In snatching back the lead from Wasps just before half-time on Sunday afternoon at Allianz, Saracens showed the opportunism and problem-solving ability of a champion side.
More than any athletic attribute, the one quality that Maro Itoje’s clubmates value highest in their young lock is an uncanny capacity to learn. Saracens playmakers know they only need to explain a pattern once. Coaches do not need to repeat pointers. Put simply, Itoje absorbs advice, applies it and thrives.
High-stakes rugby matches are often won by the most adaptable team. Against Wasps at Allianz Park on Sunday afternoon, Saracens did not have everything their own way. In fact, a good deal of the game was scruffy.
BT Sport commentator David Flatman encapsulated the tone on awarding Billy Vunipola with the man-of-the-match award. He said the England number eight had made mistakes, but had also influenced many pivotal moments.
In a six-minute period just before the break, Saracens suffered a setback. Instead of capitulating though, they rallied and wrestled the lead from Wasps once more. Here, we chart a stirring response that crystallised a 30-14 win.
We join the game after a deft kick from Sean Maitland has dribbled into touch close to the Wasps 22. Five points ahead with less than six minutes until the break, Saracens have their opponents pinned down deep in their own territory.
But Itoje is not content. He wants to steal possession and watches intently as Kearnan Myall calls the six-man Wasps lineout from the tail:
As Myall moves forward towards Matt Symons and fakes a jump, Itoje tracks his man and prepares to lift George Kruis to contest:
Symons then steps out of the lineout though, allowing Myall a passage through to the front where Marty Moore can lift him. Following Myall, Itoje turns towards his own lifter Juan Figallo:
However, the intricate movement buys time for Myall and allows him to rise above Itoje. Then, as Myall takes the accurate throw of hooker Tom Cruse, Itoje collides with him:
Referee Matt Carley is not fooled by Itoje’s outstretched arms that feign innocence, immediately blowing his whistle to penalise Saracens for closing the gap in the lineout:
Because the visitors have committed a lineout offence, Wasps are allowed to kick for touch from the 15-metre line…
…and Danny Cipriani makes the most of an improved angle to send Wasps over halfway:
Some slightly clumsy exuberance from Itoje has cost his team around 30 metres, and there were further faults to come.
Wrong side of the law
Saracens have honed an aggressive, confrontational defensive system that forces mistakes, creating turnovers and tries. As a side, they are extremely comfortable without the ball and regularly cause rivals to feel claustrophobic.
Initially, five phases of characteristically cohesive muscle from the ensuing lineout repels Wasps some 10 metres behind the gainline. But now watch Itoje as Dan Robson passes to Cruse:
Cruse is stopped in a double-tackle from Kruis and Schalk Brits, with defensive lynchpin Brad Barritt shooting up on the outside to cover a potential tip-on to Ashley Johnson.
Wasps tighthead prop Moore changes course to resource the next ruck, while Itoje sweeps in behind the tackle area:
Brits does not release the tackled player straightaway, causing some gesturing from Robson and requiring Moore to clear him. By this point, Itoje is directly behind the ball:
Moore wrestles Brits away from the breakdown and to the ground. Seeing no players over the ball, Itoje clearly believes the breakdown to be over. He dives through…
…shooting off his feet and on to the ball as Cruse places it back. With Symons joining the melee and Robson keen to link up with his backs, referee Carley takes a close look…
…and pings Itoje, deeming the situation to be a ruck rather than open play:
As Itoje’s pained expression outlines his thoughts on the decision – and his disappointment at compounding his earlier offence with another one – Robson takes a quick tap to snipe Wasps back on to the front foot:
A flash of superb footwork then helped level the match at 8-8.
Hitting a hitch
In Lee Blackett, Dai Young has one of the most talented coaches in England. The Wasps backline currently looks confident and dangerous. Here, even with Itoje circling around from the other side of the breakdown, Saracens are in trouble.
