Possession is an odd thing. Teams spend ages working out ways to get it only to realise that defences are now so structured that broken field, which results from a turnover or kick, is by far the best way to score a try.
The success of the Saracens’ game plan has now resulted in an arms race where the objective is to get rid of as much possession as possible.
If I can briefly mention football, and apologies to anyone who winces at that word on a rugby site, possession has been a central focus despite less physically demanding tackling.
Barcelona have achieved global fame and huge success by playing a game where they hoard possession. However, Wigan, who you may notice, haven’t had the same level of success, are a significantly better team when they aren’t leading the possession count.
One of the earliest exponents of sports analytics was Charles Reep. He is a fascinating person and I would encourage you to have a read about him, unfortunately, in the areas where he is famous, it’s because his analysis was so flawed that it may be the reason why English football has been hobbled from the grassroots level.
He found that 80 percent of all goals come at the end of movements of three passes or less. His conclusion, pass less and you will score more, and so the long ball game was created.
The big flaw? Movements of four or more passes account for just 10 percent of the total but they result in 20 percent of goals. Whilst English football was trying to trim the passing fat, they should have been looking to improve passing ability and numbers at the expense of long balls.
What does this have to do with rugby? Well, rugby is going through its own development stage to decide whether possession is a good or bad thing. There are disappointingly few studies focused on professional rugby, but, Ross Munro-Williams, a Kiwi schoolboy coach has analysed his own team, with some interesting results.
He found that 89 percent of tries scored by his school came from three phases or less, yet, they accounted for 86 percent of all phase play. He also found that 38 percent of all tries came from a turnover, but accounted for just 30 percent of attacks.
Finally, movements of four or more phases happened 14 percent of the time but accounted for just 11 percent of tries. All of this goes a long way to explaining the current Saracens game plan of minimal phases and kicking to turn it over and create attacking chances.
Saracens have won five of the last six Premiership games they have played in. They have had the majority of possession in just two of those games, including the loss against Bath. They have kicked less than 25 times in just two of those games, they have been out passed in all but two of the games.
In short, they have limited their own phases and made sure that something did happen when they got the ball in opposition territory whilst accepting that they would be on the end of a huge tackle count.
At the start of the game against the Chiefs, Sarries were employing the same game plan. On their first possession they took the ball on the opposition ten yard line, probed for six phases and then kicked the ball away deep in Exeter territory.
In the very next possession, Saracens get the ball again around halfway, run one phase and this time Wigglesworth immediately kicks the ball deep into the Chiefs’ half.
So far, so Saracens, but after a tenth-minute red card for prop Richard Barrington, the game plan totally changed. The red was justified and Saracens are incredibly lucky that they didn’t go down to 13, at least temporarily. Almost immediately, Exeter turned the ball over and ended up on the Saracens five-yard line – a perfect example of the problems of having the ball.
Saracens changed their focus to a restricted game plan where they increased their carries but also increased the support for each ball carrier. That resulted in the bizarre screenshot below where all the Saracens players are visible with the roughly 12x30m space shown. In this attack, Saracens went through twelve phases before trying an unsuccessful drop goal.
It’s tempting to say that when Saracens changed their game plan they reduced it. But that’s not true; they limited the width but that allowed them to focus their attentions in a smaller area and increase the pace. As you can see from below, Saracens kept pushing numbers into the breakdown to increase the speed of delivery, which put Exeter under pressure and allowed Saracens to level the scores.
Later on in the first half, Saracens had a 16-phase attack, which eventually ended with a knock on. As you can see below from one phase, the Saracens attack slowed down but they kept the ball for phase after phase to conserve some energy for when they were called on to defend. Although the forwards were asked to hit a lot of rucks, the second most of the last six games, they weren’t asked to cover much distance in attack.
Saracens didn’t completely stop kicking, they still put boot to ball 26 times which was less than the 30 they usually make. However, their kicking tactics did change and instead of trying to put pressure on the receivers with their kick chase they chose to stick the ball into touch and regroup for another west country onslaught.
When they did keep the ball in play they toned down their kick chase from a four, or sometimes, five man hard chase with the rest of the team filling in behind, to a lone chaser. This obviously weakened the chase but it was less physically taxing for the forwards who were asked to undertake a huge amount of work during the game.
Finally, Saracens weren’t just physically prepared they were also mentally prepared for playing with just 14 men. When Barrington was sent off, Sean Maitland quickly followed him with the London team choosing to keep a complete pack and sacrifice a winger.
Scrum-half Wigglesworth then took the job of winger when defending. As you can see below, the nine was asked to do a lot of covering work when close to his line, which pushed Goode up into the defence.
They also dropped Wigglesworth out of the scrum in obvious kicking situations, such as the one below. There’s no requirement to have your scrum-half stood at the scrum, if it’s a defensive one. If your back row play with their heads up then they should be able to stop a number eight pick-up before he gets to the soft underbelly of the backs. If you’re a coach then it’s worth considering this possibility if you are a back down, or even if the opposition is finding open space through a kick.
The Saracens game plan relies on a sturdy defence which can turnover the ball and give the backs a broken field to run at. It also relies on thumping the ball away when the chances of scoring a try have diminished and passing the risk to the opposition.
However, the ability to change a game plan is crucial, either due to something going right, a big lead, or something going very wrong, a major injury or red card. When this worst case scenario happened they cut down on width in attack, focusing on speed of ball, and they employed intelligence in defence to ensure that they weren’t deficient in their back three.
It all proved that with adaptable players and good understanding of the game, a red card can end up being no worse than an inconvenience.