The European Rugby Champions Cup always gives us some really good matches, with the best of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy all going head to head to become European champions. In this match, it was Saracens, relegated from the Premiership, but still a fierce competitor, who took on Leinster, who lost to Saracens in last year’s final. Therefore, this was the game that everyone was anticipating. This analysis will look at how both sides set up, looking at their tactics and general play, and finding the reasons why Saracens managed to hand Leinster their first defeat in all competitions since that loss in the final last year.
Leinster’s poor first half
We will first look at Leinster, who looked a shadow of themselves in the first half. If we look at this image, we can see what the main problem was.
Here, the Irish side are defending their try line, but were constantly being put under pressure by Saracens. In this image, it is Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw who is in possession of the ball, having been given a risky pass by another Ireland international, full-back Jordan Larmour. Saracens’ Scotland centre Duncan Taylor has run out to meet Henshaw and tackle him before he has had time to think, and this is the main point to take here. The speed from Saracens to get up the pitch and into Leinster’s faces before they could move the ball around meant that the English side continually had control in these situations.
Whilst this was good play tactically from Sarries, the story of Leinster’s half was too many penalties being given away. They tended to come from these situations, with the quick play from Saracens meaning Leinster ended up holding onto the ball, as there was no support to take the ball out of the back, or it was the case that other players were going in off their feet in their attempts to keep possession. It says a lot that the home side conceded three penalties in the opening 10 minutes, with Saracens scoring all three, simply from situations like this.
One way that Leinster tried to relieve this pressure in the first half was by clearing their lines through box kicks. This wasn’t unique, because, with it being a windy day, both they and Saracens were continually testing each other with high kicks into the air. However, in this image, we can see how the ball travels a long way up the pitch. With it being Leinster, and their bad luck mixed with poor play in the opening 40 minutes, this was also going wrong for them.
What happened is that they tended to chase these balls down, which Larmour, in the blue circle, is doing here, and he is joined in his pursuit by lock James Ryan. However, when the ball comes down, Leinster always fumbled their catches and knocked the ball on, giving the ball and territory away. It was Ryan this time who made the error, but, fortunately for Leinster, after Saracens’ England Number 8 Billy Vunipola had knocked it on, meaning that Leinster had the scrum and the put-in here. However, whilst this was one time that they didn’t lose the ball cheaply from an error, these constant mistakes were the story of Leinster’s first half, and they could never seem to get going.
Leinster’s improved second half
Given their poor showing in the first half, they had to make some tactical changes in the second half, and they did.
In this image, we can see how Leinster sped up their passing to create more opportunities and to stop Saracens from closing them down. This has come directly after a scrum, which Leinster had the put-in for. From it, scrum-half Luke McGrath has passed the ball out towards the nearside of the pitch. The second pass, which is the one shown by the blue arrow in this image, is where Leinster can then break through. Saracens captain Brad Barritt was the player who stepped out from the line to make the tackle, but the offload from Leinster towards Johnny Sexton at the last minute meant that the Leinster and Ireland captain had a clear route in front of him, with a gap between Barritt and his teammate now open, as the black line shows.
The fluency and speed of this move was what Leinster had been missing in the first half, and it seemed to give them more confidence. Sexton was eventually brought to the ground after making several metres for his team, but Saracens were offside, meaning that Leinster kept hold of that ground, rather than giving it away like they were in the first half. That penalty led eventually to a try from Ireland prop Andrew Porter under the posts, who was really impressive in the second half, so we can see how something as simple as speeding up their passing led to them taking control of the second half early on.
This is another example of Leinster’s newfound urgency with the ball in the second half. Here, Saracens were organised well, but couldn’t get up to Leinster and close off the options, because the ball was moving so quickly down the line that it would have been futile. You can see how Leinster’s players were all moving forwards, as the yellow arrows show, and taking the ball before shifting it towards the touch line, where the space was.
Leinster seemed to be much happier and more confident in the second half, and this definitely helped them. They are always happy going through the phases and waiting for their opportunity, and that showed. In this particular attack, there were 28 phases before the ball was won by Saracens, thanks to their strong defensive efforts. The play was dragged back for a high tackle by Saracens flanker Michael Rhodes on Sexton, but from that penalty, and the subsequent lineout, Leinster grabbed another try through Larmour, who we know is a threat in attack. This just showed that Leinster in the second half were much better than in the first half, and Saracens in a way didn’t know how to deal with them.
