Coming into a game that pitted the two form teams in the Premiership and Pro 14 against each other, Leinster faced what was their sternest test of the season in the Champions Cup last Saturday. While Leinster undoubtedly both overpowered and outworked the Northampton Saints for most of the game, this analysis will look at a few of the strategic details that allowed Leinster to pick apart the Premiership leader’s defence over the weekend.
15 versus 12
If we are going to talk about how Leinster’s attack took apart the Saints defence, it’s worth also explaining the specific areas of that defence that the Irish province were looking to exploit.
Taking a look at Northampton as they kick-off to start the game, notice the three circled Northampton players holding their runs in the picture above.
A minute later it happens again as three players drop back to cover the touchline when Rory Hutchinson kicks a ball into the Leinster 22.
This approach is generally called a 12-3 defensive structure because it keeps 12 defenders in the front line of defence and three covering the backfield. The rationale behind the 12-3 defensive setup is that, with the most teams usually looking to kick the ball away from anywhere inside their own 22 metre line, Northampton will have three players back to cover the kick and counter-attack if possible.
However, in the example shown above, Northampton surprisingly win the ball back in the ruck after Hutchinson’s kick. When scrum-half Cobus Reinach then looks to pass to Dan Biggar, the out-half hasn’t come up from his covering position quickly enough-allowing Garry Ringrose to intercept the pass.
All of a sudden, Northampton’s decision to have only 12 defenders in the front-line has backfired and the right edge of their defence is exposed. Watch the excellent work-rate of Jordan Larmour off the ball following Ringrose’s interception below.
Having initially stood at the ruck on the right touchline, seconds later he is on the other side of the pitch to make a 60 metre linebreak and put James Lowe through to score.
Leinster would continually try to attack from deep with 15 versus 12, looking at Northampton dropping cover defenders back as an opportunity to run the ball to the edge rather than kick.
In the example above from the 19th minute, Leinster deliberately use the threat of James Ryan to attract defenders around the ruck. Having fixed the Northampton inside defence, Ryan plays a pass out the back to Johnny Sexton where Leinster have a 5 vs. 3 overlap. Only a momentary lapse of concentration sees Larmour miss out on another linebreak after Robbie Henshaw gets beyond the tackle and offloads. Undettered, Leinster try again in the 46th minute.
Once more there’s a muscular carry from Caelan Doris, followed by another backdoor pass from Ryan to his out-half. On this occasion however, Henshaw’s offload sticks and Jamison Gibson-Park makes another linebreak that eventually leads to Leinster’s 5th try.
It’s worth quickly noting the line that Gibson-Park takes prior to this happening.
As Ringrose winds up to play the switch pass with Henshaw, the scrum-half is already running a line anticipating where the linebreak is going to be. It’s a small detail but it allows the 9 to receive the ball in space and Henshaw time to pick him out.
Attacking the fringes
As well as looking to take the game to the English club from their own half, Leinster repeatedly looked to exploit Northampton’s tendency to switch off around the edges of the ruck.
As we can see in the picture above, rather than protecting the gap, the Northampton no. 2 is looking to drift out quickly onto Sexton once Gibson-Park has passed.
Going in search of the big hit on the Leinster 10, Mike Haywood ignores the threat of Larmour and the Leinster fullback breaks the line from Sexton’s inside pass, feeding Gibson-Park the ball to bring Leinster a metre from scoring.
After two carries in quick succession, Rhys Ruddock eventually wrestles the ball over the Saints line with numbers to spare for Leinster’s second try.
Leinster would employ the inside pass numerous times throughout the game but Devin Toner would also play a subtle, but vital, part in punishing Northampton’s tendency to switch off around the ruck.
After another Ruddock carry in the 36th minute, Toner clears Reinach out of the ruck. However, it’s his position beyond the ruck that we want to pay attention to in the image above.
Although looking innocuous at first, Toner’s position stops Northampton’s Ehren Painter from covering across, allowing Gibson-Park to snipe around the edge of the breakdown.
Leinster get a penalty from the ensuing ruck for Reinach playing the ball on the ground and Leinster kick to the corner before scoring their 3rd try.
For Leinster’s 4th try, the lock is involved once more.
Though Cian Healy does the more difficult part here, Toner taking the space beside the ruck is crucial. With the lock in the way, Reinach has to run around Toner before he can try to stop Healy; buying the prop the vital second he needs to put the ball down.
Toner gets his third involvement in the lead-up to Leinster’s 5th try in the 47th minute.
The Saints switch off again, allowing Toner to occupy the space beyond the ruck and shepherd Doris through the gap before Ross Byrne finishes. Even as Gibson-Park passes to Byrne, Toner can be seen again putting his big frame ahead the ruck just in case.
While it may be considered obstruction on another day, Saints head coach Chris Boyd will undoubtedly be asking his players to be more aggressive with Toner around the ruck in the return fixture this weekend.
Although Northampton’s coach reasonably pointed to Leinster’s ability to reach ” another level of physicality and fitness” as one of the deciding factors in victory, there was more than just muscle to the Irish province’s win last weekend. Showing a willingness to run the ball at every opportunity; it was as much smart play as stamina that saw Leinster get the edge on Saturday.
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