Saturday’s English Premiership final provided perhaps the best two stories in recent Premiership history, in that both Leicester Tigers and Saracens came into the match on the back of a difficult few years. Leicester, who have been England’s most successful team historically, were on the brink of relegation from the top flight only two seasons ago and have been one of the league’s strugglers for the last few campaigns, so their turnaround under Steve Borthwick has been remarkable to say the least.
Meanwhile, Saracens’ salary cap breaches meant that they were responsible for keeping the Tigers in the top flight back in 2019/2020, going down to the Championship and needing to regroup and come back fighting. Whilst many expected them to challenge at the top this season, the speed at which they have readapted to Premiership life has been just as notable.
However, after 80 minutes of hard-fought rugby, it was Leicester who had claimed the win, and this tactical analysis will break down the different elements of their attacking and defensive play to see why this was the case. The scout report will identify which tactics were critical to them edging out Saracens and explain why their performance was built on everything we have come to expect from them.
It was noticeable that both teams were going to the air throughout the match, looking to find spaces and force their opponents into making handling mistakes. However, as well as high kicks, Leicester also targeted spaces with lower grubbers, looking to exploit gaps in the Saracens line and give each other opportunities to put pressure on their opponents.
Here, winger Chris Ashton has spotted a relatively undefended area on the far side of the pitch, playing the ball through and allowing Matias Moroni to run onto it. However, the ball travels just too far for the Argentina centre, meaning that Saracens’ Welsh sscrum-half Aled Davies was able to take control of the loose ball instead.
This brings us to a key aspect of Leicester’s tactics in this game, because they knew that, to have any hope of winning this match, they needed to keep Saracens on the back foot. Therefore, they pressed Davies back into his own in-goal area here, limiting his options and forcing him to pass to full-back Alex Goode, who was then forced to ground and Leicester were awarded a scrum 5m out.
This was really clever from Leicester and showed how their game plan had been built on keeping their opponents pinned back as far as possible, meaning that the London side couldn’t play with the same attacking quality that we have seen from them over the last few matches.
It was also important that the Tigers were efficient when in Saracens’ 22, taking their chances and building scoreboard pressure. This was helped by the natural strength and power that they have in their back row, with South Africa number 8 Jasper Wiese one of the best ball-carriers in the league and a player who has proven difficult to stop this season.
This situation shows Wiese’s try, which came after a similar drive by fellow South African back rower Hanro Liebenberg. Captain and England loosehead Ellis Genge, who was playing his final match for the Tigers before joining Bristol Bears next season, has taken the ball towards the line from a tap-and-go penalty, but what really creates the try-scoring opportunity is the body position of scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth.
As can be seen in the yellow circle, he is facing inside the pitch here, which gives Saracens the impression that Leicester will look further inside the pitch once they move the ball out here. As a result, when Wiese runs back across Wigglesworth, Saracens are caught out and can’t prevent him getting the ball over the line.
It was perhaps typical of Leicester’s attack this season that both tries came not from the backs evading challenges and sprinting over, but through hard work from the forwards, given that this is what they have prided themselves on during the campaign. Therefore, again, their win was down to them not trying to be anything they weren’t, and simply sticking to what they know.
However, as well as their clever attacking play, Leicester Tigers also had to defend well during the game, with Saracens demonstrating in last weekend’s semi-final win against Harlequins that they will punish mistakes if given the opportunity to do so.
In the closing stages of the game, Leicester did look more tired and gaps started to appear in their line, with this situation coming after substitute Scotland flanker Andy Christie had broken through and found his way into their 22. Leicester had to be careful at this stage, as conceding any form of penalty would give Saracens a chance to take control of the match.
However, what the Tigers did well was to target individual players who could create problems for them, with England captain Owen Farrell being closed down here by replacement centre Matt Scott. As a result, Farrell now has to move around the Scotland international in order to exploit the gap ahead of him or to make a pass, which gives Leicester time to get back around and organise themselves to protect their in-goal area.
Therefore, even though it was hard work in the closing stages, Leicester managed to deal with Saracens’ key threats at important stages of the game, and that was another reason that they came out on top after 80 minutes.
We mentioned earlier in the analysis that Leicester’s performance in this game was built on what they know best, and their ability to win turnovers has been another important ingredient of their turnaround under Steve Borthwick. Time after time on Saturday, they were so quick at getting to the ball once Saracens had taken it to ground and winning it back, with flanker Tommy Reffell often at the centre of this defensive effort.
He has undoubtedly been one of the Tigers’ standout players in 2021/2022 and is one of the first names on the teamsheet when available, because he limits opponents’ offensive capabilities. In this example, he has got over England back Max Malins and ripped the ball from him before Malins has had a chance to present it backwards, before positioning his body so as to give his teammates the best possible chance of clearing their lines.
Reffell has been called up to the Wales squad for this summer’s trip to South Africa, and that is no surprise given the level of performance that he has put in this season, and his presence was key to Leicester lifting the Premiership trophy on Saturday.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at four examples of Leicester Tigers’ tactics in Saturday’s English Premiership final against Saracens, identifying the reasons for the East Midlands side coming out on top in this highly anticipated encounter.
As highlighted, it is no surprise that a lot of their play was built on hard defensive work, clever body positioning and strong carries up the field, because this is exactly what we have seen from them on a weekly basis, so they simply came to Twickenham and did what they are good at. It is never easy to defend the title, as Harlequins proved this year, but Leicester have a good chance of doing so if they keep playing at this level.
However, it also needs to be mentioned that Saracens didn’t play badly, because there were plenty of positives in the game and they did threaten on a number of occasions. The issue, as highlighted by captain Farrell afterwards, was that the Tigers punished Saracens’ mistakes and proved to have just too much for them to deal with. They now need to tidy up what they felt wasn’t so good before challenging once again next year, and there is no doubt that we will see them putting up a strong title fight once again in 2022/2023.