer to the try line. Eventually, scrum-half Raffi Quirke’s kick, which initially looked like it had gone too far, bounced well for Roebuck to score here.
However, again, London Irish will know that they could have done better with this, because both Hassell-Collins and Scotland scrum-half Ben White had got back to deal with the kick but let it bounce, meaning that neither was able to get on it and Roebuck could gather it. There is no denying that it was a fortunate try for Sale, but London Irish will be aware that it could have been prevented.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership clash between Sale Sharks and London Irish, picking out the tactics used by both sides and showing why Sale were the ones who came out on top.
The Sharks will have been pleased with their performance, with London Irish always capable of creating problems for their opponents and taking advantage of mistakes, and it will have been even sweeter for the home side when considering that it took them to the top of the table for the night at least.
London Irish, meanwhile, will be disappointed with elements of their game, knowing that, as this analysis has shown, they did have chances to get more points on the board and weren’t able to take them. However, they should also remember that their usual way of playing wasn’t possible, due to Sale stifling it in many different ways, so they shouldn’t be too critical of themselves in that regard.
Sale’s next game sees them host Harlequins in the league on Sunday afternoon, with their planned Premiership Rugby Cup match against Wasps cancelled due to the Coventry side’s current financial situation. London Irish, meanwhile, will have cup action tonight against Saracens before Gloucester visit the Gtech Community Stadium on Friday night in the league.