Despite there being one round of matches left to play in the 2022/2023 English Premiership regular season, the top four have been confirmed and fans now know the matchups in store during next weekend’s semi-finals, with Saracens hosting Northampton Saints and defending champions Leicester Tigers travelling to Sale Sharks.
This tactical analysis will look at each side’s chances of reaching the final at Twickenham on 27 May, providing a look at how their overall season has gone and an idea of the tactics that each have deployed on their route to the play-offs.
Saracens are perhaps the favourites to lift the title, having been the league leaders for the majority of the season, and many of those who have watched them feel that they are looking back to their best and are ready to go one step further than they did last time out, when they lost to Leicester in the final, bringing their four-year wait for the league’s top prize to an end.
When looking at their performances during the campaign to date, the key observation to make is that they have the ability to alternate their tactical focus depending on what type of game they are in, and that is not easy to do. It requires hard work on the training ground in order to develop the ability to adapt to different scenarios, but Saracens have done that and it shows when looking at the variety of ways in which they have won matches this season.
Against London Irish, they showed both a physicality to secure possession quickly and then good anticipation and ball speed to move it out of the congested areas and into their wide threats, and, when breaking this down, it is easy to see why other sides have seen them as the ones to beat.
This is not to say that they have been perfect, with them losing four games this season and having some really poor days on the pitch. However, when they are good, they are very good, and their chances of lifting the trophy this season are extremely high.
Sale are another side to have had a strong season and who have been one of the league’s frontrunners for most of the campaign, and, like Saracens, they also rely on their physicality during matches.
This helps both in attack and defence, and is largely the result of the South African influences that they have among their ranks, with the likes of Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez, Jono Ross (who hails from there) and Akker van der Merwe all helping to make Sale a rampaging animal who are capable of strong carries in possession and dominant tackles out of it.
It is their ability to edge those individual battles and to punish opposing errors that has made them a team to fear this season, and their conversion rate when inside the 22m is astonishingly good, with plenty of their forwards capable of making darting runs and exploiting any spaces that are left available to them.
However, it is not only about the forwards, with a lot of what makes the Sharks so difficult to contain coming down to the threat posed by the backs too. Sam James is one who offers a lot of attacking threat from deeper areas, with him having the guile and agility to evade opponents and secure points for his side, whilst Tom O’Flaherty has been a significant presence on the wing, Joe Carpenter has added an attacking threat from full-back and Manu Tuilagi has shown at times why some are demanding that England head coach Steve Borthwick reintroduce him to the national setup.
Everywhere you look, there is quality, and they would be a handful for any opponent at the moment.
If there was an award for the most improved team this season, then Leicester would surely be one of the main contenders. They might be up there now as one of the Premiership’s most in-form teams, but it is easy to forget that they were sat in eighth place as recently as the middle of February, with their top four hopes at that point looking very bleak.
However, a run of six straight league wins since then has propelled them up the Premiership table and allowed them to look forward to a second successive play-off campaign, and they deserve a lot of credit for that recovery after what has been a disrupted campaign due to the departure of Borthwick to England in December.
Their run of wins has coincided with the improved form of South Africa fly-half Handre Pollard, with the World Cup winner looking much more at home in his new surroundings now and demonstrating why the Tigers signed him to replace George Ford at 10. Pollard has put on some scintillating displays of late, showing not just creativity but also a direct threat that Ford perhaps didn’t have as much of, and unlocking that has allowed the Tigers to play the free-flowing style of rugby that they became known for under Borthwick.
They will face a tough ask to reach a second successive final, with many putting Sale as favourites in their upcoming contest, especially as the Sharks have got the better of the East Midlanders in all three of their meetings this season (one of them coming in the Premiership Rugby Cup back in September). However, Leicester will give it a really good go, and, in their current form, no-one would bet against them entirely.
Northampton have been a side in transition this season, with them moving away from the era of Chris Boyd, who left his role as Director of Rugby last season, and into one led by his successor, Phil Dowson.
Given that the latter was part of Boyd’s setup, serving as head coach, many thought that things would largely remain the same and the process of adjusting to Dowson’s leadership would be fairly seamless. In reality, it has been the opposite, with the team lacking consistency and struggling to show the same amount of composure and quality on the field as they have done in previous campaigns.
The bottom line is that fans are never quite sure which Northampton are going to turn up, and, as previous analysis of their season has shown, their performances are often polar opposite to each other, in that, when they are good, they are very good (as they were against Newcastle Falcons last Friday night), but when they are bad, they make it very easy for their opponents to trample all over them. This has frustrated those watching them in the stands and on the sidelines, but there is also a recognition that the team needed to be given time to find the right balance, and that, once they did, things would click for them.
They could find it difficult to reach Twickenham this season due to that Jekyll and Hyde look to their play, but what is in their favour is that they were in the same position last season, when they finished fourth and had to travel to the league leaders in their play-off semi-final (that was Leicester). They managed to ask some questions of the Tigers on that day, but ultimately ended up second best, but the lessons that they learnt could prove essential this time around. It looks unlikely that they will progress, but it is not completely impossible.