With the regular English Premiership season completed, attention has turned to the play-offs. Bristol Bears had been the frontrunners for most of the season, earning a home semi-final against Harlequins as a result of finishing at the top, but Harlequins had been in relatively good form since Billy Millard replaced Paul Gustard on an interim basis following Gustard’s departure. This clash at Ashton Gate gave us everything we wanted, with this tactical analysis examining it in close detail, focusing on Bristol’s attacking tactics, Harlequins’ first half mistakes, and the London side’s improvements after half-time to come back and win the game.
Bristol Bears Harlequins
15. C. Piutau 15. T. Green
14. L. Morahan 14. L. Lynagh
13. S. Radradra 13. J. Marchant
12. S. Piutau (co-c) 12. B. Tapuai
11. M. Malins 11. A. Morris
10. C. Sheedy 10. M. Smith
9. A. Uren 9. D. Care
- Y. Thomas 1. J. Marler
- H. Thacker 2. S. Baldwin
- K. Sinckler 3. W. Louw
- C. Vui 4. M. Symons
- D. Attwood 5. S. Lewies (c)
- S. Luatua (co-c) 6. T. Lawday
- D. Thomas 7. J. Kenningham
- N. Hughes 8. A. Dombrandt
Bristol Bears’ attack
Before focusing on Harlequins, we will first look at the good and bad of Bristol Bears’ performance. It was clear from the outset that they were desperate to go one stage further than last season, when they were knocked out by Wasps in the semi-finals, and made a bright start to this game as a result.
They constantly moved the ball around at speed, trying to exploit spaces before Harlequins closed them down. Here, they are positioned close to Harlequins’ try line, with the majority of visiting players still emerging from the ground on the nearside. Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy has the ball, with Max Malins, operating as a winger in this game, running around the back of him to provide the link with star full-back Charles Piutau. As well as this good positioning, the decoy run from Fiji centre Semi Radradra, indicated by the blue arrow, helped to distract the defenders and gave Bristol more time to get the ball out to Piutau.
This is only one example of Bristol’s clever first half play, but they constantly hunted for spaces and used their creative backs to fashion opportunities in Harlequins’ half.
Piutau was a permanent threat throughout the early stages, with this image showing his patience in possession, waiting for the right moment to attack through the Harlequins line. The blue arrow shows how the space opened up for him, which was poor from Harlequins, but it shows why Bristol rely on Piutau so much. His run here leads to Bristol’s first try of the game, with Radradra joining him behind Harlequins’ players and setting up flanker Ben Earl to score. It was an easy try for Bristol, but it’s the little details that mattered here, like Piutau’s patience and ability to see the gap ahead through the mass of players in front of him.
There were many tactical features present in Bristol’s attack, with the home side finding different ways to create opportunities, again keeping Harlequins guessing where they would go next. Here, the two packs are engaged in a scrum, but Bristol scrum-half Andy Uren doesn’t pick the ball up from the back, as is usual. Instead, he becomes the first receiver, as the blue arrow shows.
This allowed number 8 Nathan Hughes to pick the ball up, but the pass to Uren would have been too obvious, and was what Harlequins would have been expecting. He actually runs the other way, as the yellow arrow illustrates, setting up Malins, in the white circle, to score. Hughes’ run created a 2-v-1 situation against visiting winger Louis Lynagh, making it an easy try to score, and showed how Bristol constantly thought about their play. This was another reason why they were able to exploit gaps in the Harlequins ranks.
For one reason or another, Bristol Bears lost their confidence in the second half, with this image showing another run from Earl after receiving the ball from winger Luke Morahan. Three Harlequins players have formed a triangle around the England flanker, but there is still space for him to run through and score. However, he instead tries to move around the outside, but stumbles in the process, losing momentum. It looked as if he second-guessed himself, which reflects how Bristol seemed more unsure of themselves after half-time. Harlequins were in the ascendency at this stage, having scored just before and just after half-time, and this may well have been the reason that Bristol’s free-flowing attacking play came to an end.
It wasn’t just their runs that lacked quality in the second half; Bristol’s passing and ball-handling also let them down at times. Here, substitute prop John Afoa is passing the ball to centre Siale Piutau, but it is loose and Piutau can’t reach it in time. Instead, Harlequins centre Ben Tapuai wins it back for his team, allowing them to clear their lines, so Bristol had wasted a good attacking opportunity.
By this stage, Bristol had lost Charles Piutau and Nathan Hughes to injury; both are key players for them, and this may have affected their confidence and led to these mistakes being made. The difference between Bristol’s first and second half play was stark, and there will be questions asked internally about what exactly went wrong for them.
