The English Premiership is still only a couple of rounds old, but already we can see the teams who are likely to struggle this season, and the ones who will be challenging for the play-off positions when the season comes to an end. Friday’s game between Bristol Bears and Northampton Saints looked to be a crucial game for both teams, with Northampton looking to end their run of eight consecutive losses (going back to last season as well), whilst Bristol had made a lukewarm start to the season, winning one and losing one before this game. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by both sides, as both looked to get a win on the board. We will analyse how Northampton played well throughout the game, and how Bristol struggled to keep them back, but then came back in the second half to steal the game from them with virtually the last play of the match.
Bristol Bears Northampton Saints
15. H. Purdy 15. A. Tuala
14. N. Adeolokun 14. M. Proctor
13. P. O’Conor 13. P. Francis
12. S. Piutau (c) 12. R. Hutchinson
11. A. Leiua 11. T. Collins
10. T. Eden 10. J. Grayson
9. A. Uren 9. H. Taylor
- J. Woolmore 1. A. Waller (c)
- B. Byrne 2. R. Marshall
- M. Lahiff 3. O. Franks
- D. Attwood 4. A. Ratuniyarawa
- J. Joyce 5. D. Ribbans
- J. Heenan 6. N. Isiekwe
- D. Thomas 7. L. Ludlam (c)
- N. Hughes 8. T. Wood
Northampton Saints’ creative play
We will first analyse how Northampton Saints dominated the first half, going in at half-time with the lead. Bristol normally defend well, but were missing a few key players to international duty, so there were a few gaps in their ranks. If we look at the image below, we can see how the Saints looked to exploit these spaces.
The key thing about their play was teamwork, and we can see here how they are attacking in numbers. They didn’t hang around when the ball was going through the phases, moving it quickly and looking to push the Bears back towards their own try line. Northampton fly-half James Grayson, in the white circle, has looked to play the ball across to his teammate, giving him something to run onto at pace. He has three passing options available, all moving towards the line, as shown by the white arrows, and this makes it harder for Bristol to keep them all back. The red lines show how they didn’t seem to be as organised as usual, with some players ahead of others, and that created gaps that Northampton could exploit with these quick attacks, using multiple players.
Again, in this image, we can see how Northampton are looking to force their way through a gap in the Bristol defence. This creative edge that was allowing the Saints to find these gaps is something we haven’t seen from them much this season, and Bristol here have two defenders either side, but they are too far wide to get across and stop the run from Saints lock David Ribbans, in the white circle. As the arrow shows, he was able to break through and then score a try, and Bristol needed to be stronger in these situations. This was a key factor in Northampton’s dominance in the first half, and was a reason why they kept asking questions of the Bears’ defence; questions that weren’t usually answered.
Here, we can see how Northampton scored their second try, through centre Piers Francis, who is in the white circle. The kick overhead from Grayson into the space behind Bristol’s defence was met perfectly by Francis, and he was able to get through too easily to score here; the white arrow shows the centre’s run through to meet the ball and score. The red lines show how there are four Bristol players around where the ball lands, but none of them can reach it quicker than Francis, and that was a problem for Bristol. The reason this space appeared was because the front two defenders had moved up to try and put pressure on the Saints’ attack, but that just opened up the space behind for Northampton to kick into.
Therefore, despite being the season’s strugglers so far, we can see how Northampton started well and played with a lot of creativity, catching Bristol out and not letting them play the game they wanted to.
Bristol Bears’ first half
However, as we shall see in this section, Bristol Bears had their fair share of good attacking moments too, and did provide a threat to Northampton Saints’ defence, which hasn’t been at all strong since the restart last season.
Here, Bristol fly-half Tiff Eden is looking to break through the Saints’ back line, forcing his way through a gap. Northampton have been criticised for their defending so far this season, as it is what is letting them down constantly, and was a major factor in their collapse at the end of last season as well. This attack came in the first minute of the game, with Bristol having moved the ball around well, and Northampton struggling to keep them back, and this attack almost leads to a very early try for the Bears. We know that they like to play an attacking game, searching for and creating gaps, but this image also highlights how the Saints need to address these defensive issues now, otherwise they will struggle to pull away from the bottom of the table.
It was a common sight to see Bristol looking to use the space available on the wings, as Northampton kept being sucked inside to defend centrally. When facing players like Piers O’Conor, who is in the red arrow here, you simply can’t leave these spaces open, because he loves to run with the ball and get behind opposing defences. Here, he makes an angled run, as shown by the red arrow, with two Saints defenders drifting across to try and close the space off, but they can’t get there and organise themselves, and O’Conor simply runs between them.
