Another round of the Gallagher Premiership is over, and one game which caught the eye was Saracens against Wasps. Both teams have had falls from grace in the last few seasons, with Wasps’ performances dropping away, and they are currently fighting to regain a place in the top four of the league, whereas Saracens had their salary cap scandal earlier this season, followed by their automatic relegation from English rugby’s top flight. Therefore, with this match seeing old title rivals clashing at Allianz Park, it made for an interesting encounter in terms of the tactics each side used. In this analysis, we will look at some of the key points from the match, seeing how they helped to decide its outcome.
The first half
The first point that we will make concerns the first half in general. In all honesty, it wasn’t the greatest half of rugby that we will ever see, with one try for Saracens, scored by England’s Elliott Daly against his old club Wasps, but, aside from that, the points on the board were all penalties.
However, there were still a couple of things we need to mention. The first is that Saracens defended well to start with. As you can see in this image, when the ball went into the air, they closed the space off well. The way they did this was to run forwards and backwards at the same time, as the black arrows show. This meant that Wasps couldn’t get through to the ball, and, if they did, they instantly had no space to take it down and decide what to do with it. That meant that Wasps couldn’t take control in the first stages of the first half.
However, after Saracens had scored their try, it was actually Wasps who took control of the game. This was because Sarries kept giving the ball away through handling errors and penalties. The above image shows only one example of one of these moments. Full-back Alex Goode, who will be spending next season on loan in Japan with NEC Green Rockets, has taken the ball into the tackle. However, it has then come loose, and has been picked up by Wasps back rower Ben Morris. This meant that Saracens could never get any momentum going when in the attacking phases, because they just kept letting the ball go. This particular loss of the ball led to Wasps almost scoring a try, so it shows just how costly these little moments were to Saracens.
Therefore, whilst Wasps were losing at this point, they would have been happier with the way the game was going.
Saracens’ second half improvement
Given that these were the only points worth mentioning in the first half, we will now look at how Saracens responded after half time.
Saracens’ England hooker Jamie George here is looking to pass the ball towards another England player, lock Maro Itoje, as the yellow arrow shows. However, George dummies this pass, and instead runs through the Wasps defence, with Itoje also making his way through to continue to offer the passing option for his teammate. These runs are shown by the black arrows.
Itoje ends up advancing to the 22m line, before being tackled by Wasps full-back Rob Miller. However, the point about this is that Sarries were playing quicker rugby, and not taking the ball to ground so much. Whilst this didn’t eliminate the errors they had been having, it lessened them, and sped up their game. This gave them back control of the game. Wasps did end up winning the ball in a turnover after this move, but only after they had lost a lot of ground, and that is the key point to take here.
If we now look at Saracens’ second try, scored by Scotland winger Sean Maitland, then we can see even more how this quick passing helped the home side to get through Wasps.
In the first image here, Owen Farrell has the ball, and is looking to offload it into the space on the nearside of the pitch. His eyes suggest that he is going to pass it to Maro Itoje, as the red arrow shows, but he actually passes it behind Itoje to Daly, as is marked by the black arrow. This quick passing catches Wasps out, because they now can’t predict what Saracens will do next, which they had been able to at times in the first half.
The second image shows this move further on, and we can see how Daly has gone around the side of the Wasps defence, through the open space, and is now looking to offload the ball to Maitland. Wasps full-back Miller tries to cover the space, but ultimately this is a 2-v-1 situation, meaning he isn’t able to. Once Maitland has the ball, he runs through to score the try easily.
This try all started when Saracens began to get their quicker players moving forwards, such as flanker Jackson Wray and winger Alex Lewington. Those two combined gained Sarries plenty of ground, which forced Wasps backwards towards their own try line. Again, this shows why the quicker rugby that Saracens were playing in the second half was instrumental in enabling them to retake control of the game.
After Owen Farrell’s dismissal
The final point to make about this match is that, once Owen Farrell had been sent off for a very high tackle on young Wasps fly-half Charlie Atkinson, who was clearly dazed on the ground after the challenge, Saracens didn’t find it so easy to create gaps in the Wasps defence to run through.
You can see here how Daly, in the black square, who was deployed as a centre for this game, is looking to pass the ball to Maitland again, who is in the black circle, wearing number 11. However, the pass needs to cover more ground than it did previously. This is because there is a clear gap where Farrell would have been, acting as a bridge to get the ball to Maitland. The gap also means that Maitland has to face Wasps centre Michael Le Bourgeois on his own, whereas, in the previous point, he was facing Rob Miller with Elliott Daly alongside him, giving them the advantage. Le Bourgeois ends up tackling Maitland with the help of winger Paolo Odogwu, stopping Maitland reaching the try line again. Therefore, we can see the difference to Saracens’ play that was made by Owen Farrell being sent off.
This was a game between two sides who have previously been top four regulars, but have fallen away from that for different reasons. The rivalry between the two is also fuelled by the fact that Wasps, now based in Coventry, used to play in London, whilst Saracens are a London-based side. Therefore, some still consider this to be a London derby of sorts.
In this analysis, we have looked at three themes of the match; how Saracens scored an early try, but Wasps controlled the rest of the first half; how Saracens responded in the second half; and how England captain Owen Farrell’s sending off caused problems for Sarries. Ultimately, Wasps won the game, and, whilst we have shown why that was, one of the main reasons that they edged Saracens was the constant accurate kicking of veteran fly-half Jimmy Gopperth, who ensured the away side kept scoring when in good range of the posts.