A look at the attacking movement Northampton have mastered – and how Saracens will look to stop it

Ollie Sleightholme has already plundered 14 tries this Premiership season – David Rogers/Getty Images

Among the many different battles that will determine Friday night’s Premiership semi-final between Northampton Saints and Saracens, there will be an ultimate test of that well-worn sporting sense: “You know exactly what’s coming, but can you stop it?”

Saints strengthened themselves last summer with specialist conditioning and collective weight gain across the squad, but have remained true to their traditional identity. They remain a fearless offensive force, but one of their most powerful weapons is an offensive move used by parties around the world.

“It’s the same movement that everyone does,” admits Sam Vesty. “There are no magical movements at all. We are good at it because we practice it a lot. The players can move a little closer to the line and make their decisions a little later.

“My thinking about it is that everyone pretty much knows what everyone else is going to do. But if you do it well, if you control a certain defender and isolate another defender, it is very difficult to defend.”

The not-so-secret trick in question is described by Vesty as “two guys hard on the line and a guy in the back.” “Leagues [rugby league players] I’ve been doing it forever,” says the Northampton head coach. “Rugby Union has been doing poorly for centuries.”

Most noticeably in lineouts, the shape usually sees one center stand at the first receiver, while their midfield partner hits a short, outside-in corner. Behind this, the fly-half will float around with their blind wing for company, aiming to connect with their full-back and the open wing to overload the opposition. This explanatory chart is over two years old and itself underlines how ubiquitous the movement – ​​referred to below as ‘the slide’ – has become:

During the 2023/24 Premiership season, 39 of the 76 tries scored by Saints came from lineouts. Saracens (40), Bristol Bears and Harlequins (both 42) all have more of this platform, and kick-return is another fertile area for Northampton (producing 13 tries), but Vesty’s attacking moves – and a subtle variation on ‘the slide’ – have been eye-catching.

Here’s how Saracens trying to stifle Saints’ lineout attack, a crucial subplot, could play out.

First of all, respect the maul

Other teams maul more than Northampton, who after 18 rounds were seventh in the Premier League for both maul meters (153 metres) and maul attempts (four). Still, they pose enough of a threat to keep the defense honest. This drive allowed Robbie Smith to score a crucial score against Leicester Tigers a month ago:

Saints lineout coach James Craig is highly rated and Phil Dowson has tended to complement two starting blocks with Courtney Lawes at blindside winger and a six-two split of forwards on the bench, thanks to the versatility of George Furbank. Only Bristol (93.9 percent) surpassed Northampton’s 90.1 percent success rate on their own this season.

However, the Saracens will try to stop them at the source. They are joint top of the table for line-out steals, level with Leicester on 24, with Juan Martin Gonzalez (seven) joining Ollie Chessum as the most productive individual player. Nick Isiekwe, another resilient jumper, has been named to start at lock and Maro Itoje’s maul defense could also be influential.

Watch for wings on breakout plays

Before we get to ‘the slide’, there is a set play that sees Saints challenge the defense in a different way. As they set up a maul, they will break away from the ramp, with their hooker veering toward the open side. A center hits a short line, while the wing on the blind side makes a tight circle back.

It worked beautifully here for Ollie Sleightholme to steamroll against Harlequins last November. Saints call a ‘six plus one’ lineout, consisting of six forwards and another, Lewis Ludlam, in the receiver slot. This is a signpost for a maul, but note that Fraser pushes Dingwall up, past fly-half Furbank, as Tom Pearson collects the throw. A dummy drive sucks all the Harlequins forward except Will Evans, and a first-phase attempt results:

This card reinforces Vesty’s point about how precise running lines will fixate some defenders and isolate others. Sam Matavesi’s bow traps Evans while Dingwall traps Cadan Murley (11), giving the explosive Sleightholme a one-on-one against Marcus Smith (10):



Powerful and tenacious with nimble feet and fearsome acceleration, Sleightholme is a perfect wing to send up in these situations. This effort against Bristol, from the exact same move on the opposite flank, produced a quite remarkable finish:

Saracens need tackles to stay in this channel. Owen Farrell’s presence at Fly-Half clearly makes them a solid unit.