Wing Mike Ellery looks as though he is calling for Michael Rhodes to move closer to him. Meanwhile, the direction of Jimmy Gopperth’s gaze suggests he is eager to attack a stretched defence:
As Robson finds first-receiver Cipriani, Wasps have a four-on-three advantage with a large hole between Saracens’ second and third defender:
But it is a stutter-step or hitch-kick from Cipriani that creates the opening. As the fly-half lands, he suddenly accelerates, causing the would-be tackler opposite to become flat-footed.
In the below screenshot, Billy Vunipola’s bodyweight has sunk into his right heel (circled). Billy Vunipola slows while Rhodes continues to press on the outside, alert to the presence of Gopperth and Josh Bassett and probably wary of Elliot Daly further out as well:
From a reverse angle, we can see how well Daly holds his width to stretch Saracens…
…and how easily Cipriani arcs around Billy Vunipola…
…before drawing Maitland and releasing Bassett for a try:
Two and a half minutes prior to half-time, conceding this score would be a debilitating sucker-punch to most. But Saracens thanks to sound decision-making and diligent execution,regroup and regain control.
On the charge
The first step of Saracens’ reply is the restart. Rather than hitting a shallow kick for his chasers to contest, Alex Lozowski aims long.
This presents Wasps with two options. Either they can attempt to play out the half by keeping the ball for almost two minutes – a risky strategy against arch-spoilers Saracens – or they can clear, returning possession to Saracens.
Notice Billy Vunipola (circled), hanging behind Lozowski in the back-field and primed to return any kick that does not sail into touch:
Forced to retreat, Nathan Hughes gathers on the five-metre line. As the red arrow shows, there is just one minute and 44 seconds until half-time:
Hughes gallops forward, where he is met by Schalk Burger…
…but any hope of a clean exit is lost when the ball trickles loose at the next ruck.
Brits pressurises Robson…
…who must dart to the left, where Kruis is waiting at guard:
Hughes is back on his feet to carry again by now, and Simon McIntyre drives him through the tackle of Brits beyond the Wasps 22:
Of course, this means if a clearance were to go into touch on the full, Saracens would have a lineout back level with the kick. The most viable option for Wasps is a high, contestable box-kick.
Robson ushers Moore in to join the breakdown, making a ruck that is five players long. Theoretically, this should allow Robson to be shielded from any potential charge-downs. But Itoje, spring-heeled and long-limbed, is stalking in the bodyguard position:
As Robson takes the ball and lifts it up, cramped for space just five metres in from the touchline, Itoje steals forward:
An explosive leap brings him above Moore…
…and Itoje’s right arm deflects the ball, sending it skywards. Around 10 metres to the left is the perennially underrated Mako Vunipola, who is watching the action but turned in readiness to retreat after the kick:
Snapping into action after the charge-down, Mako Vunipola changes direction…
…before rising to gather…
…and launching Saracens into a game-breaking attack.
Readjustments and patience
As Mako Vunipola lands and trucks forward, the reactive support play of Kruis and Itoje is very sharp:
They circle around the carrier and latch on to either shoulder with Figallo in behind, three of them driving the ball to within 15 metres of the Wasps line:
Mako Vunipola places the ball back and Richard Wigglesworth has a pristine platform to play from. Remember, Wasps piled six forwards into the previous ruck.
Here, designated by their shirt numbers, we can see them scramble back to join a frantic defensive effort. Given they are all hovering in the vicinity of the breakdown, there must be space for Saracens to exploit out wide:
This becomes obvious with a wider angle, although Burger must stop to collect Wigglesworth’s pass:
Even so, as we see Billy Vunipola join the attacking line from the back-field – holding his width rather than gravitating towards the ball – Burger does not panic. He simply runs straight, preserving space for those outside him:
Quick recycling gives Saracens another overlap, but a gamble from Daly pays off. The centre shoots up on the outside of first-receiver Barritt:
Encouraging Barrit to cut back against the grain, away from six teammates outside him and towards the Wasps forwards:
Moore makes the tackle and Johnson hovers in an attempt to slow down the next breakdown or even create a turnover. Billy Vunipola is aware, though. He mirrors Barritt’s line of running…
…and storms into a robust clear-out:
Wigglesworth can keep the attack going by bouncing back to the right and finding Burger, who has Brits, Mako Vunipola and Figallo to the right:
Burger transfers the ball to Brits…
…and a neat swivel-pass releases a sweeping Lozowski while sucking in three Wasps tacklers:
In Figallo, Mako Vunipola and Itoje, Lozowski has three forward runners offering themselves with Marcelo Bosch also coming around.
