When Tommaso Allan slotted a neat 3 points around 15 minutes into the round 2 clash against Saracens you would have been well within your rights to have expected a 50-pointer being on the cards for the former European Champions.
But, if there is one thing we know about Saracens it is that, much like the Borg, they learn, adapt and execute like very few other teams in Europe let alone the Premiership.
From 17 points down they took the game 27-30. Winning with a paltry 3 points to spare may not seem much to sing home about but the difference in the team’s stats tells an interesting story.
Saracens 4 tries to Quins 3. 506 running meters to Quins 328. 53% Possession and 60% territory.
I’m the first to say stats aren’t everything but it’s hard to ignore their dominance in these areas. Especially when we also factor in 10 clean breaks to Quins 1, 20 defenders beaten to Quins 11 and (key to what is to follow) 17 offloads to Quins 1*.
*stats from ESPN
In terms of Wins per Quarter the game played out:
Q1: Quins 17 – Saracens 7
Q2: Quins 7 – Saracens 5
Q3: Quins 0 – Saracens 8
Q4: Quins 3 – Saracens 10
From this, we can get a good idea of the flow of the game. Saracens were consistent in their points scoring whilst Quin’s fast start faded badly throughout the game, especially after half-time.
It will be interesting to see if this becomes a pattern for both teams over the course of the season.
Regardless of stats, as a statement, Saracen’s first try at 19 minutes was wonderful to watch and a good indicator of the rugby to come.
From a midfield scrum Saracens swiftly, dynamically and clinically took Harlequins to task for what was for me the try of the day, a slick move to get their first score of 22-23. 6 phases (5 where they won the gain line), 15 passes and 3 post-contact offloads combined to shred Quin’s defence in tatters with some ease
Let’s start at the beginning.
Saracens are awarded a scrum on the halfway and Will Collier, Quin’s tighthead, departs the field to be replaced by Wilco Louw.
This is important because Saracens set piece was under some serious scrutiny after Quins had steamed through Saracens on the two previous scrums (with Collier decimating Vunipola to win a penalty in one). It’s not that Louw isn’t a great player or a great scrummager but cold and straight into a scrum? Saracens won’t have been upset to see Collier go.
The result is as stable a scrum as you’re going to get and Saracens use this to launch from.
First up note how the midfield scrum has split Quin’s Defence. This split field position is always a bigger issue for defending sides than attacking sides as you essentially create more opportunity for 1vs1 situations due to less density on the defensive side.
Saracens exploit quins inability to get a 2 man hit ruthlessly, the move snowballing from there.
Van Zyl picks up and darts over the gain line and we see Daly come from depth hitting the ball with pace on the gain line, still a good 6-7 meters away from the nearest defender.
The fact the defence is chasing laterally allows Daly to step into a weak shoulder, winning the contact and making a good 6-7 meters post.
In one phase Saracens have made 10m.
The result is a nice clean ruck and Daly is able to make a nice long ball placement with no bodies on top of the ball. Saracens in Nick Tompkins are able to get a 1 man ruck and the time between first contact and Van Zyl clearing the ball is 3 seconds.
That’s not 3 seconds on the ground that’s from the first moment Quins make contact with Daly, so through a tackle to ground and ball off the ground and in Van Zyl’s hands.
Saracens adopt a 3-3 1 formation and as Van Zyl passes to the first of the pod we can see exactly how disrupted Quinn’s defence is with players still heading back into the defensive line.
Great line speed from Quins see’s Saracens stopped behind the gain line but the footwork of Croft pre and through cpntact means Quins are unable to get a dominant hit in and even though they’ve lost ground Saracens are able to get clean ball and hit a “first contact to recycle time” of just under 5 seconds.
We can see the next attacking shape set off Farrell and, on this near side, Vunipola having a look at what the Quin’s defence is doing (this will become important later on as he punches the line almost the exact position of the defence he’s scanning).
Farrell has identified Marler in the defensive line and sets himself outside the ruck defenders so he can attack his position. He uses the quick pass from van Zyl to pull right up onto Marler and pop the ball inside to McFarland at pace.
Let’s just go back and look at Tompkins support line. He’s cleared the Daly ruck and now takes a shallow support and clear line. He’s there though and it’s enough to keep him hidden from the Quins’ ruck defence giving Farrell two options on the inside.
A double Pump from Farrell to make sure and the inside pass early allows McFarland to ride the contact and keep the ball away from the tackler thus allowing him to pop again to Tompkins on his inside.
We can see how Marler has read the situation and is desperately calling for inside support.
