Analysis: How brutal Saracens smothered Leinster

Date published: May 14 2019

Our analyst Sam Larner returns to Planet Rugby and this week hails that special defensive showing from Saracens in the Champions Cup final.

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to continually roll a boulder up to the top of a hill and then watch as it rolled all the way back to the bottom again. In modern rugby mythology Leinster were condemned to continually charge into the Saracens defence, be driven back down to the bottom of the hill and repeat.

The Sarries defensive effort was immense and the numbers tell a story: George Kruis 27 tackles, Maro Itoje 26, Jamie George 23, Owen Farrell 18, Brad Barritt 28 with no misses. It is testament to the all round team effort that the 22 combined tackles of Vincent Koch and Richard Barrington, who played just 50 minutes, barely registers.

Now, it’s important to note that the best defence isn’t one that makes hundreds of tackles in a game, it’s actually one that makes almost no tackles each game and instead turns the ball over each time they do make a tackle. The Saracens’ defence was relatively low risk; there weren’t many uneven blitzes designed to put huge pressure on Leinster’s skills. Instead the focus was on smothering the attack, not letting them get over the gainline and wait for all the attacking players to lose their attacking shape and run out of ideas. Then Saracens could collect the kick or swipe the turnover and launch their own attack.

Leinster didn’t score a point after the 34th minute. The Saracens second-half defence was brutal and clinical and completely smothered Leinster.

This defensive situation stresses defenders. If they focus in on the ball carrier then it leaves the two options either side a clear run through the defensive line. If they focus too much on one or the other option it either leaves the ball carrier to run straight through a hole or he chooses the best option for his pass and distributes. However, crucially, look at how the Saracens’ defenders around the ruck look to flood into the fringe and remove the ball on the inside as a viable option.

By the time Garry Ringrose does make the decision of what to do with the ball he really has no options. The reinforcements that Saracens moved around the ruck have allowed the outside defenders to go up at speed meaning a pass outside risks an interception, Ringrose himself is facing a wall of red, and the pass inside is going straight into that well stocked fringe. Ringrose does go for the inside pass and Leinster get hit behind the line.

The constant Saracens pressure meant that Leinster were constantly battling to get men into positions to carry the ball successfully. It became apparent very quickly that one out runners would not get the job done but when your first runner gets hit back it makes it very difficult to retain momentum in your attack. Look how in this example virtually the entire Leinster team are flat and condensed into a very small patch of the field. It’s no shock that they are turned over soon after.

As much as a consistent well managed defence is more important than individual brilliance, that individual brilliance can come in handy. In this example Liam Williams has watched as the Sarries’ defenders inside of him have just collapsed in and left an easy run in for the try for Ringrose. He spots this and attempts to close down the space.

He makes the call that yes a pass will result in a certain try as he has left his opposition winger in a whole heap of space but the immediate threat is the run. He catches Ringrose before he can make the pass and behind the gainline, crucially.

Because Ringrose is behind the gainline and isolated it takes his support players longer to get there and Williams takes advantage and swipes the ball. We can have a debate about whether Williams here is supporting his own bodyweight or not, I personally think he’s probably not. But that really is besides the point. In sports like baseball and American football we have a stat called win probability. So in a neutral final two evenly matched teams would start the game at 50:50 then the first points scored would tilt the stat slightly in favour of that team. Williams stops a certain try and then turns over the ball as well, the swing in the win probability stat for that play alone is huge.

One of the things I enjoy most in rugby is people’s disbelief that more teams can’t stop the Johnny Sexton wraparound. You hear teams bemoaning the fact that we all know what Sexton will do but it always seems a surprise to teams. The answer though of course is that it’s very difficult to defend. You might know that Sexton is going to get the ball back but if you just ignore the other two players in the loop then he won’t get the ball back and the other two defenders will just run in a straight line through your absent defenders. Equally, if you let them through a few times in a game then you’re likely to refocus your efforts on stopping the two other attackers and that then opens up space for Sexton. It’s a hard battle to win and it’s the reason why Leinster and Ireland continue to use it so frequently.

Look at what Saracens do though, and this is clearly something that they identified through their analysis pre-game. In this example, Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Will Skelton are responsible for the two direct attackers. They don’t rush up they just set themselves and await the carry. The reason why they can do that is because Sarries have pushed two more players up on the outside with the sole intentions of either preventing Sexton going anywhere if he gets the ball back or dissuading the pass in the first place.

It worked, the two attackers are funnelled back towards the Sarries defenders and they get hit behind the gainline.

I don’t think Saracens found the cheat codes to the Sexton loop though. The fact is that rushing defenders up on the outside and funnelling the attack works perfectly but it requires numbers and it requires communication. This attack is from towards the end of the game when the result is already confirmed. Leinster attempt another loop. The Sarries defence is well set but they don’t really have numbers to devote two men going up and stopping, in this case Ringrose, coming round.

Notice how Jackson Wray tries to blitz up to stop the threat of the loop but he doesn’t have any inside support and he’s pushed up too wide, perhaps expecting that inside support. He leaves a very large hole on the inside which could have been exploited had Ringrose got round in time. Sarries may have discovered a way of limiting the effectiveness of the Sexton loop but don’t expect it to disappear. Ireland and Leinster will be banking on defensive teams making mistakes or opening up space elsewhere. Even Saracens didn’t get it right all game.

Conclusion

Saracens’ defensive performance was a thing of beauty. Yes there were some amazing individual defensive efforts on display but it was really a team performance. Only six Saracens starters made fewer than 10 tackles and that includes both starting props whose replacements made 11 each. The defensive flexibility you get when all 15 starters are solid tacklers is what allows Saracens to play with so little of the ball. They get to create turnovers or receive kicks and almost always start their attacks looking at broken field. Yes, having amazing players clearly helps them, but that fact is a huge contributor to their extraordinary success.

by Sam Larner