Openside flanker Will Fraser was at the heart of Saracens' 39-0 defeat of Harlequins in the Aviva Premiership on Friday evening. We take a closer look at his defensive performance, in which he proved a pest at the breakdown and shone opposite Chris Robshaw.
One of rugby’s weirder nuances is that sometimes it is better not to have the ball. Every so often, relentless aggression in defence, allied to only a few attacking ambushes, can lead to a total thrashing. Under the tutelage of Paul Gustard – a discipline of Andy Farrell’s ‘destroy and enjoy’ school – Saracens have become smash-and-grab masters.
A 46-6 dismantling of Clermont in last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final was formidable and they were at it again at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday against Harlequins. In a 39-0 victory, they made more than twice the amount of tackles their opponents managed (123 to 53) and enjoyed just 35 per cent of possession.
Of three five-pointers, one came from a Charlie Hodgson charge-down and another after Chris Ashton sped off in pursuit of a fly-hack. But do not be fooled into thinking this was some fluke. Saracens were systematic and exceptionally cohesive – rapid on kick-chase, lightning on line-speed and too brawny at the breakdown. Harlequins could not cope.
Boundlessly energetic, Will Fraser personified that collective mind-set and had a mammoth game. Reinforced with nine kilograms of muscle – a product of some painstaking graft during an injury-ravaged few months – he simply bullied the ruck area.
Undoubtedly aided by the superior strength of his tight five, Fraser nonetheless excelled opposite Chris Robshaw. Stuart Lancaster already rates him highly and wants to add more pilfering ability to his pack. A hat-trick of turnovers, with 10 tackles and a pushover try thrown in for good measure, will certainly have enhanced Fraser’s England credentials. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say he might be wearing a white number seven shirt at next autumn’s World Cup.
This sequence of screenshots demonstrates Fraser’s involvements within one Harlequins attack, summing up his immense overall contribution as part of Saracens’ defensive effort.
We start from a Harlequins line out just inside the Saracens 22. Fraser (cricled in red) stands at the tail. Eyes fixed on the ball, the 24 year-old is alert for any sniff of a fumble – he showed impressive acceleration and bravery to dive on a loose ball in a from a similar situation early in the match.
As Nick Easter takes the ball and Harlequins form a driving maul, Fraser positions himself at the guard position on the open-side. Notice his head is up and he is scanning for clues as to where Danny Care will attack.
This next image comes after Harlequins have made about 10 metres, coming infield as well to create chances on either flank. Rather than panic as his team are heading backwards, Fraser trusts the rest of the pack to halt the momentum and stays detached, therefore in the game. Clearly alert and identifying potential threats, he has also slipped to the other side of the maul.
Fraser then sets Saracens’ line-speed, which helps to force confusion and a loose pass from Robshaw. Instead of relaxing when the ball hits the floor though, Fraser fights through the bodies and onto Easter, who has tidied up.
The flanker goes fairly high to nullify Easter’s offloading threat, affecting a strong tackle. He does not manage to roll to his feet in time for the next phase, but he is in back on the fringes as Harlequins move it infield again from close to the left touchline.
This time, Billy Vunipola takes the first guard slot, pushing Fraser across one. Again, Fraser is wary of Care’s movements while scanning for runners in front of him.
Showing an acute awareness of the laws, Fraser brings his arms out at shoulder level so there is clear daylight between him and the tackled player. It is a small movement, but a significant one that highlights his endeavour to release Turner-Hall to referee Wayne Barnes. Then, he is free to compete for the ball on the floor. Adopting a low, sturdy body position, Fraser supports his own bodyweight and braced to resist the clear-out of Kyle Sinckler.
Despite the attentions of arriving Nick Easter, Fraser rolls back towards his own posts, allowing Vunipola and the outstanding George Kruis to pile over and complete the turnover. Saracens have withheld a period of sustained pressure and won the ball back. In the space of a minute, last season’s Premiership runners-up give tangible meaning to the term ‘try-scoring defence’.
Hopefully Fraser can now stay available for a prolonged period of time. He certainly deserves that much following recent struggles with foot and ankle issues. With fitness on his side, the pecking order and personnel of England’s back-row might just get a re-shuffle.