So in 3 phases Saracens have made 3 passes, 2 rucks and around 30m give or take.
Again, that momentum allows Tompkins to take contact and free up the ball. A good long placement allows Van Zyl to clear the ball mostly unimpeded, again contact taken to recycle is 4 seconds.
NB: Watch how Tizzrd makes a mistake on the clear but keeps fighting and it’s enough to allow Van Zyl the opportunity to step away.
A nice wide pass from Van Zyl sees the ball at the edge of the Quins defence with a 4 man overlap but with Quins backing off to shut down the space it disappears fast.
Lozowski gives an average pass to Earl who cleans up and uses his footwork to break the first tackle and dominate the next contact.
Again a nice long ball placement and again from contact to recycle is 4 seconds.
Quins have managed to set a decent Ruck defence and it’s a neat little tip-on from McFarland that again gets Saracens a 1vs 1 and clean ball.
Contact to the ball being cleared is 3 seconds.
Saracens have a stacked formation in the midfield. The first with Mako Vunipola and Farell out the back and a second option with Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Malins out the back.
Watch how Itoje drifts in to fix the defence and open up the space for Billy Vunipola to punch into shortly afterwards. Also watch how Tizzard offers himself as the inside option to Vunipola and slows the fold of the inside defence just a fraction.
The Blitz from Quins is good but wild and a wonderful inside step and offload from Farrell to Vunipola sees them again in behind the Quin’s defence. This in turn allows Vunipola to make a lovely soft offload to Malins.
Watch how both Lozowski and Tompkins are reading the game, understand they can’t contribute to the ruck and just shuffle across to generate width in attack. Notice how Lozowski starts to move int to support then changes his mind and resumes sliding across again.
Just before this phase we can also see how wide Daly has set, and how narrow the Quins Defence has become with only Earl and Allan between the posts and the sideline.
Keeping Momentum going Vunipola again looks for the offload first, finding Malins who is finally dragged to the ground
As the ball is recycled we can see Quins are all infield of the 15m line and only Earl is set to defend with everyone else still folding.
From here it’s just a simple catch, draw and release for Daly to fly over relatively untouched.
Great try, full of slick passing in small close quarters, players running onto the ball, clean recycling and awesome identification of space and importantly intelligent thinking from players looking 2 or 3 phases ahead as to where an opportunity might arise.
Key to the score was:
- Momentum both onto the ball and through the contact and ruck.
- Constantly changing the point of contact. The pattern of phases was:
- L1, R1, R1, L1, L1 – within that there are two clean line breaks, two half breaks on the edge, and two tip-on passes.
- Ruck speed
- Ugo Monye rightly Mentioned Ruck speed drops to 2 seconds in his commentary but as demonstrated above the contact to recycle was 4 seconds – the contact being the point of no return when a player can no longer pass/or offload out of contact.
- what this tells us is that Saracens were confident in their ability to regenerate ball and instead of fighting to stay up and allow defenders to arrive they concentrated on clean presentation on the ground.
- keeping the ball alive post contact.
- The ability to move seamlessly from Structure to unstructured attack.
- Notice how Saracens are able to get into a variation on 1-3-3-1 fast and efficiently and this, in turn, supports their ability to abandon it and still provide support runners when they generate a line break or a half chance out of contact.
Wonderful stuff all around.
I’ve always found Saracens an interesting conundrum.
It’s hard to ignore the history of recent years but it’s also hard to ignore exactly how good they’ve been over that same previous decade.
Even with money if you look at Saracen’s record they bounced around the premiership going from 2nd to 10th in 5 years. Unfulfilling their huge and expensive squad potential until the arrival of two coaches, Brenden Venter and Mark McCall and the advent of a run that’s never seen them finish outside the top 4 of the premiership*.
A domestic haul of 5 Premiership Titles, 3 runners up’s and 3 semi-finals is a record most coaches would kill for.
The run of success was built on defence but something that’s often overlooked in the Saracens discussion is how good an attacking side they’ve become under McCall’s staff. In the 21-22 season, Saracens’ points difference was +260 points, bettered only by Leicester with +274.
Now tries, in general, have risen but again in the 21-22 Season, Saracens scored 93 tries, equal to London Irish with only Quins (95) and Saints (99) scoring more. They may not be the best attacking side in the league but they aren’t far off it.
Something that has always been very clear with Saracens is their focus and ability to play front-foot rugby and take advantage of the space that generates and this is a fantastic example of how they have changed their game to take advantage of that but add continuity in the contact area to their arsenal.
*excluding the year spent in the Championship
Author: The Dead Ball Area