‘The slide’ with extra wrinkles

What makes ‘the slide’ so effective is that multiple options can be extracted from the same setup, where subtle adjustments can completely change the image. These nuances usually relate to the depth and width adopted by the fly-half and blindside wing behind their center and in relation to all backs involved in the play. Take this setup of a lineout on the left, where the respective positioning of the fly-half (10) and the blindside wing (11) changes what the defense has to cover:



Saints, with a well-balanced backline full of ballplayers, have become masters of deception when it comes to ‘the slide’. Watch this try, also from the win over Harlequins in November:

Tommy Freeman hangs on Furbank’s inside shoulder and keeps the defense narrow. George Hendy, meanwhile, forms in the field before fleeing:



All of which allows Saints to outflank Oscar Beard, defend on the left wing for Harlequins, and pass on the outside:

In December against Toulon in the Champions Cup, Tom Seabrook crosses the whitewash untouched while Northampton use ‘the slide’ in a different way to find the same space on the edge:

Finn Smith’s connection with Hendy, who slides to the outside of his fly-half on this occasion, is crucial and Leicester Fainga’anuku is the key defender. He rushes past the Saints centers in an attempt to confuse Smith:



Smith sees this coming, treads water on Tom Litchfield’s pull-back and taps the ball to Hendy to beat the flashy Fainga’anuku. Watch that interplay in slow motion:

Another element of surprise Saints have shown is running ‘the slide’ deep from their own half. Munster might have expected a clearing kick here. Instead, Northampton initiates a drastic version of ‘the slide’.

Smith can isolate Munster outside center Antoine Frisch and send a chasing Sleighthome into the gap to Simon Zebo’s right. Hendy follows to score:

Saracens will have to cover the flat carpet. Dingwall remains square and times pass nicely. Here he throws a flat, rather than pull-back, to Smith to send Litchfield over the try-line against Harlequins at Twickenham:

Beyond that, it’s a matter of commitment and collective understanding for the defense. If the wings flow towards Smith, their full-back may have to follow suit to stop Saints’ blind wing as well. If they hold, the defenders inside will have to work hard to disentangle themselves from decoys and reconnect. As always, this is all a cat and mouse game.

Multi-stage traps and various tricks

Vesty’s script has more than one page, so Saints are not dependent on ‘the slide’. Sometimes the first phases of an attack are mapped out. Against Glasgow Warriors in December, Northampton had to improvise on a messy lineout:

In the Champions Cup quarter-final against the Bulls, James Ramm benefits from a clever two-phase plan:

If we rewind to the first lineout, we can see that Juarno Augustus and Sam Graham, two back rowers, are stationed in midfield behind Smith, with Sleightholme close by and Dingwall deeper:



Graham continues the first phase with Augustus supporting the ruck. This will allow the entire Northampton backline to stay on their feet for the next phase. Dingwall slides into the first receiver as Freeman hits a hard line and Smith and Sleightholme get behind it. Saints essentially perform a second-phase version of ‘the slide’, with Smith firing a pass over Sleightholme to Ramm:

Interestingly, these ‘set-ups’ – where a relatively simple carry foreshadows something more complex – are thought to have been identified by Jacques Nienaber as weak points where Leinster could create a breakdown push. Watch out for disruptive Saracens defenders like Ben Earl trying to disrupt Northampton’s rhythm.

Saints could unveil a less spotty play for the occasion. To set up the 90-0 thrashing of Gloucester earlier this month, Northampton continued with a double slice pattern. Dingwall fed Smith behind Angus Scott-Young before Augustus pulled the ball behind Freeman to Hendy:

Vesty insists that there are no magical moves. But the synergy of saints that the Saracens have to suppress sometimes makes you wonder.

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