In the most fractured of seasons Saracens has possibly been the club worst impacted of all.
Not just Covid 19 but the Premiership’s salary cap breach ruling has seen them playing in a redundant league (for them), seen some of their key legacy players head elsewhere to secure Premiership Rugby next season and, to finish it all off, the continuing phantom of lockdown may have completely put paid to next year’s Championship, leaving them without competitive Rugby.
Regardless of your thoughts on Saracens management process, a good strong Saracens is good for the English game. Their playing set up, to their credit, has largely just got on with planning for relegation, getting a squad together that, even reduced in depth, looks as if it will be far too strong for the next division down.
One beacon of hope in this has been their involvement in the European Rugby Champions Cup but heading into this game there was a sense that the Saracens of old was long gone, under strength and shorn of Farrell’s leadership.
The Farrell of Saracens is an interesting character, for my mind he’s not as influential for Saracens as he is for England, where he is a complete focal point. As strange a comparison as this may sound, he reminds me of Will Carling in that aspect, an excellent England Captain who wasn’t quite the same driving force behind his club. That’s not to say either aren’t/weren’t important as club players, but both for me are players that move to yet another level with the Red Rose of England on their chest.
For club Farrell is a great player but the team is way bigger and a Saracens shorne of him still has, Barritt, Itoje, the Vunipola’s, Mailtand Taylor, Wigglesworth, George and Goode standing proud and front and center.
As leadership groups go, that is unreal for a club environment.
So, despite all of the above, heading into the Quarter Finals it was evident that this wasn’t a weak side, that even if the bench was shorn a few sub’s it was about as strong a team as I’ve seen in recent years.
One thing that hasn’t really changed with Saracens is their coaching set up, which leads us nicely into their strategy approaching this game.
Saracens are a very physical side, always have been. They have ball carriers in the pack and the midfield, Vunipola, Itoje, Wray, Rhodes, Barritt and Taylor all big carriers of the highest order.
Saracens primary objective on each phase is simple to get to, and win, the gain line. The focus is go forward. Go forward and you control the momentum of the game and that’s exactly what happened in the first half of this Quarter final.
Leading into this try Saracens had the ball around 28 times, and attacked off 9 23 times (I say 24 in the video but mean 23), that is essentially 1 out carries off 9 or box kicks to compete.
What that tells me is that Saracens were focused on the gain line and making Leinster tackle them on it.
When the ball was played off 1st receiver (4 times) it was just to the next runner out.
At no point did they use the block and slide attacking shapes we’re now familiar with, that is until this try. When for the first time in the game they played off 1st to someone hitting over the gain line and followed it up with a slide play in which they flooded the channel of the 2nd defender out.
That composition of play is all about painting pictures.
Leinster had taken a hammering on the gain line and for the most part stood up to it. Sure they’d conceded penalties but then so were Saracens, Leinster just opted to play the corner and go for the try as opposed to taking the kickable points (something that I think came back to haunt them later on).
But importantly for Saracens they drew Leinster into a familiar pattern of play.
Whatever about this try Leinster’s defence is good, as we saw against Munster and Ulster and as outlined in this brilliant video by Geraint Davies (below). They are a hard side to break down (also note Geraint flags up Lowe blocking the pass post/around line break and then watch Larmour in this video – it’s a coached defensive skill).
But Saracens play this right, they keep the carries close, take the ball flat in creating one on one situations as often as possible in the knowledge that Leinster will go low and try to stop them early, That narrow scope is that’s fine for Saracens as it keeps their support close and offers fewer opportunities to be turned over.
But when it comes to this strike play one of the reasons it works so well is the sudden change of focus from smashing the players on the gain line to flooding a channel with multiple runners.
The first carry by Barritt takes out Sexton and Henshaw. Henshaw likely to be filling the role Cronin does on the next phase, that’s important as it means players are filling in on roles they are capable of doing but likely don’t want to be doing.
Even then Cronin for me does very well here despite the line being broken.
One of the reasons attack coaches look to flood a channel using these slide plays is how hard it makes it to make a decision on who will carry the ball. Psychological Refractory Period is the process of working through each option (or stimulus) one by one.
What this means in real terms is it’s impossible to move on to the next decision without processing the first option.
So flood a channel with multiple runners and the defender has to consider and exclude every single person slowing his reaction time down.
Defenders combat that by drawing themselves time by floating or treading water and Cronin does it really well in this sequence of play but ultimately he’s always up against it.
Even so, he still manages to follow what’s happening and stop a clean break by Taylor.
With all things considered Leinster were always struggling to control this. From the moment Henshaw stepped in to help Sexton stop Barritt this was on.
As we’ll see in the video the many moving parts come together to create a wonderful opportunity for Goode but it’s a great example of how, uhm, good Saracens backroom staff are in identifying, planning and getting their players to execute the plan.
So, sure while the players may be moving on, the challenge may be changing as long as this approach continues there will always be a strong Saracens team.
Great try, great analysis, great coaching.
Author: The Dead Ball Area