The Premiership is back, and has already given us some really exciting games. This was one of those games, and there was plenty to analyse. This article will look at how Gloucester started the match against Bristol Bears at Kingsholm with the same issues we have seen from them this season, before improving as the game went on. We will also look at Bristol’s second half performance, which was partly the reason that Gloucester were able to get back into the game after half time. The analysis will lastly look at both Bristol’s Semi Radradra and Gloucester’s Louis Rees-Zammit, looking at how each of them played in their side’s tactics in this game.
Gloucester Rugby Bristol Bears
15. L. Rees-Zammit 15. M. Malins
14. O. Thorley 14. A. Leiua
13. C. Harris 13. S. Radradra
12. B. Twelvetrees 12. S. Piutau
11. J. May 11. H. Purdy
10. D. Cipriani 10. C. Sheedy
9. J. Simpson 9. A. Uren
- V. Rapava-Ruskin 1. J. Woolmore
- J. Singleton 2. H. Thacker
- F. Balmain 3. K. Sinckler
- E. Slater 4. J. Joyce
- M. Garvey 5. C. Vui
- R. Ackermann 6. S. Luatua (c)
- L. Ludlow (c) 7. B. Earl
- J. Polledri 8. N. Hughes
Gloucester’s first and second halves
We will first look at Gloucester overall, beginning with how they defended poorly in the early stages.
Here, we see how Bristol are defending, and are looking to use the space behind the Gloucester line, as marked by the red square. They know that if they can access it, they will have the advantage, because of the pace they have in their team. Fly-half Callum Sheedy, in the blue circle, has the ball, and he knocks it through perfectly for his teammates to run onto it.
You can see how Gloucester have left gaps in their defensive line, and this is where Bristol are looking to exploit them, and run through to get behind them. The blue arrows demonstrate this, and it is Samoa winger Alapati Leiua and former Tonga centre Siale Piutau who have made the run through Gloucester, and the former feeds the ball into the latter, following the grubber pass from Sheedy. This defensive fragility, and propensity to leave gaps, is what has cost Gloucester at times this season, and this situation highlights it perfectly.
It wasn’t just in defence that Gloucester made errors. Danny Cipriani, although not the only one to make mistakes, is circled, and has looked to play a grubber pass through to the space behind Bristol’s defence, but has overdone it here. His teammate, who you can see running towards the ball on the wing, is too far away to reach the ball, and it ends up being collected relatively easily by Bristol, and touched down in their try area.
These constant individual and team errors meant that, overall, Gloucester could never get any attacking momentum going, and that was a big reason why they struggled in the first half.
Another reason was the lineouts they were giving away, with Bristol’s scrum-half Andy Uren and on-loan Saracens and England flanker Ben Earl, who is the joint-top try scorer in the Premiership this season, both being recipients of the ball straight from Gloucester lineouts in the first half in quick succession. Again, this is why the Cherry and Whites have struggled this season when in attack.
However, new head coach George Skivington, who replaced Johan Ackermann in the season’s enforced break, saw his side become much more resolute as the game went on, and defend and attack much better. If we look at the image below, then we see how Gloucester have become much more organised in defence.
Here, the Gloucester defence has been marked out by the red line, and you can see how nearly every Cherry and Whites player is in this line, helping to close any gaps that had been present in earlier situations. The line is also curved inwards slightly, meaning that Bristol have less time on the ball, and will be forced into making more mistakes. Gloucester are also stretched across the pitch, meaning that there is no way for Bristol to move the ball out to the wings and get past this defensive effort that way.
However, what was still costing Gloucester was the amount of penalties they were conceding when making tackles, or when the ball was taken to ground. This meant that Bristol almost didn’t need to try at times, because of the ease with which the Cherry and Whites were giving them the ball. This also meant that Bristol could just gain ground slowly with each restart, slowly forcing the Cherry and Whites back.
In attack, too, they improved, and Cipriani’s kicks in particular became more accurate. We can see in this image how he has moved the ball towards the wing, and the area marked by the red square. England winger Ollie Thorley is looking to meet it in this area, and Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit, who was playing at full-back for this match, was also in the same area, giving Gloucester a double threat.