Harlequins’ first half mistakes
We have already mentioned how Harlequins began badly, and this section will analyse why they were unable to get into the game until after Bristol Bears had taken a commanding lead.
The main problem was their penalty count, with too many offences committed in promising situations. Here, prop Wilco Louw is counter-rucking against Bristol, which is perfectly legal. However, because it is still a ruck, no-one can put their hands in to win the ball, but scrum-half Danny Care became too tempted when it was available, handing Bristol a penalty as a result.
Harlequins were never able to build any momentum in the early parts of the game, and these moments were the reason for that. This also meant that Bristol could maintain their pressure on the visitors, making it even harder for the away side to get going.
This image shows an attacking situation for Harlequins next to Bristol’s try line, and scoring here would have given them a huge boost. However, they lacked composure with the ball when trying to ground it, with number 8 Alex Dombrandt losing the ball forwards whilst being tackled by Bristol locks Chris Vui and Dave Attwood. Therefore, the pressure on Bristol was relieved and they could clear their lines. These were the situations Harlequins needed to take advantage of, but they struggled to make them count.
Overall, the biggest issue was that Harlequins were too slow with the ball at times. Their passing around the pitch looked laboured, allowing Bristol to close down individual players at every opportunity, with the two blue arrows showing one time they did this. Ultimately, Bristol’s pressure forced Harlequins to kick the ball up the pitch here, which normally concedes possession. However, Malins’ dropped catch allowed Dombrandt to win the ball and score an easy, and perhaps lucky, try, getting the visitors onto the scoreboard at last.
This was only the second moment of quality from the away side, following Lynagh’s attempt to score earlier after a good forward break. Therefore, they needed to improve in the second half to have any chance of reaching the final for the first time since the 2011-2012 season.
Harlequins’ second half improvements
Harlequins did just this, beginning to gain control and take advantage of Bristol Bears’ mistakes.
Here, Bristol’s players have lost their composure with the ball, with a loose pass allowing Harlequins substitute flanker James Chisholm, in the red circle, to run in and score what was a very easy try. It is unlikely that Chisholm was brought on to score tries, but this again shows the increased urgency in Harlequins’ play, and they carried more threat as a result.
This was Harlequins’ second try in three minutes, with full-back Tyrone Green having already scored at this stage, so it was understandable that Bristol looked shaky. However, it was their poor accuracy that let them down, handing Harlequins the opportunities they had been looking for. Harlequins still needed to have the pace and precision to make them count, and did, so this was a big improvement from them.
Green was arguably Harlequins’ best player throughout the game, with his natural pace allowing him to get up the pitch and support his team’s attacks. His link-up play with Lynagh was particularly notable, and helped Harlequins to put relentless pressure on their opponents in the second half. We have mentioned how both Hughes and Charles Piutau had left the action by this point, so it was likely that this made Bristol’s defence easier to break through. Green and Lynagh are both attacking through the gap, with Smith feeding the ball to the full-back initially. Whilst this didn’t lead to a try, it very nearly did, so was another demonstration of the improved quality and threat from the visitors.
Harlequins didn’t stop in the second half, constantly keeping Bristol on the back foot. This particular move was the result of a mistake by Bristol, though, with substitute Piers O’Conor drifting inside and leaving the wide channel open for Harlequins to exploit. Again, it is Smith who sees the space and offloads to Green, who then runs through with centre Joe Marchant, creating a 2-v-1 situation against Bristol’s Ioan Lloyd, who had replaced Piutau in the first half.
O’Conor is normally a centre, but was playing as a winger after coming on. This may have led to him coming inside, as the ball is in his normal position. However, had he stayed wide, Green and Marchant would have found it more difficult to get through, so Bristol were the source of their own problems here.
In the latter stages of the game, when Harlequins needed to remain organised out of possession, they worked together to ensure Bristol couldn’t break through them. Their defensive line here has no gaps between individual players, which also gives Smith and Green, who were behind the line here, added protection and time when catching Bristol’s forward kicks. Therefore, whilst Bristol got worse in the second half, Harlequins were much better, and this defensive setup is completely different to the first half, when we saw how easily Charles Piutau broke through them to set up Bristol’s first try.
In conclusion, Bristol Bears and Harlequins played out a really entertaining, end-to-end semi-final match, with both teams having plenty to be delighted about and plenty to work on. It is worth noting that Harlequins were 28-0 down after around half an hour, and yet forced the game into extra time, showing just how well they played in the second half. Bristol will be disappointed that they couldn’t end what has been a very good season with a potential title, having led the table for months, but they can still be proud of the vast improvements they have made, and look forward to another top four challenge next season.