We have had two rounds of the 2020/2021 English Premiership season, and Newcastle Falcons have come back with a bang after their promotion from the Championship last season. However, their first home game against Sale Sharks provided some challenges, and they had to fight hard to secure the win. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics both sides used, including how Sale made changes in the second half to try and take control of the game.
Newcastle Falcons Sale Sharks
15. T. Penny 15. L. James
14. A. Radwan 14. D. Solomona
13. L. Burrell 13. S. James
12. T. Flood 12. J. R. van Rensburg
11. B. Stevenson 11. S. Hammersley
10. B. Connon 10. A. MacGinty
9. M. Young (c) 9. F. de Klerk
- T. Davison 1. V. Morosov
- G. McGuigan 2. A. van der Merwe
- L. Mulipola 3. C. Oosthuizen
- G. Peterson 4. C. Wiese
- M. Fuser 5. J. Phillips
- S. Robinson 6. J-L. du Preez
- C. Collett 7. B. Curry (c)
- G. Graham 8. D. du Preez
Newcastle Falcons’ positives
We will begin this analysis by looking at the positives of Newcastle Falcons’ performance.
In this image, we can see how Newcastle looked to play on the front foot when they had the ball. The two arrows show the two passing options available in this situation. The black arrow shows how the player with the ball could play it back behind him to his teammate, but what he actually does is to play a more horizontal pass, as indicated by the yellow arrow. This allows his teammate to run onto the pass at speed, getting on the front foot and running into Sale Sharks’ defenders with momentum. With Newcastle having powerful players like centre Luther Burrell in their team, this type of pass allows them to play to their strengths, whilst also forcing Sale to stay back, not allowing them to get forward and close the Falcons down.
In defence, Newcastle were well-drilled, with clear tactics on how to stop Sale attacking down the wings, which we know is where they have pace and strength. Here, we have circled full-back Luke James and winger Denny Solomona on the nearside wing, looking to find some space to attack around Newcastle’s defensive line. However, the Falcons have come across to block off the run, with full-back Tom Penny also covering the space from behind, and both of these moves are shown by the yellow arrows. This run through ends with Solomona being forced into touch, handing Newcastle the ball, so we can see how the home side kept the Sharks at bay in the first half, and this was part of the reason that Sale went in at the break with no points on the board.
Their defending in the second half was just as well-organised, doing what Sale weren’t able to do to them. Sale weren’t passing with as quick a tempo as Newcastle had done, so Newcastle were able to get on the front foot and close them down, as the black line in this image shows.
A constant theme of the game was Sale’s mistakes, which is something we will come onto, but Newcastle played their part in these errors occurring by putting them under so much pressure. This time, the ball was kicked over the top of the Falcons’ defence, but Newcastle were able to get back and gather it, thereby ending the threat from Sale’s attack.
In a game that won’t go down in history, Newcastle had control in the first half, looking to make Sale play a game that they aren’t used to, and it showed with the mistakes Sale were making. This is what we will come onto in the next section.
Sale Sharks’ errors
Sale Sharks like to play an attacking style of rugby, getting the ball behind the opposing defence any way they can; usually through the wingers, with plenty of pace in their wide options. They feed the wingers with clever balls from the central areas, with South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk the creative centre of all their attacking moves.
However, in this game, as we have already mentioned, they weren’t able to play this style of rugby, and ended up making some poor errors as they looked to find another way to get around Newcastle.
Here, de Klerk, circled, is chasing backwards to pick up the ball, but ends up missing it altogether, allowing Newcastle to run up and take the ball, gaining the ground in a very cheap manner. This was not the only error that Sale made in this fashion, as they had previously thrown a lineout too far, giving Newcastle the ball too easily again, so it was an overall sloppiness with the ball that led to the Sharks struggling to get into the game. If we couple this with Newcastle’s quick attacking tactics, then it is clear how Newcastle were able to control the game, and Sale needed to be better at stopping their hosts gaining ground with the ball.
In this image, Sale are again chasing the ball back towards their own try line. However, USA international fly-half AJ MacGinty, who is the player rushing backwards, is under pressure from Newcastle centre Burrell and winger Adam Radwan, shown by the black arrows. This situation came from Newcastle scrum-half Micky Young kicking the ball over the Sale defence, after the ball was dislodged from a Sale attack, following a scrum. Therefore, we can see how Sale made mistakes, and Newcastle constantly punished these by kicking the ball forwards and gaining ground back. MacGinty gets to the ball here, but, under the pressure we see being applied, he ends up giving away another penalty. This showed how Sale were not having a good game in terms of penalty concessions, and Newcastle were the team dictating the play throughout the first half.
Sale Sharks’ second half tactical changes
Given these errors, it was perhaps expected that Sale Sharks would make some changes in the second half. In the image below, we can see the main way that they looked to create space on the wings.
As we have already mentioned, Sale’s threat comes mainly from the wide areas, so they were keen to ensure they could attack there more in the second half. Here, a long pass is played by Solomona out towards centre Sam James, one of the most underrated centres in the Premiership, as shown by the red arrow. You can see how the length of the pass has made it harder for Newcastle to get across and block the space off, which is what they were doing so much of in the first half. Therefore, the space has been opened up, and Sale can get their quick players through, creating problems for their opponents.
The other key thing was that Sale were playing their passes at the last minute, just before they were tackled. That meant that Newcastle Falcons had to commit to coming inside, again leaving more space open on the wings than there had been in the first half.
In this image, we see another example of Sale’s quick play opening up space on the wings. Newcastle’s defence is organised, but has drifted slightly inside, as shown by the black line, whereas Sale’s attack is still positioned mainly out towards the far wing. The space here was used well by the Sharks, with lock Cobus Wiese running through to score a try for his side, giving them something to build on in the second half. Sale had had the players to take advantage of these spaces, but Newcastle had been well-organised in their defending, stopping Sale from breaking through. However, now, Sale were able to get through, and it made a difference to their play. However, given Sale conceded a late try through centre Toby Flood, allowing Newcastle to steal the win with the last action of the game, it is clear that their aforementioned errors really cost them.
In conclusion, this was not a Premiership classic, but it did give us some key points to talk about. Firstly, Newcastle look to be a force to be reckoned with this season, because they managed to pick up this win whilst not playing at their full capability; the likes of Gary Graham, who is one of the most destructive forwards in their team, were not really involved in this game, compared to previous performances, so that just shows how much Newcastle have in their team. For Sale Sharks, they will be disappointed to have lost this game, but happy that their tactical changes in the second half had some effect on the match, and that will give them hope for future games.