Shooting Stars – Saracens Defensive System

Last week as part of our article on the quarter final between Saracens and Clermont I mentioned the amount of plaudits the Saracens defence had received and i wanted to come back and have a quick look at why it’s been getting so much attention.

Lots of focus has been placed on the ferociousness of individual hits and the “Wolfpack” mentality they have made a key component in their defence system. In the Clermont game they were off the line quickly and aggressively making a huge 234 tackles in the game. This is an enormous statistic for 80 minutes of rugby, as a contrast in the England vs Ireland game both teams combined made a total of 280 tackles. In the entire tournament, to date, Saracens have made a whopping 955 tackles.

The defence is nothing short of ferocious, but hard hits alone are not enough at this level. Defences need to be organised and communication is a high priority, throughout the game you can hear the Saracens players screaming “Off the Line, Off the Line”, and their unified line speed is excellent and more importantly consistent: they all take three quick strides off the line to shut down the space then slow down. Staying light on the balls of their feet they then reassess their tackle lines and then get square onto their targets and hit through the space.

Early in the game though they eschewed the traditional umbrella or drift defence and used, somewhat surprisingly, what i can only describe as a shooter system to pin Clermont behind the gain line.

If i’m honest I’m struggling to recall ever seeing this used in a game like this, I’ve personally only ever encountered similar used in FIT Touch Rugby with the shoot and rotate systems used in that. Regardless it had the desired effect and Clermont started kicking long, and as mentioned last week they just didn’t have the kicking game to compete with Saracens. When they realised they were getting no obvious gain from kicking long, then to counter the shooter system with ball in hand Clermont resorted to pick and goes and one out runners off 9. Saracens had succeeded in narrowing their game and could concentrate on nullifying their pack and not worry about their powerful strike runners out wide.

Key points to the any defensive system are communication and trust and while it looks like it’s one man flying up out of the line, they actually advance in twos, one man leading while another slots in behind filling the gap in the line the shooter has left. If the tackle is completed before they arrive they are there ready to jackal or blow through the contact area – illustrated by the fact Saracens got 10 turnovers from the tackle area.

The men inside the shooter drifting out also shuts down the inside pass from the 9/10 if they attack the shooters seam.

It’s important to understand that Saracens didn’t use this every time they defended, it was deployed off early phase ball when the attack was disorganised and not settled, and after this they settled into more traditional systems – Man on Man, Blitz and sometimes a drift when stretched for numbers. It’s intelligent adaptive rugby in some ways similar to how Ireland play under Les Kiss.

Below is a short video highlighting the system in use, the first example is broken down to illustrate the shooter system the other examples are just reference points.



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