After a long but thoroughly exhilarating season, the 2022/2023 English Premiership campaign reaches its endpoint this weekend, and one of Saracens or Sale Sharks will see their hopes of getting their hands on the trophy become a reality.
Both have had to be patient in their quests to seal another title, with Saracens’ last league triumph coming in 2019, just before their financial scandal was exposed and they were forced to spend a season in the Championship, whilst Sale’s only previous experience of being champions came in the 2005/2006 season, and they have not even reached a final in the many years since.
It promises to be a really exciting final, with both Saracens and Sale undeniably the best in the top flight this season, and this tactical analysis will bring you everything you need to know before the game. The analysis will highlight aspects of their tactics and some of the in-game battles that could prove decisive in seeing which of them ends their campaign in jubilation and which will need to try again next year.
Saracens have made just one change to their starting XV from the semi-final victory against Northampton Saints, with England loosehead Mako Vunipola dropping to the bench and Fiji international Eroni Mawi coming in to start. Otherwise, Director of Rugby Mark McCall has opted for consistency in his selections as he looks to maintain the rhythm that his team showed two weeks ago. Owen Farrell once again captains the team from fly-half.
Sale have also made a change, although theirs is a forced one, with Ben Curry stretchered off in the Sharks’ semi-final win against last year’s champions Leicester Tigers with a hamstring issue (which will keep him out of this summer’s Rugby World Cup). In comes Sam Dugdale to take his place. On the bench, Dan du Preez has also been ruled out after coming off in that game with injury, so Tom Ellis is included instead. Jono Ross will lead the team for the final time, with him being among a number of Sale players who will depart the AJ Bell Stadium after the game, having announced his intention to retire.
Ford v Farrell
Arguably the biggest head-to-head for this game is the battle of the 10s, with childhood friends George Ford and Owen Farrell going up against each other for the second consecutive year as league finalists (Ford was in the Leicester squad that edged Saracens out last year), and there will understandably be a huge amount of attention given to which of them is able to exert the greater control during the game.
Both players encapsulate their teams’ differing styles in many ways, with Ford’s Sale being a team who rely on physicality and their ability to dominate collisions, whilst Farrell’s Saracens quite often build attacks through rapid passing combinations as they try to move it into the spaces outside their opponents. Therefore, it makes sense that, out of the two, Ford is the better when it comes to kicking from hand and finding teammates, as has been evident throughout his career, whilst Farrell is often at the heart of Saracens’ attacks and is the one who dictates the pace and direction of their passes.
It promises to be an intriguing contest between them, and one that fans were robbed of seeing much of in the same game last year, given that Ford came off after 24 minutes. There is an added spice in it too, in that this year is a Rugby World Cup one and the two will be fighting it out for one place in England coach Steve Borthwick’s starting team, so this will be their last chance on the domestic stage to show what they can offer him this summer.
Back row battle
Another area that could see both teams really scrap with each other is at the breakdown, with both having ferocious back-rowers in their lineups who can both secure possession and win turnovers, and the eventual result could well come down to which of them secures possession on the most occasions.
For the Sharks, dominating this area of the game has been a crucial part of their identity under Sanderson, with him knowing from his career and his 13-year spell as a Saracens coach how important it is to prevent opponents from getting over the ball once it hits the ground.
However, it will not be easy for his side to implement their dominance in that area of the match, with Saracens just as strong in it, and their quality and success rate is best highlighted in the fact that flanker Ben Earl has been the joint-most efficient player at getting over the ball this season, alongside Harlequins’ Will Evans, with 30 turnovers to his name so far. In comparison, Sale’s top-ranked player for the same statistic is Tom Curry, who has won just 18.
Therefore, whilst Sale pride themselves on their physicality and strong defensive work, they will face a Saracens side who will really test them, and it could be a fascinating detail for fans to keep an eye on as the afternoon progresses.
However, whilst winning turnovers and making clever passes is nice to see, what wins rugby matches is points on the board. Therefore, Sale and Saracens will need to hope that their key threats are firing on all cylinders, otherwise their hard work in creating opportunities will go unrewarded.
When it comes to tries scored this season by the four wingers who will start the game, Saracens are clearly the better side, with England’s Max Malins and Scotland’s Sean Maitland scoring 10 and nine tries respectively to date. In comparison, Sale’s two starting wingers, Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed, have only got over the whitewash on eight and four occasions, so there is a clear deficiency there.
However, that could be explained by the fact that Sale’s tries come from all over the field, with centre Sam James scoring six tries, versatile forward Jean-Luc du Preez contributing five and number 8 Dan also picking up five. Nevertheless, on the day, it does look like Saracens have a higher productivity when the ball does get into the wider channels, a point that is further highlighted by Maitland and Malins making the third and fifth-most clean breaks this season (27 and 22 respectively).
Sanderson has named Tom O’Flaherty among his substitutes, which might indicate that he knows this is an area of the game that they might need to change if things aren’t going their way and that he has prepared for that eventuality. O’Flaherty has shown throughout his career that he can run infield to get on the ball when it isn’t coming to him, and his experience of being in Premiership finals during his five seasons at Exeter Chiefs could also be of use.
All things considered, this is a really tough game to call, because both sides have a realistic chance of winning the game on the day. Their chosen XVs suggest that neither DoR is holding back and will give this game absolutely everything that they have, and their substitutes show that both have considered different styles and tactics if they find that changes are required.
However, for sheer experience of being in a game of this magnitude so many times before, Saracens perhaps have the edge, with McCall and his players knowing what it takes to win matches like these and also how to use what should be an electric atmosphere to fire them up.
They will also have a desire to avenge last season’s disappointment, when they lost out to a resurgent Tigers side coached by Borthwick, as well as to demonstrate once and for all that their troubles of the last few years off the field are behind them and that they have at last returned to the top of English rugby.