After their demolition of ASM Clermont Auvergne a lot of the focus has been on Saracens defensive system. Understandably so, and we’ll focus on that later on this week, but something that was equally telling for me in predicting the outcome of the game was their ability to dominate the kicking game.
We all know big games can turn on very little things, and one of those occurred about 4 minutes into the game.
Saracens had head and feed to a scrum in their own half. They are about half way between the 10 and their own 22, it's prime attacking ball. Farrell is roughly midfield to the right of the scrum and rather than playing the flow and kicking down the right touch line or lofting a towering bomb he takes the ball and hooks it back over the scrum and the oncoming defenders. Dropping well inside the field of play the ball trickles into the corner about 7-8 metres short of the Clermont line.
It’s a perfect kick in the pouring rain, into space, turning the winger and pushing the opposition back.
Clermont are helpless to stop it and it takes all the momentum out of their game sending them back a good 40 metres and I recall thinking, right then, that Saracens looked likely to win the game. Interestingly the next time Saracens left the Clermont half Chris Ashton had just scored a wonderfully worked try down the left touch line and Saracens had enjoyed 6 minutes of territorial dominance in Clermont’s territory.
If we rewind briefly to the mechanics of Farrell’s kick it was a type of kick not seen that much in Rugby Union at the moment – on the run, square onto the goal line and hooked back against the flow of the game.
It is very much a Rugby League 40-20 kick, and a kick we see another 10 with a Rugby league grounding, George Ford, use often. Kicking on the move using the magic space between you and the oncoming tackle line (which on this occasion is a similar 10 as in rugby League), head up ready to go if the kick isn't on or the defence has suddenly opened up.
It’s not an easy kick to pull off, it’s easy to overcook and send it straight down the middle or straight into touch. It's a skill the RFL guys have worked on a lot since the 40/20 was introduced in the late 90's to encourage tactical kicking in the League game.
At the time Saracens had been struggling with the ball in hand. Barritt had just dropped a reasonably easy pass, and the play from both sides was loose with the rain teeming down, the decision to play the corner was superb. Showing Farrell’s ability to play intelligent percentage rugby, sacrificing possession for territory and pressure.
Which funnily enough is very much how Clermont normally play. They are a powerful team who play a pragmatic style of rugby – Parra and James play behind a solid platform that gives them room, time and the ball going forward. Early in a game they play deep into the corners and rack up the pressure and points.
On Saturday we saw what happens when that platform is removed and the kickers don’t have the ability to turn the opposition team. There was an evident air of panic through the Clermont halfbacks when they realised they might not be able to dominate field position here, long aimless kicks down the middle with poor chases, Clermont never really cleared their lines effectively during the first 20-30 minutes allowing Saracens to maintain pressure and use their dominant defence to keep turning over the ball.
The yellow card for James is directly linked to this inability to clear their pressure areas. In the quarter final against Leicester early in the game they moved the ball to the 13 channel and Fofana made the break but using the 13/15 wiper kick is one of their main go to exit strategies. You’d be forgiven for thinking that was the aim here, but it’s a reactive pass. James is in a bad position receiving the kick. It looks like he’s trying to relieve the pressure on Clermont by getting a couple of extra yards. To do this he’s creeping up on the breakdown giving himself no where to go when the shooters come through and he receives a slow pass from the Clermont number 2 Kayser.
Throughout the game Saracens showed better control within the game, whether it was Goode chipping the ball back into the corner, or hoisting a bomb they just had and executed a better kicking strategy throughout the game.
Clermont on the other hand frequently kicked the ball open, into space, and with poor chasing seldom put enough pressure on Saracens back three, allowing both Goode and Strettle time to make their decisions.
The first Saracens try around 8 minutes into the game comes from a poor clearance kick from James. Saracens kick deep into the corner, James turns fires it down the tramlines and Bosch and Goode take their merry time deciding what to do with the kick return, 4 phases later and Ashton is scooting in completely untouched, another try scored from turnover ball and in under 5 phases. In fact all but the penalty try came from turnover ball and was then scored in under four phases – which is something we’ve touched on here.
It was a similar inability to play the percentages in poor conditions that cost Harlequins dearly on the Friday night Semi final of the Amlin Challenge cup. Northampton opting to continually turn Quins with kicks back into the corner and prods back into the space behind the chasers. Wilson at 15 was positioned well, and his kicking along with Fotuali’i was key, they kicked sensibly and safe. Keeping Mike Brown (before he left the field injured) tucked in the pocket and limiting his opportunities to return the ball.
Their kicking strategy effectively removed one of Quins primary attacking weapons from the game. Ben Botica on the other hand frequently used the wiper kick, looking to kick open and across field, leading to slices off the wet boot and little ground gained and territory even lost on a number of occasions.
Be it a wet evening in Northampton or a sodden Saturday afternoon at Twickenham you’ll never make it back into the game if you can’t hold your own in the kicking department.
Author: The Dead Ball Area