After Saracens’ main rival, Exeter Chiefs, slipped up against Harlequins on Friday night, Last Word on Rugby analyses how Saracens can be beaten.
Friday night has clearly shown up Exeter’s frailties.
Harlequins essentially beat them at their own game. They played with pace, tempo and were able to hold onto the ball for multiple phases. Castres also demonstrated that if you can win the battle up front against Exeter they are also vulnerable. It is important to note that in both these losses Exeter were not at their best. However this is another frailty of the Chiefs. As their game rests so heavily on holding onto the ball for long periods of time if their execution is 10% off then they can really struggle.
This is not to say that Exeter will not be a big factor come the end of the season. They absolutely will be, but the real focus must be on Saracens for now. So far they have shown very little weakness both in the Premiership and in Europe. However they are definitely beatable and here is how to do it.
Gain Parity Up Front
This seems almost too obvious but it is important. Saracens have one of the biggest and nastiest packs in Europe and if you cannot gain parity then you have no chance. This is often the route to winning most games but against Saracens it is particularly important. Mark McCall’s men pride themselves on their set-piece and the basics. If a team can take this away then any side will struggle and by extension so will Saracens.
We saw the importance of not gaining parity against them when Gloucester came to Allianz Park. Cipriani has looked electric all season but against Saracens he was ineffective. This is because Gloucester were always on the back foot, so he did not have any time on the ball. In order to get your own game going against Saracens the first step has to be matching them up front or else it is a losing battle before you begin.
Win the Individual Battles
Again it sounds simple and obvious. However, once again important. The one time Saracens looked in trouble this season was against Leicester. In a ten to fifteen-minute period Leicester gained momentum, scored tries and Saracens got two men sin binned.
What Leicester did here is dominate the individual battles. Be these at scrum time, prop on prop, under the high ball or collisions in the midfield. If a side can win the majority of these individual battles you take away the main strengths of Saracens. They base their game on a solid set piece, a dominant kick chase and winning collisions. If they begin to lose these moments they can quickly lose momentum and put themselves under pressure.
Minimise Errors and Penalties
This is arguably the most important thing do when facing Mark McCall’s men. They feed off pressure and pride themselves on not giving away easy exits or soft penalties. To match Saracens you simply have to do the same.
Take Wasps as an example from this past weekend. They had some real attacking opportunities but gave up the ball easily. They also tended to compound their errors with penalties allowing Saracens to gain ground easily. Against a defence as good as Saracens you are unlikely to score heaps of points. Therefore to beat them you cannot give them easy points or give up chances yourself.
Innovation in Attack
The final point is the most difficult to actually achieve in practice. Everyone knows about Saracens’ defence and its prowess. Yet most sides still seem to play into their hands. To try and nullify their ferocious line speed teams need to get more creative.
Sides need to start attacking the short sides more often to shut down the line speed. Also if teams try and target the 13 channel against Saracens you force individual defenders to make bad decisions. Teams tend to get forced back in towards the ruck by the Saracens blitz, as a result they make it easy for them.
Furthermore, it may seem like chancing your arm for no reason, but sides need to try and throw Saracens off their game. Throwing in some little chips or cross-field kicks to give the defence something else to think about. As it stands most teams play into their hands and to beat them teams need to be more innovative.
A lot of what has been outlined above is actually pretty obvious stuff. The point is doing all of the above for 80 minutes. It takes a complete performance to beat Saracens, which is something that they have not come up against this season.
However, they definitely have their frailties. They can and will be beaten at some point but whoever does it will have to be at their very best to do so.
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