To bill this quarter-final as a classic ‘Attack v Defence’ match wouldn’t do justice to Leinster’s improved work off the ball this season, or to the variation and creativity that Saracens’ attack has developed over the last few years (the use of Alex Goode as an auxiliary distributor at in and around the outside centre channel in particular has added another dimension to their attacking play), but there is an element of truth to it. Leinster’s broken-field attack has taken huge steps forward under Stuart Lancaster (after it had deteriorated under Matt O’Connor), but scoring several tries is a lot easier against the likes of the Dragons and the Cardiff Blues than it is against the best defensive side in Europe.
Saracens have let in more tries this season, but they have consistently been one of the toughest sides to break down in recent years. Munster’s struggles to cross the whitewash against them last year was a case in point; Saracens were incredibly physical and quick to get back into position once the tackle was completed, suffocating the life out of Munster, and CJ Stander’s late score came when the game had long ended as a contest.
This season has brought a change in fortune for Mark McCall’s side, though. The home and away losses to Clermont were hammer blows, with the drubbing at Allianz Park being both dispiriting and embarrassing. Coupled with an away draw with the Ospreys, there is a growing belief that their European domination may be coming to an end. It’s hard to know how much you can read into their convincing wins over a floundering Northampton, and while they are going well domestically, there’s no arguing that this season has been less than vintage for them.
It doesn’t do them any favours that their England stars are coming in off the back of a poor Six Nations. Jamie George and George Kruis didn’t have anywhere near their usual impact against Ireland, Owen Farrell hasn’t been the commanding presence that we’ve come to expect, and although Mako Vunipola was dynamic in the carry, he can’t have too much left in the tank after starting all of England’s game in that competition, on top of starting each of the Lions Tests last summer. Maro Itoje has been a pale imitation of the world class player that took Test rugby by storm in 2016, and if these players can’t find form before Sunday, it’s going to have a considerable knock-on effect on their team.
What helps Saracens in this regard is that they have a plethora of internationally-capped players (e.g. Schalk Brits, Juan Figallo, Will Skelton, Schalk Burger, Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch, Alex Goode) who didn’t participate in the Six Nations, and thus are in better shape than the above-mentioned players. The strength in depth that they have in their squad has been an important factor in their ability to compete on two fronts for a couple of years, and outside Owen Farrell, it’s difficult to find one player that is irreplaceable. Even still, if the spine of their team aren’t at optimal level, it’s going to influence the overall curve of their performance.
In contrast to Saracens’ apparent regression, Leinster have made significant progress this season; their strength in depth has developed greatly, James Ryan has emerged as a top-class international, and crucially, they didn’t falter in the final round of the pool stages when a home semi-final was at stake. The draw to Castres last season was ultimately highly damaging to their hopes of making the final, as it meant they had to travel to Lyon to play Clermont when facing them in the Aviva would have been a possibility if they had come away with the win.
Back in January, they were in the exact same position going into their Round 6 clash with Montpellier, and rather than going to the south of France and settling for a losing bonus point when the heat come on, they ground out a win against a powerful Montpellier side who were up for the fight. They showed that they have a number of strings to their bow this season, with their tries being scored through various means: mauls, scything runs up the middle and passing along the line to the wing:
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
One aim of a blitz defence is to prevent the ball from getting to the five-metre channel through aggressive line speed in midfield. A common trend in the game now is for defences to move from out to in, so that they’re funnelling the attack back infield, where there is less room to manoeuvre and the tackles are more likely to be dominant because they are being carried out by big forwards instead of smaller outside backs. Saracens have been the standard-setters of this type of play, with their quarter-final against Glasgow last season being a good example:
Glasgow are among the most dangerous clubs in the northern hemisphere with ball in hand, yet Saracens managed to induce feelings of claustrophobia among their backs. It’s not too often that you see Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg failing to make their mark on a game, but Saracens negated almost everything that they tried to do on the day.
However, their defence hasn’t been functioning as well as it used to lately; they’ve conceded 48 tries this season (23 more than the amount conceded at this stage last season), and both domestically and in Europe, they have conceded ground on the outside edge in a manner that would have been viewed as sacrilege heretofore:
With James Lowe in the starting XV, Leinster are certain to plan their attack on outflanking the edge of the Saracens blitz.
Having said that, defence is about more than just first-up tackling. Saracens have an insatiable appetite for scrambling and recovering once the first line is breached, and this is where support play is going to be vital for Leinster. After an impressive burst down the wing by Rory O’Loughlin against the Ospreys last weekend, Leinster wasted a try-scoring opportunity by not having someone link up with Fergus McFadden when the line was at their mercy:
Converting chances like the above is easier said than done, but if Leinster can use decoy runners effectively enough to get the ball past the last defender to a winger running at pace with any sort of frequency, and make sure that they don’t get isolated once a line break occurs, they might destroy the myth of the impenetrable Saracens defence.
As mentioned earlier, Leinster have shown that they can win games in more than one way, and they will have to utilise all of the weapons in their armoury to topple the champions on Sunday. Constantly changing the point of attack keeps opposition defences guessing, and to score the amount of tries that will be needed to beat Saracens, Leinster have no choice but to throw the kitchen sink at them.