However, again, a combination of bad luck and individual errors is what is costing them in these promising situations. This time, it was bad luck, but ultimately, they need to find a cutting edge again in attack, and this will give them more confidence to take full advantage of these situations again.
In the second half, there was one player who seemed to take charge of their attacks, and becoming their best player in them; centre Chris Harris. In the next part of this section, we will focus on his role in getting Gloucester back into the match, showing the form that made the former Newcastle Falcons centre take the notice of both the Cherry and Whites and Scotland, who he has been a regular for since 2017.
Firstly, we will look at his role in Gloucester’s second half try, which was scored by young scrum-half replacement Stephen Varney. You can see how it is Bristol’s turn to have gaps in their defence here, and this has given Harris the opportunity to carry the ball through and behind them. The gap is marked by the blue line, and the red line shows Harris’ run. The Bears were not at their best in the second half, as we will look at later, but this was one of the main reasons why Gloucester were allowed to get back into the game in the second half.
If we roll the move on, then we see how Harris now has space to pick out a pass, and he does so, feeding the ball to Varney, who ends up going under the posts. Harris doesn’t need to wait until Bristol’s other on-loan Saracens player, full-back Max Malins, is upon him, because of the amount of space that he is in. You can see how Malins, in the yellow circle, is on the back foot, and this makes it very hard, if not impossible, for him to stop Gloucester scoring here. Once the ball is with Varney, it is simple for him to get his first senior try for Gloucester, but it was the good work from Chris Harris that ensured the space was created and the ball reached him at the right moment.
Finally, we can see again in this image how Harris is gaining ground for his team. The blue line marks the rough line of Bristol’s defence, and Harris is clearly behind it, in the process of going to ground with the ball, but looking to release it to Thorley, who is in the middle, ready to make a run through with it. This is the form that led to Gloucester signing him when Newcastle were relegated at the end of the 2018/2019 season, and there is no doubt that he was one of the main architects of Gloucester’s revival in the second half at Kingsholm, constantly gaining ground and causing problems for Bristol.
The second part of this analysis will look at Semi Radradra, who was one of Bristol’s new recruits in the season break, and was arguably their best player in this match.
Although a winger by trade, the Fijian was deployed as an outside centre in this game, and at first this seemed a strange decision by the Bears’ Director of Rugby Pat Lam, but we quickly saw what this offered Bristol in attack. Radradra is a quick player, and is tall; all of which means he is very difficult to stop when he gets going. This first image shows what he brings to Bristol when on the ball.
We can see how he is in possession just beyond the halfway line, and, because he is a centre, he has not moved out to the wing. Instead, the Gloucester players around him have recognised how much of a threat he poses, and have come together to stop his run. This has opened up the wing area for other Bears players to run into, as the blue arrows show. Therefore, we can see how Radradra playing as a centre actually offers Bristol more than having him as a winger, although obviously playing him on the wing will also give Bristol pace and a constant threat in that area too.
If we look at this image, we see the other benefit of having Radradra as a centre. Here, he is running towards the space in the Gloucester backline, and, much like Varney’s try earlier, the Gloucester defender has been caught in a 2-v-1 situation. Radradra only needs to wait for the right moment before offloading the ball to his teammate, full-back Malins, in the yellow box, who has made the run forwards with the Fijian, as shown by the yellow arrow. Malins then goes over for the opening try, which was scored inside the first five minutes of the match, and this tells us just how important Radradra was to Bristol’s early attacking promise, and he is certainly a player that can excite Bristol fans whilst he is at Ashton Gate.
Bristol’s second half problems
However, if we look now at Bristol’s second half performance, we see how Gloucester managed to lessen the threat posed by Radradra.
Here, we see how Callum Sheedy, in the blue square, who has been one of the best players in the Premiership this season, has offloaded the ball to Radradra, in the blue circle, following a quick Bristol lineout. Gloucester have got up to him quickly, and formed a defensive line with no gaps, as you can see from the red line. This enables them to stop Radradra running through them, as he has nowhere to go, and has to take the ball into the tackle, halting Bristol’s attack.