It wasn’t like Sarries changed their tactics to be more negative after half-time, because they were still looking to pass the ball around and create gaps to run through. The problem was that the gaps weren’t there, and Leinster were giving away far less penalties than they were in the first half.
The home side were also closing the gaps on Saracens when defending, which is what you can see in this image. Billy Vunipola, in the black circle, has the ball, but before he can offload it to a teammate, he is tackled by substitute lock Ryan Baird, who successfully rips the ball from him and wins possession. The curved structure of Leinster’s defence, marked in this image, also meant that they could get to the ball quicker, and ensure that no gaps were created by players moving out to meet the ball-carrier. Saracens were making errors in these situations, but they were forced to by the strong second half play of their opponents.
Saracens’ first and second halves
If we now look at Saracens in this game, we can see how they started well, and then tailed off a little in the second half as Leinster grew into the game.
Saracens’ early tactics were to play box kicks high into the air, and then aim to get underneath them, or to tackle the opposing player who catches the ball before they can offload it. In this image, we can see this happening. Veteran Sarries scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth has cleared the ball following an interception by Maro Itoje, and the black arrow shows its path towards Leinster winger Hugo Keenan. However, before Keenan can look at his options, Scotland winger Sean Maitland has got up to tackle him, ensuring that they gain the ground and force Leinster backwards.
This situation comes directly from a Leinster attack, but what was clear was that, whenever Leinster did have good attacking opportunities, they didn’t take advantage of them, and were unable to find a way through Sarries’ defensive line.
The first half didn’t have too much action, but this was the try that Saracens scored through fly-half Alex Goode near the end of the first half. We can see in these two images how it came about.
Firstly, Saracens won a lineout quickly, moving the ball into the central areas. From here, Goode, who is the player looking towards the camera in this image, takes the ball forward, before passing to Duncan Taylor. Both players then advance through the line, either side of Ireland hooker Sean Cronin, who is caught between both Saracens backs.
The second image shows how the attack evolved, with Goode having received the ball back from Taylor, who is in the black square, having been tackled by Cronin. Goode takes the ball forward, and is in the black circle. He has support from Maitland, who we know is dangerous in these situations, and Goode uses the winger as a dummy, as the yellow arrow shows, before running through relatively easily to score, as the red arrow indicates. Keenan was coming across to tackle him, but couldn’t get to Goode in time before he scored.
This is what Saracens had been missing up until this point; a moment of incisiveness to get through the defence and take advantage of the space behind. Their reward for doing this, and their tactics of closing down the Leinster defenders, was to get the try. Having Alex Goode at fly-half was a really good tactical decision, because his pace, quality and experience all helped in sailing the Sarries ship in the first half. As a full-back, he is an important player in the team, and constantly makes runs forwards, so it made sense that he moved to 10 for this important game, for the reasons we have already set out.
We already know that Leinster stepped up their performance in the second half, but this had a big impact on Saracens’ second half performance. The away side made more mistakes in the second half, with this example showing just one of them. Richard Wigglesworth has chased the ball back, following a box kick into the Saracens half from substitute Leinster scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, but Wigglesworth fumbles it, and is eventually piled into touch by the onrushing Ireland centre Garry Ringrose. Saracens did seem to be losing the confidence that they had had in the first half, but this was likely down to Leinster’s resurgence.
In the closing stages of the game, it was tight, because Saracens hadn’t scored any points, whereas Leinster had scored 14, and had got themselves within range of a converted try. Therefore, Sarries knew that one breakthrough run could see them lose the game. This explains their tight defensive structure, and desire to keep Leinster as far back as they could.
You can see how they worked together in units to ensure that, whichever Leinster player had the ball, they had no time to make a decision, just like they did in the early stages of the game. The two red lines show how the two groups of defenders moved forward towards each player when they had the ball. This pressure meant Leinster often made mistakes in these phases. In this example, substitute fly-half Ross Byrne is looking to create something for the home side, but as a team, they end up overplaying it and putting it into touch, which all came from Saracens’ late pressure.
In conclusion, this really was a game of two halves, with Leinster not turning up in the first half, before rediscovering what has made them one of the most feared teams in European rugby. Saracens had a really good first half, before struggling a little more in the second half when Leinster took control. All in all, what we can see is that, whilst shamed and relegated this season, and with a squad missing many of the players who helped them get to the top of European rugby, Saracens are still a good side, and still carry a threat to whoever they are facing. Leinster will regret the poor start, and will see it as the reason they gained their first loss since the final against Saracens last season.