This particular run didn’t lead to a try, but another, which saw full-back Henry Purdy make a move through the Saints defence, did lead to one, so it just shows how Bristol were constantly looking to attack and use the wings to cause Northampton problems.
It wasn’t just with one player that Bristol wanted to attack down the wing; they also looked to create situations where they would outnumber the opposing defenders in that area. Here, we can see how Purdy and winger Niyi Adeolokun have combined to make the most of this attacking opportunity. This particular run didn’t get far, but the thinking was correct, as it gave Bristol a lot of space and options in these attacks.
What is particularly notable to mention here is the role Purdy played as the full-back. As he is a winger by trade, he is quick and direct, and adds a lot to his team’s attack. However, as a full-back, he is able to move to either wing to support the attack, always offering a passing option wherever the ball is. Therefore, we can see how he played a crucial role in keeping Bristol in with a chance of winning the game, even when Northampton were dominating the play.
It also wasn’t just with passes that the Bears were looking to get the ball to the wings. This image shows how they played a kick across the pitch, aiming to get the ball into the space as quick as possible, before Northampton could run across and intercept it. Eden is the player making the kick, and the fly-half position is crucial in directing Bristol’s play; think of how Callum Sheedy is the one always creating chances and directing play for the Bears when he is with them. Winger Alapati Leiua is looking to receive it, and we saw him score a try last season from a similar situation, with a kick across the pitch reaching him and giving him time and space to go over. This time, it didn’t lead to a try, but the attempt was still there, and that was what counted, because it forced Northampton to be more wary with their defensive work as the game went on.
Bristol Bears’ second half turnaround
Given Bristol Bears had played well in the first half, but just hadn’t been able to get on the scoreboard as much as they would have wanted, it was obvious that they would look to come out in the second half and dominate the game much more, playing the rugby that we know they like to play.
We have already mentioned how Henry Purdy offered a lot to Bristol’s attack in the first half, and how his involvement helped to drive the Bears forward when they had the ball. In the second half, he found more and more space to play in, and Northampton Saints struggled to keep him back when he was making runs forward. His movement and eye for space always helps Bristol, but, in this game, it was particularly important, because it was a key factor in Bristol’s growing control of the game from an attacking point of view in the second half.
We also mentioned previously how Bristol looked to create 2v1 and 3v2 situations on the wings as much as possible, seeking to get the ball behind the Saints defence and isolate individual players in those areas when the main part of Northampton’s defence was sucked inside. However, they added more to this tactic in the second half, and the arrows illustrate just one example of this.
O’Conor, who was a threat throughout the game, and who is on the inside of the three players on the wing, receives the ball from the other Bristol centre, Siale Piutau, who is in the red circle. Once he has possession, he then runs towards the wing, as the yellow arrow shows. This takes the Northampton defender in front of him, in the white circle, away from the rest of the players looking to get across, creating a gap. At the same time as this is happening, flanker Jake Heenan runs inside, into that gap, as the blue arrow shows, before receiving the offload from O’Conor.
This move didn’t come to anything, but it shows how Bristol were looking to be even more creative in the second half with their attacking play. They were always looking to create and find some space to get through a Northampton defence having its best game of the season so far.
However, whilst they may not have been successful with that effort, this one did lead to a try, almost with a carbon copy of Northampton’s earlier try. The Saints have not been able to close off the gaps that had not been present for most of the game up to this point, as this situation followed a scrum, but Bristol were able to take full advantage and score brilliantly to steal the game. Substitute scrum-half Harry Randall has kicked the ball through a gap in the defence, and O’Conor, who was excellent throughout, has run through to meet it and score underneath the posts. Northampton had defended really well in the game, and this was harsh on them, but we can see how they fell into the same trap that they had taken advantage of in the first half, with four players positioned widely, and not able to get to the ball before O’Conor could.
In conclusion, we have seen in this tactical analysis how both Bristol Bears and Northampton Saints had some good attacking play, but both also had some questionable defending at times, which led to a lot of opportunities and space being created. However, for Northampton, whilst it is a ninth loss in a row in the Premiership, they can look back on the positives of this game, with their first half dominance and their excellent defending throughout, and that should give them confidence going forward. Bristol will be happy to have got the win, but will know that they had been worked hard and tested by Northampton. There are still improvements that they will need to make, but we also need to remember that they are without their key players, and will play much better when they have returned to the team following the conclusion of the Autumn Nations Cup.