Anyone who watched the English Premiership final on Saturday afternoon will attest to the fact that it was a slow burner, with both Saracens and Sale Sharks matching each other in the first 20 minutes or so and trying to work each other out and the biggest action coming when play was interrupted by Just Stop Oil protestors entering the field of play.
However, in the second half, the game became a lot more open as both sides started to stretch out and use the pitch to their advantage, and both can be commended for giving it their all and leaving everything out on the field. Nevertheless, it was Saracens who ended the Premiership season as champions, and, when looking at their play on the day, there was one small detail that led to their win, as this tactical analysis will expand on now.
From the early stages, Sale had been given a clear warning about the dangers of leaving spaces open in their defensive line, with Saracens almost scoring an early try when England flanker Ben Earl was given enough room to break through and almost reach the goal line. On that occasion, he was stopped short and Sale were able to end the threat, but they didn’t seem to learn from it as the game went on and continually made the same mistake.
This situation was the first when Saracens did gain some reward for their efforts, and it came once again through them finding a space in Sale’s line and targeting it with one of their quicker players, Max Malins, who was played through here by Owen Farrell and allowed to ground the ball over the line.
When breaking down this aspect of their tactics, it is clear that the only reason it worked was because all of the different elements were executed to perfection. Firstly, the positioning of Farrell and Malins. Secondly, the delayed offload from Farrell to the England winger, which came once Sale centre Manu Tuilagi had committed to tackling the former. Thirdly, the run from Malins towards the line and his determination to make the chance count.
It didn’t appear to be a mistake that Malins was this far inside the field either, and it was clearly something that Mark McCall’s side have worked on ahead of the game as they tried to find ways to be efficient inside their opponents’ 22, and that is why it needs to be pointed out as something which really helped Saracens to control large periods of the game.
These moments were just as influential in the second half too, with Saracens continuing to make clever offloads and to make the most of the gaps in Sale’s defensive line. Here, they have received the ball from a scrum and have a well-set-up line, with players stretching across the pitch as is usual for them.
However, the ball doesn’t get distributed along the line and instead a reverse pass is played to Malins, who is once again in the centre of the pitch and who once again has the starring role. Again, the Sharks commit to the tackle, which seals their doom, and Saracens are allowed to break forwards through the gap that has been created, with this move eventually ending up in the try for scrum-half Ivan van Zyl that took the game out of Sale’s reach.
It was mentioned that Sale didn’t learn from their mistake early on in the game, and that might have sounded like a harsh observation to make, given that Saracens were enticing them to come out of line.
However, what Alex Sanderson’s team could have done better here is to not get drawn in to Saracens’ mind games, and to instead hold their positions and to force the newly-crowned champions to keep passing the ball down the line. As analysis of them has shown throughout the campaign, Sale have a physicality in their side that is not matched by many, and so they would have rightly backed themselves to defend as a unit whenever Saracens did try to push forwards, and that might have given them a better chance of stopping the tries being scored.
Due to the fact that they fell into Saracens’ trap time and time again though, they allowed their opponents to break them down in these moments, and that was why it was a key detail of the game that made the difference on the day.