The play-off semi-finals of the 2019/2020 English Premiership season gave us some very interesting matchups. The first of the games to happen was Wasps against Bristol Bears at the Ricoh Arena, in what proved to be a good match to watch, both in terms of quality and in terms of things to pick out and discuss. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics that Wasps used to beat Bristol, in attack and in defence, and we will also focus on the areas where the Bears fell short, and still need to work on ahead of next season, as well as where they did well.
Wasps Bristol Bears
15. M. Minozzi 15. M. Malins
14. Z. Kibirige 14. L. Morahan
13. M. Fekitoa 13. S. Radradra
12. J. Gopperth 12. S. Piutau
11. J. Bassett 11. P. O’Conor
10. J. Umaga 10. C. Sheedy
9. D. Robson 9. A. Uren
- S. McIntyre 1. J. Woolmore
- T. Taylor 2. H. Thacker
- K. Brookes 3. J. Afoa
- J. Launchbury (c) 4. J. Joyce
- W. Rowlands 5. C. Vui
- J. Willis 6. S. Luatua (c)
- T. Young 7. B. Earl
- B. Shields 8. N. Hughes
We will start by looking at Wasps, analysing what they did well. We will look at their defence and attack separately, giving us the opportunity to look closely at both. This section will look at their defensive tactics and structure.
The first major tactic that we saw from Wasps in their defending was to hunt in packs against Bristol Bears’ main attackers. In this image, we can see how Semi Radradra has the ball, but can’t get forward. Wasps have three players working together to close down the space he has around him, leaving no gaps between them, as the black line shows.
Radradra is able to get around the defence, as the white arrow indicates, but this means that his route is not as direct as it could have been, and there is now more of a chance that he will be tackled without getting too far.
Moments later, in the same series of phases, we can see how Number 8 Nathan Hughes has the ball, but again, as the black lines show, there are three Wasps players facing up to him. Given that Radradra and Hughes were the two players making ground for Bristol, we can see how Wasps’ defensive tactics ensured that they struggled to make too much of an impact when in possession.
Therefore, from these two images, we can see how Wasps defended in an organised manner, and ensured that Bristol Bears had little to no space to operate in when in possession.
However, Wasps were also using some clever tactics in attack, as we can see from this section.
The home side began the game with a clear intention to get in the faces of the Bristol Bears players, ensuring that they had no time to think about where to move the ball to. This image is a good example of how they made this work.
The image shows a 2-v-2 situation, with the black and white lines marking this out. We can see that Semi Radradra is in possession, but Michael Le Bourgeois, who came on as an early substitute for the first try scorer, Malakai Fekitoa, is looking to close him down, as the yellow arrow shows. By moving up to do this, Le Bourgeois forces Radradra to make an early pass, which he does, down the white line towards full-back Max Malins. However, this is where Wasps are clever, because the second Wasps player in this situation, winger Josh Bassett, runs through the middle of the two Bristol players and intercepts the pass. Therefore, we can see how Wasps were looking to force Bristol to pass the ball to where they wanted it to go, and how Bristol had no other choice, because of the lack of time and space they had.
The other thing that we noticed Wasps doing a lot was to get into good central positions, and then kick the ball forward for a quicker attacker to get on the end of. This image shows just one example of this.
Bristol Bears were playing with a high defensive line, which left the space open behind them. Wasps knew this, and were looking to exploit it. Scrum-half Dan Robson had been tasked with providing the kicks, and here does so, putting it into an area where winger Zach Kibirige, in the yellow circle on the far side of the pitch, can then run onto it. The home side did get a bit lucky with how this situation came about, with the ball being kicked forward by Jimmy Gopperth, playing at centre in this game, and then deflecting off Bristol centre Siale Piutau, meaning that Robson was not offside when collecting the ball.
Ultimately, however, the kick was just too hard for Kibirige to get on the end of, but the intent was there. Just to prove even more how effective this tactic was for them, Wasps may not have scored this time, but their earlier try for Fekitoa came from one of these kicks, with Robson putting it into the space behind the Bristol defenders, and Fekitoa running and scoring under the posts.
This is another example of Wasps taking the ball and kicking it forward, behind the Bristol defence. Gopperth, in the black circle, is this time the player with the ball, and we know he has the quality to create these opportunities in the middle of the pitch. Josh Bassett is running forward on the wing, as the yellow arrow shows, and he reaches the ball before offloading to Italy full-back Matteo Minozzi, who then went over for the try.
If we break this down, we can see each element of this individually.
Firstly, the kick was another example of Wasps’ tactics to try and push Bristol back, but also to just take advantage of the space behind them.
Secondly, Minozzi’s run forward to shadow Bassett’s shows the quality that he brings to the team, and his anticipation of where to be to receive the ball in a dangerous area. We know he likes to make these runs forward, because that’s what he is known for doing for Italy, and is the reason he has been one of their best players in recent years.
Thirdly, if we look at Bristol’s defence, we can see how they have come high up the pitch, which is what has allowed Wasps to kick behind them, but we can also see that they have a curved structure with gaps between them, which is narrow, and this is why Minozzi is able to make his run through the middle of two players, as the red arrow shows, and is why Bassett is able to get around the outside of them.
The fact that this try came just minutes after Zach Kibirige’s, which we will look at later in the article, shows how Bristol Bears’ defending was not at its usual standard in this game.