The other thing that this does, which was a theme of Gloucester’s second half performance, was that it closes down the space and options that the Bears had more of in the first half. A series of phases following this quick defensive effort means that Bristol had to move the ball quickly, eventually leading to them making a mistake, and the ball was taken into touch by lock Chris Vui, simply because there was nowhere for him to go. This wasn’t necessarily a mistake by Bristol, but was all down to Gloucester’s excellent defending.
If we look at this image, we again see how Gloucester have forced Bristol to stop attacking with so much pace. Here, we again see how the Cherry and Whites have a defensive line closing down Bristol’s players, and this is where the Bears were forced to go backwards. You can see how centre Siale Piutau is in possession here, in the blue circle, and would ideally like to pass to either of his teams down the line, as indicated by the yellow arrows. This would enable Bristol to keep the momentum going in their favour, and to try to push Gloucester back. However, Piutau instead passes backwards, as the blue arrow shows, and finds former Gloucester winger Henry Purdy, who then drops the ball, losing Bristol even more time that they didn’t have. Gloucester’s high line tactics in the second half ensured that Bristol were forced into making these errors, and this was another reason why Bristol never really got going in the second half.
This is another example of Bristol’s second half errors. Here, Purdy has made a pass to replacement hooker Will Capon, but played the ball behind his teammate. Therefore, Bristol have to stop, and Gloucester can surround the ball and stop it going forward. Whilst this is a small point to make, it adds to the overall theme of Bristol’s second half struggles.
The final thing we need to look at is Louis Rees-Zammit’s performance in the match, as he was in a different position to where he normally plays. Instead of playing him as a winger, George Skivington has reportedly said that he has the qualities to play as a full-back. This game was the first opportunity for us to see him in this role, and it raised some interesting thoughts.
What we can see here is that Rees-Zammit instantly looks to run forwards when he has the ball, becoming almost like Stuart Hogg at Exeter Chiefs. His natural pace helps him to do this, but there are positives and negatives to him making these movements forwards.
The positives are that Gloucester can take the ball as far forward as possible before it is met by any opposing attackers, and also that Gloucester have an extra option in attack, as we saw in an earlier image, just like Hogg gives to Exeter and to Scotland. They started this game with Ollie Thorley and Jonny May as their wingers, so this gave them three quick and dangerous attackers on the pitch. This options of having Rees-Zammit as an attacking full-back is what we can see in the image below.
Here, we see how the Wales international has made a run forwards to get on the end of a kick up the pitch from Danny Cipriani, from a penalty in front of Gloucester’s posts, and, whilst Rees-Zammit has not been able to reach it this time, his pace means he can get into these positions on the pitch.
However, the negatives are that, as a winger by trade, you wonder whether he will get caught drifting to either side, as he has in this image. Here, it is not a problem, because he is simply moving to catch the ball, but in other situations, where there perhaps aren’t other teammates alongside him as there are here, you wonder whether this might open up spaces at the back for future opponents to attack into.
His tendency to run forward whilst not being a natural full-back might mean he is unable to get back and stop attacks, which could also be a problem. Full-backs also need to be able to tackle well, as they are often the last player standing between an opponent and the try line, but Rees-Zammit only has a tackle success rate of 74% this season, with 39 tackles made and 14 missed, so this is perhaps one area of his game that he will need to work on.
It did say a lot that, when he was substituted in the second half for winger Charlie Sharples, he looked frustrated and annoyed. His kicking into touch and down the pitch had not been overly convincing, and, being a full-back, he hadn’t been able to make his usual runs down the wings as often has he likes to, so him playing in the no. 15 shirt is definitely a work in progress.
In conclusion, this match had some very interesting points to be made. We have looked at how Gloucester had a poor start to the game, but gradually grew into it, and took control in the second half, whilst Bristol started well, scoring the tries they needed to take the rewards for that good start, but then struggled as Gloucester grew in confidence. The individual performances of Bristol’s Semi Radradra and Gloucester’s Louis Rees-Zammit also raised some interesting points of analysis. Overall though, Bristol will be happy that they came away from Kingsholm with a win and a winning bonus point, but Gloucester, whilst frustrated that they only just missed out on a losing bonus point, will be slightly happier with the way they ended the match, and George Skivington already seems to have made the necessary impact on the squad.