Sunday 18 August 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Behind the dark arts'

Analysis

David Strettle tapping the ball back into open space rather than attempting to catch
David Strettle tapping the ball back into open space rather than attempting to catch
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For years, the extent of rugby's 'dart arts' was largely confined to what went on between the two front-rows in scrums.

Teams have always looked to gain an advantage over their opposition any way they can, but the increasingly analytical nature of the sport, as well as the fact that smarter coaches and players are at the forefront of the game, means that the search for those small percentages is now more widespread than ever.

Alex Goode blocks Andrew Conway’s attempt at a catch
Alex Goode blocks Andrew Conway’s attempt at a catch

In fairness to referees, there is so much going on in the modern game that is becoming more difficult to police everything, which is why their touch judges must do more to help them out.

It is no coincidence that the teams who are able to successfully implement the dark arts in their game-plan are usually the most successful ones.

That brings us nicely on to this evening's Champions Cup final, and Saracens in particular.

During their utterly convincing semi-final win over Munster, the English side played on the edge of laws and they did so brilliantly.

Mike Haley is tackled by Owen Farrell while his feet are still in the air
Mike Haley is tackled by Owen Farrell while his feet are still in the air

To criticise a team for doing so is foolish and the purpose of this piece is not to do that, but rather highlight the ploys they use to gain that all-important advantage.

In an ideal world, the 46 players on show in Newcastle will be the only ones on the pitch who are being talked about come full-time, yet it is difficult not to imagine that Jerome Garces will not also be a key figure, especially considering his erratic refereeing display when Sarries beat Munster last month.

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Mark McCall's men had done their homework on the French official much better than Munster had and it paid dividends as they successfully managed to escort opposition players off the ball, won the lottery that was the breakdown, while also living right on the offside line.

If we focus on those particular three key areas, we can see the scale of the challenge that Leinster have on their hands to nullify the threat of Saracens.

Jackson Wray on his elbow and therefore not supporting his bodyweight
Jackson Wray on his elbow and therefore not supporting his bodyweight

Aerial contest

Saracens caused Munster problems all day with their accurate kicking game as Owen Farrell and Ben Spencer repeatedly peppered balls on top of the back-three.

Rob Kearney will relish that challenge, but Sarries are likely to target James Lowe or Jordan Larmour in the air.

Inside the opening 30 seconds of the semi-final, Spencer sent two towering garryowens above Mike Haley, who under major pressure from David Strettle, could not field either kick.

Tadhg Beirne being prevented from getting to the ball by Michael Rhodes
Tadhg Beirne being prevented from getting to the ball by Michael Rhodes

Image (1A) shows the second of those two kicks and what is important to note here is how Strettle doesn't actually attempt to catch the ball ahead of Haley, but rather taps the ball back into the space for his team-mates to pounce.

It was a clever ploy that Saracens used to good effect all game as they backed themselves to win the scrap on the ground.

Munster were also unable to nullify Sarries' repeated escorting of players off the ball. It's something that Rob Kearney pointedly brought up last week.

Image (1B) perfectly sums that up as Alex Goode makes no attempt to play the ball and instead blocks Andrew Conway's run, which allows Liam Williams to make a clean catch unopposed. Note Keith Earls' look of disgust on the bench.

Kearney insisted that Leinster would not be as naive in combating those blocking runners, but if the ref is not policing it, that is easier said than done. It will be worth watching closely to see how Leinster go about this.

Owen Farrell takes out Peter O’Mahony from the side of a ruck
Owen Farrell takes out Peter O’Mahony from the side of a ruck

Farrell typifies Saracens' approach of playing the game right on the edge. His tackle technique is regularly questionable and against Munster, he got away with one after another high kick, which saw Haley tackled in the air.

Image (1C) shows that the Munster full-back's feet are still in the air as Farrell tackles him. Again, Garces doesn't penalise him despite a check from his TMO.

Saracens' kicking game is outstanding and if they can get it going as they did against Munster, they will be hard to stop.

Nick Tompkins and Owen Farrell went offside but were unpunished
Nick Tompkins and Owen Farrell went offside but were unpunished

Breakdown

Given how much of a concern the refereeing of the breakdown has become and then in light of Garces' poor officiating of it during the semi-final, it was a major surprise that he was chosen as the man in the middle for the final.

It is cause for concern for Leinster, who will have had quiet word with Garces, but there is no doubt that they are better equipped than Munster to combat Saracens' threat at the breakdown.

The English side have poaching threats across the pitch and they got away with a staggering amount against Munster.

Take image (2A) for example. Jackson Wray goes for the jackal, but quite clearly has his elbows on the ground and is not supporting his own body weight.

Instead of Munster being awarded the penalty, Wray wins it and Farrell scores three points from the resulting kick.

Billy Vunipola went offside but were unpunished
Billy Vunipola went offside but were unpunished

Games are won and lost on such fine margins and even though Saracens were far better than Munster, today's final will be tighter and the last thing anyone wants is for it to be decided on such a bad refereeing decision.

Tadhg Beirne is one of the best poachers of the ball in Europe, yet Saracens totally erased him from equation - sometimes legally, other times not so much.

In (2B), we can see how Michael Rhodes takes Beirne out beyond the ball, which stops him getting to the breakdown. It's a simple yet effective tactic, but most refs would have pinged Rhodes for doing it.

The most blatant of Saracens' breakdown infringements came early in the second half, however, when Farrell cleaned out Peter O'Mahony from the side of a ruck (2C).

It doesn't get much more illegal than this as Farrell does not come through the gate, but again, Sarries get away with it and less than a minute later scored their decisive second try.

Offside line

Another blight on the game in recent times has been the policing or rather the non-policing of the offside line.

This is by no means limited to Saracens as most teams are at it, but it ties in with their approach of pushing the laws to the limits.

Touch judges must be asked to monitor the offside line better, which in turn would relieve the mounting pressure on referees.

A common trend in Saracens game-plan is to push those limits even more when they get in front on the scoreboard.

With repaid line-speed becoming a hallmark of most defences, players are rushing off the line quicker than ever before as they look to shut down the attacking team's options.

There were several instances throughout the win over Munster that we could have highlighted, but we have chosen a scenario that unfolds in the 45th minute.

Image (3A) has Conor Murray moving in as if to pass left with Nick Tompkins and Farrell shooting up - neither player have started at the hindmost foot of Vincent Koch, who is creating offside line, and therefore should have been penalised. Murray opts to go right and just as he passes, (3B) unfolds, with Billy Vunipola already almost in John Ryan's face.

Out of shot, Romain Poite, who is the touch judge at the far side of the pitch, is quite clearly looking along the line and should be able to recognise that Vunipola is offside.

Saracens will equally feel that Leinster use dark arts just as much, but having seen how effective they were against Munster, the champions can't say they weren't warned as they go in search of a record fifth European title.

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