Bristol Bears’ strengths
If we now turn our attention towards Bristol Bears, we can see how, despite the scoreline, they actually had quite a few good moments.
This image shows Bristol’s first try of the game, scored by winger Luke Morahan. It came after a penalty for the Bears for Wasps coming off their feet in the tackle, and Nathan Hughes had the awareness to take it quickly, gaining a metre or so for his team. Before going down, he offloaded the ball to scrum-half Andy Uren, who is in the white circle here, and he then passes the ball over the top of the Wasps defenders, who have drifted too far inside the pitch, and Morahan receives the ball and goes over for the try in the space that Wasps have left.
Morahan had been in this wide position for a while before the ball came to him, which showed that his intention was to stretch the Wasps defence as much as possible, but to also take advantage of any space that was opened up, as it was here.
As mentioned previously in this analysis, Nathan Hughes was proving to be a handful for his old Wasps teammates, and you can see in this image one example of him driving forward with the ball. Hughes was the player that Bristol were relying on to gain ground for them, and he was using all of his body strength to do just that. It was a constant feature to see him in the middle of the Wasps defence, as he is here, but he never managed to get too far. This is a testament to the Wasps defence, and links back to the point we made earlier about how they defended in groups, giving them a better chance of stopping runs like these.
One thing that had been missing in the first half was the usual creativity and flair that we are used to seeing in Bristol’s play. However, in the second half, they did show more of this, and this image shows just one example of it.
We can see here how Wasps have left some space open, and fly-half Callum Sheedy, usually the source of all creativity in the Bristol Bears team, is looking to offload the ball to Luke Morahan, as the white arrow shows. Semi Radradra runs through as a decoy, as the red line shows, and this means that the Wasps defenders are focusing on him, and not on Morahan, who receives the ball and runs to the outside of this area, as the yellow arrow shows. Radradra’s run left the gap open for Morahan to run through, but, whilst the winger gained a lot of ground for his team, the attack stops when Morahan passes to Max Malins, who is then tackled.
What this shows is that Bristol in the second half looked more of a threat, and had found the creative edge that we have seen them have all season.
The return of the creativity also meant that other players began to make things happen too. Semi Radradra, who was kept reasonably quiet by Wasps in this game, is looking to make one of his quick runs through the defence in this image. This is one example of him charging through, getting on the end of a short pass from Sheedy at speed, which ensures that he can crash through opposing defences with pace and gain metres for his team.
In this particular example, he managed to advance a good way forward, before being brought down. However, this almost led to a try for Bristol, as, a few phases later, Callum Sheedy was held up on the line by Wasps flanker and man of the match Jack Willis. What this shows, though, is how much impact Radradra’s runs through defences in this manner can help his team’s attack. Unfortunately, in this game, due to Wasps’ aforementioned defensive tactics of closing him down, these were not a common occurrence, and this was one reason why Bristol struggled overall in the game.
This image shows us how their newfound creativity ensured they got themselves a late try in the game, through substitute scrum-half Harry Randall. We can see in this image how Max Malins has advanced forwards from full-back, finding a small gap, but dummying a pass to flanker Ben Earl before the tackle. This means that he manages to get just enough space to then offload the ball to Earl behind Jimmy Gopperth, as you can see here, and while being brought down by the veteran New Zealander. Earl, who has carried on his run, then passed the ball to Piers O’Conor, who was playing on the wing in this game, and O’Conor then ran through to find Randall, who went over in open space.
This is the type of rugby that we have seen Bristol Bears produce all season; quick passing, good movement, and finding and creating open spaces. However, only having it in the second half here against Wasps meant that it came too late to help them in this match.
Bristol Bears’ errors
Having highlighted Bristol Bears’ good points, the question now is why they weren’t able to win the match. The answer is that they were few and far between, and for every good point, there were two or three mistakes, and that was what cost them.
These mistakes were fairly simple too, such as the one here. In this image, we can see how Luke Morahan has received the ball and taken it into the tackle, supported by Callum Sheedy. However, with more Bristol players piling in to help, the ball has gone loose at the back. This allows Wasps to pick it up and run forward with it, as flanker Thomas Young, in the black circle, son of former Wasps boss Dai, does here. These were careless mistakes that Bristol were making, and were the reason that they were struggling to create too much.
The errors kept coming in the second half too, and again, they were simple things that were going wrong, like scrums, tackles, and just giving the ball away, like in this image. Centre Siale Piutau has looked to pass to Max Malins, but hasn’t got it right. As a result, Wasps winger Zach Kibirige makes the interception and runs the length of the field to score a try at the other end for the home side. There was no-one at the back to stop this attack, because Malins was the full-back, and he had come up to help the attack. Ultimately, we can see how Bristol gave the ball away when in attack, and this just summed up their game; too many simple mistakes in these kinds of areas, and Wasps took advantage of each one.
In conclusion, we can see how the game between Wasps and Bristol Bears was decided by Bristol’s first half lack of creativity and constant errors. We have seen how Wasps had set up with some good tactics in defence and attack, but some of them wouldn’t have worked as well if Bristol hadn’t gifted them the ball through penalties as often as they did. Bristol did make a fight of it in the second half, and played much better rugby, but it was too late by then, because the damage had been done in the first half, and Wasps will now look forward to a first Premiership final since 2017, and a game against Exeter Chiefs, who they also played in 2017.