As it happens, Lozoswki opts to hold on to the ball. He carries and is only stopped because of Gopperth’s instinctive decision to step in:
Figallo and Brits clear the ruck…
…and Kruis is next to be sent up. Watch Mako Vunipola and Itoje on this phase. Despite a well-set opposition defence, they trust Bosch and Ellery to recycle the ball at the ensuing ruck:
Itoje circles back around to the left as Rhodes arrives as well:
So when Wigglesworth turns back to that side, he can find Burger with Itoje already latched on. Figallo and Mako Vunipola are also in close attendance:
Launchbury and McIntyre stand firm, but now we can really see how the Wasps defence is being manoeuvred.
Variation, organisation and manipulation
Seven Wasps forwards, designated again by their shirt numbers in the screenshot below, are standing within five metres of the breakdown. The other, McIntyre, has made the tackle.
Wigglesworth then instructs Rhodes and Brits to support Mako Vunipola’s pick-and-go:
Moving in the same direction, from right to left, Itoje is next to shunt around the fringe. Kruis, Billy Vunipola and Barritt join him…
…latching on and driving Itoje through for two more precious metres. Note how narrow the Wasps forwards are again, and that Gopperth is on the right-hand edge of them:
When Brits gets off the floor to carry back towards the posts, changing the direction of the attack, five Wasps forwards are wrong-footed and rendered redundant:
Gopperth circles around to the right in order to bolster that side of the Wasps defence…
…and immediately, the decision is justified. Kruis stoops to adopt the role of scrum-half…
…and feeds Mako Vunipola on a wider line that outflanks Launchbury at bodyguard position:
Gopperth must step in to stop the loosehead prop:
In fact, the New Zealander almost manages to rip the ball from Mako Vuniopola’s grasp.
But the carrier wrestles the ball to ground, demonstrating decent contact skills and a desire to retain possession. A few weary Wasps labour around the corner as Billy Vunipola arrives on the scene:
Having spent the previous two phases in a tight cluster, the hosts’ forwards are now far more widely dispersed – the result of facing a varied attack. Following up two pick-and-goes with a wider, one-pass play, Saracens have manipulated gaps.
Billy Vunipola scoops up the ball and looks to exploit space around the vacant fringe of the breakdown:
A quick, powerful thrust requires McIntyre and Symons to react quickly, jamming together to stop him. Barrit, industrious as ever, latches on once more:
Hughes and full-back Rob Miller join the tackle, making four Wasps required to take down Billy Vunipola. Gopperth has made his way around the ruck, but there is still over 15 metres of space to the right of the screenshot:
Itoje clears the ruck with Barritt. Wigglesworth arrives to take the ball. Burger and Bosch circle around the corner. Goppperth’s body language at guard – shoulders turned in, primed for impact – suggests he is expecting another narrow burst…
…but Wigglesworth fires a long pass across the boughs of Moore, Daly, Robson and Cipriani to Ellery, who is stationed two metres inside the touchline, ensuring Saracens can use the entire width of the field:
Ruthless and resilient, this try allowed Saracens to bounce back from an error-strewn period and snatch a slim advantage before half-time.
They never relinquished the lead, going on to take a bonus point and a comfortable victory without finding their fluent best. Saracens solved teething problems along the way, the hallmark of a trophy-winning team.
Owen Farrell returns this weekend for the Champions Cup opener against Toulon. Rumours of a short-term deal for Eben Etzebeth during the Six Nations are gathering momentum.
These figures will only drive squad standards higher and enhance an already healthy level of inward expectation. Such an attitude is ominous for every prospective opponent in Europe.
Match footage courtesy of Premiership Rugby