Loose Pass

Date published: May 17 2016

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the European final and a spot of benchmarking…

Plan B

Well it had to happen at some point. Saracens have simply done as they do in games: hung in and defended tenaciously until finally they claw their way over the line. A deserved win it was, an advertisement for rugby at its best it absolutely was not.

Racing 92 fell into a trap so many have done before. They dominated possession but kept on sending timber into timber over and over again, allowing the expert Saracens defence to get numbers to the breakdown and continuing to allow either turnovers, ball spills in contact or, most morale-sappingly, penalties.

What Saracens do, they do really well. There is always someone in a red and black shirt over the ball first, always a team ready to tackle rather than individuals. The defensive line organises lightning fast and is up and in opposition faces like bullets.

With the ball they use their personnel intelligently, with both Vunipoli running hard and Maro Itoje filling in should either not be available. Owen Farrell has always kicked well – it helps when you have an inside centre who would knock skyscrapers back over the gain-line – while in Alex Goode, Sarries have a vastly underrated full-back to stop the opposition kicking game. The set-piece needs little embellishment – a juggernaut scrum and a lineout functioning in all areas.

If Racing felt aggrieved about any of the decisions from Mr. Owens, they would be clutching at straws. Saracens also got the rough end on occasion; of a couple of scrum calls especially.

It should not escape the thought processes that Saracens’ pressure game is so effective that referees are more than likely to give them the doubt on 50-50 calls too. More on this in a moment.

No, it was a deserved win from a team absolutely clear about its strategy, the players’ roles within that strategy, and fully cognisant of the correct decisions that need to be made if things start to go a little awry. And yet…

And yet I can’t help but feel a little deflated about the Racing performance. Time after time, phase after turgid phase, the ball went into contact, was buried under bodies and recycled with the urgency of a sloth trying to work out whether to wake up or not.

Even when Dan Carter was on the pitch, the whole team just would not accelerate. If anyone is going to criticise Saracens for playing a largely negating game, they have to acknowledge Racing’s part in playing right into Sarries’ hands. They were so slow and one-dimensional, Saracens really didn’t need to do anything else to win – and one is in a final to win it after all.

Which brings us back to this refereeing element. Would Mr. Owens have been so inclined to give Sarries the doubt at crucial moments had Racing been getting into spaces and going forward? Would a more intense search for space, or attempt to create such, elsewhere than the 9-10-12 have created at least a precious half-second or two before the Saracens jackler began truffle-hounding over the tackled player? Could that have caused a change in the game, and maybe the referee’s analytical processes?

Absolutely. But of any deviance from Racing’s direct assault there was not a sniff. If Racing, or the Racing fans, believe Nigel Owens played a part in their downfall, then the point needs to be made to them that if they are only playing one way, they’ll likely be only refereed one way.

And here’s one we made earlier…

So while on that subject of dull finals, the debate of how well Saracens would fare against the cream of the New Zealand crop took very little time to make its way onto social media channels in the wake of the final whistle. I’m not even sure Brad Barritt had even lifted the trophy by the time the question had been posed.

Sifting through the usual mud-slinging, a few intelligent points were raised, not least that the Saracens scrum and set-piece might very well be superior.

But would they win? Not an earthly – not home or away. For the reasons, you’d simply have to look at the Highlanders-Crusaders game from Friday morning.

It’s not just that the Kiwi teams – by everybody’s admission streets ahead of all their Super Rugby counterparts at the moment – have some really phenomenal individual players such as Waisake Naholo and Israel Dagg (keep an eye on that bloke Faddes too… wow) who can change a game. It’s the collective ability to think and change a plan in an instant, to recognise what is not working and quickly decide on an alternative.

It’s the ability to go into a game armed with knowledge of a variety of options and a full skill-set with which to implement that – with due credit to the coaching which allows players to express and try things before examining when those things are good and when they are not so good.

Racing only had a Plan A and Saracens were comfortable with it. Faced with the Plans B, C, D, E, etc of those aforementioned teams, I don’t think they would last so long.

And finally – and I do not for the life of me understand why it shows no sign of changing – much is down to the half-backs. It must have taken, on average, at least 75 percent longer for Mike Phillips, Maxime Machenaud and Richard Wigglesworth to pass from the base of a ruck than it did Aaron Smith, Fumiaki Tanaka or Andy Ellis, with the latter trio also enjoying a significant length of pass advantage.

We wonder why Southern Hemisphere back-lines are so much more dangerous – it’s because their half-backs are so good at accelerating the pace of the game, distributing into wider spaces and giving the defences more to think about.

If Northern Hemisphere half-backs don’t up their game, it’ll be difficult to have a fully-functioning Plan A, never mind the others. However good Saracens are, there’s a long way to go to make up that gap in class.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.