Analysis: The secret behind Sale's meteoric rise
RugbyPass columnist Ben Smith looks into the reasons behind Sale Sharks’ meteoric rise in the past month.
Since returning from the Autumn break Sale have lost just one of their last six matches in the Premiership, winning four and drawing one after starting the season with two wins and four defeats, stuck in the thick of a relegation battle.
Sale has climbed into fifth position, firmly in play-off contention after knocking over fourth-placed Gloucester and second-placed Saracens, proving their credentials.
The side has been completely transformed with the arrival of the Du Preez South African contingent, as well as the return of Springbok scrumhalf Francois de Klerk who missed the first six games of the season with international duty.
Arguably no player is more valuable to Sale than De Klerk, who possesses game-changing ability on both sides of the ball. He is the best defensive scrumhalf in the world, with a valid case for the very best based on his work in the last twelve months.
Whilst his pass possesses more velocity than pinpoint accuracy, his dynamic running game changes the way defences have to play, his box kicking controls Sale’s territory and his disruptive defensive work causes crucial turnovers. His physicality is unmatched by any No.9 in the world, leading to physics-defying hits.
His halfback partnership with sharpshooter Rob Du Preez has started to ignite the class of Sale’s stable of international outside backs in James O’Connor, Chris Ashton, Denny Solomona and Byron McGuigan, while the addition of the Du Preez twins to a pack already boasting Jono Ross and Tom Curry is one of the more mobile, abrasive units in the competition capable of winning possession over the ball.
Sale has found a balance and game plan that is able to win against anyone in the competition, with Faf de Klerk a central figure bringing it all together.
Basic Exit Plays
Sale’s commitment to completing a good exit has been critical over this run of success.
With Faf’s box kick, Sale can usually land the ball around halfway and keeping it in play, forcing the opposition to retreat and transition into attack. Against Bristol, they kicked into touch directly to take away counter opportunities from Charles Piutau, but against others, they have generally kept the play alive.
With many capable jackalers in the side, combined with disruptive forces of de Klerk and Tom Curry, Sale can withstand phases and eventually turn the ball over. They are 4th in the competition in turnovers won, and Curry leads all players with 16 turnovers by himself. Curry’s rush defence constantly causes negative gain line plays for the opposition, hammering runners to a standstill and backward.
Instead of clearing deep in the own goal area for an opposition lineout 30-40 metres downfield, de Klerk’s leg can land the ball anywhere between 45-60 metres, giving Sale plenty of room to bring defensive pressure over multiple phases as the opposition works their way back.
It’s simple yet effective and plays to Sale’s strength. The amount of times they turn teams over after box kicking is astounding, especially in this run since November.
De Klerk’s own blitzing around rucks is still causing havoc and contributing to big plays in this area of the field.
As Saracens pressed forward into Sale territory at a critical junction in the match on the weekend, de Klerk used his blitz to ‘sack’ reserve halfback Ben Spencer
and cause a knock-on, winning a scrum feed.
His timing is exquisite considering the length of the path he travels to get to the halfback, arriving at just the right time.
With seven minutes left on the clock, de Klerk’s exit kick gave Saracens possession around halfway again.
Faf blitzes a second time, this time from an A defender position and gets a wrap around Spencer, bringing him to the ground.
Reserve flanker Ben Curry is the first man over the ball and is unlucky not to win a penalty for holding on.
Sale’s defensive fortitude is critical to their overall game, while they don’t tear apart teams on attack and rack up high scores, they get out of their own danger zones and piggyback that momentum down the field by causing turnovers or winning penalties in defence, which is driven by players like Curry and de Klerk.
With the addition of sharpshooter Rob Du Preez at flyhalf, Sale keeps the score ticking taking kickable three’s, while the backs are starting to click into gear to provide enough strikes to get by.
The team’s shape is slowly coming together using a 5-3 width pattern with Rob du Preez playing direct at first receiver and James O’Connor as a second receiver in behind a two-man pod, while a lot of the set-piece attack utilizes de Klerk’s speed from the base with a lot of halfback running schemes.
Against Saracens, they played a ‘21’ pattern perfectly using the threat of de Klerk’s running game to open up a switch play around the ruck.
After two phases the same way, Sale sets up the switch for centre Sam James (13) and Denny Solomona (14).
Saracens have folded quite well and have their right-side defence set well with numbers and spacing, but the far side is rather thin and ripe for a switch.
Sale uses the running threat of de Klerk to pull defenders the wrong way, before using James and Solomona dropping under.
The key player for Saracens is lock George Kruis (5), who is drawn across in pursuit of de Klerk, even though he was not required to do so.
Saracens spacing on the left side is not great to start with, better illustrated by the high shot, but Kruis makes things even more difficult by leaving his ‘A’ gap to fold over.
Schalk Burger (7) pushes in to cover his absence but the space is too much for one man to cover with the speed of James and Solomona.
James does a perfect job of drawing Burger into contact and playing Solomona on his inside shoulder, while Kruis and other tight forwards struggle to get back across to cover.
Solomona explodes through the gap and beats the cover defender in the second level to score a 50-metre try, but the original threat of de Klerk helped to open the hole.
The livewire halfback is always aware of his options and likes to deceive the defence in multiple ways.
He will often use his box kick setup to sell the kick before taking off or passing to the open side and attacking a defence with its guard down. He will swivel and pass to his back side.
These ‘box-fakes’ have opened up space for Sale and resulted in large gains down the opposite touchline releasing through the backs as most sides pre-empt the kick and the defence starts to retreat in anticipation.
Other subtleties he has in his repertoire include a perfect sense of drawing the defence offside with a delayed release. It’s not frequently used but he uses it every so often to throw out the timing of the line speed.
Watch the slight fake below, which throws out the line speed allowing Sale’s backs to play direct with more time to run onto the ball. Faf de Klerk is there again to back up and receive the final pass.
A scintillating @SaleSharksRugby try! 🔥
Ashton, O’Connor and De Klerk combine beautifully to cross over for the visitors 👏 pic.twitter.com/Cet0wsIIX7
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) December 29, 2018
His impact as a playmaker in defence and attack can be no better illustrated than the massive hit he made on Gloucester midfielder Billy Twelvetrees.
Offering pressure from the scrum base, de Klerk diagnoses Gloucester’s exit carry and rushes out at Twelvetrees meeting him head on.
The contact dislodges the ball and Sale recover the ball to go hot on attack on Gloucester’s own five-metre line.
De Klerk plays one wide runner before firing a long cutout ball over the top to the open path of Denny Solomona who scores in the corner to stretch Sale’s lead to 30-10.
De Klerk’s return and Sale’s run of form is no coincidence – he is changing the game with his playmaking on both sides of the ball, something that puts him into the conversation of world’s best.
The Sharks have transformed into a Premiership contender with him, and with other quality additions, they are a side that can make a run for playoff qualification and cause some real headaches this year.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
RugbyPass has created a next generation rugby rating system, based on machine learning and shaped by game winning moments. The system (RPI) is a world first for its complexity and comprehensive embrace of northern and southern hemisphere players and teams. By using in-depth data analysis, RPI determines exactly what it takes to win, in real time. Explore the RPI now!