After a two week break, with no domestic or European rugby, the English Premiership returned to us with a bang. There were several good games to keep an eye on, but one which caught our eye was bottom side Gloucester, who have so far really struggled this season, hosting Northampton Saints, who were in that same position not so long ago, and have only just started to find their feet again after a torrid end to 2020. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the positives in Gloucester’s performance, which mainly came from the first half, as well as how they were their own worst enemies at times, and at the positives in Northampton’s play too.
Gloucester Northampton Saints
15. J. Woodward 15. G. Furbank
14. S. Carreras 14. M. Proctor
13. B. Twelvetrees 13. P. Francis
12. M. Atkinson 12. R. Hutchinson
11. O. Thorley 11. T. Naiyaravoro
10. L. Evans 10. D. Biggar
9. W. Heinz 9. A. Mitchell
- V. Rapava-Ruskin 1. A. Waller (co-c)
- H. Walker 2. S. Matavesi
- F. Balmain 3. P. Hill
- M. Garvey 4. D. Ribbans
- M. Alemanno 5. A. Ratuniyarawa
- J. Reid 6. N. Isiekwe
- L. Ludlow (c) 7. L. Ludlam (co-c)
- R. Ackermann 8. S. Adendorff
Before we look at what is going wrong for the home side at the moment, let’s first analyse what they did well in this game.
In this image, we can see how Gloucester had a good early setup, and, from this, were making some good tackles in the early stages of the game. There are five players organised in this area for Gloucester, and this was a common feature of the first half. Northampton Saints struggled to find a way through, and full-back George Furbank eventually opted to play a grubber forwards into touch, so it shows how Gloucester put the pressure on, and how Northampton resorted to competing at lineouts to beat Gloucester rather than in the phases. This type of organisation would have pleased head coach George Skivington, as he needs his side to show this determination in every single game if they want to get out of their current situation.
It wasn’t just in defence that Gloucester had good moments, as we can see in this image. Substitute winger Tom Seabrook, in the red circle, who had replaced Santiago Carreras in the first half after an injury, has the ball here. The red line shows his run forward into Northampton’s defence, where he is subsequently pulled to the ground. However, he did have passing options outside him, with full-back Jason Woodward and winger Ollie Thorley matching him; their runs are marked by the yellow arrows. This situation came after a series of quick passes out to the wing, and, whilst a pass might have been a better choice for Seabrook here, the fact that Gloucester had three attackers in this area shows that they do have it in them to play well.
It is telling that this image was possibly the only positive for the Cherry and Whites in the second half, and we will come to the negatives, but it again highlights how Gloucester have the quality to play well, but just lack confidence to make the right decisions in these moments.
However, the biggest positive for Gloucester was the way that fly-half Lloyd Evans controlled the play in the first half, before being withdrawn due to injury at half-time. Here, we can see how Evans is forcing his way behind the Northampton back line, and then looks to release the ball behind the defenders. This is significant, because, if the ball was passed in front of the tackler, it would likely be intercepted, but, by making the offload behind, it’s easier to run onto, and scrum-half Willi Heinz, in the yellow circle, does just this, gaining a good few metres before being brought down.
This is really clever play, and it’s the little details that help in these situations. It also demonstrates how Gloucester have missed Willi Heinz in the centre of the pitch, as he combines with teammates and makes metres where he can. His partnership with Evans will be crucial to Gloucester’s hopes of surviving relegation this season.
This is another example of Evans making life difficult for Northampton, consistently finding spaces in their defence. This particular situation came after a scrum, so the defence is not as organised, but the short offload from centre Mark Atkinson gives the fly-half the space to run through, as the red arrow shows, before being taken down by the defence. He does almost get to the try line, but loses it forwards, ending the threat. However, Evans was clearly the danger player for Gloucester, and every good move involved him in some way in the first half.
We looked previously at how Heinz and Evans combined well in the middle for Gloucester, but in the second half, with Evans off, Heinz continued his work, finding spaces in the defence and looking to make as much ground as possible. Here, he is given too much space in the middle by Northampton’s defence, and this quick thinking again shows the confidence he brings to the team, and why they have really missed him. He is eventually stopped by Saints’ flanker Nick Isiekwe, but the intent is still there, and, in a season where Gloucester are struggling, these are the moments they can build on as they look to escape the relegation zone.
Gloucester’s open spaces
We have looked at the positives in Gloucester’s game, but there were many negatives to it too. One of those was that their defending appeared to be disorganised at times, leaving too much space open, and that was the reason that Northampton Saints ended up winning this game.
We saw in the first half how Gloucester set up with a good narrow defensive structure, but the downside of that is that they left space open on the wings. Northampton very quickly saw this, and looked to move the ball into those spaces as often as they could. Here, Scotland centre Rory Hutchinson delays his pass, before finding winger Matt Proctor on the far side, and, whilst this doesn’t come to anything, it showed from an early stage what Northampton’s tactics were going to be for the rest of the game. From Gloucester’s point of view, these constant mistakes are a big reason for their current league positioning, and they need to watch this, as other teams will punish them even more than Northampton did.
The second half was controlled by Northampton, with more poor defending from the home side leaving the spaces open. In this example, Atkinson comes out too early, leaving the gap, and that is just what Northampton wanted; lock Api Ratuniyarawa again delays his pass, just as Hutchinson did in the previous image, and again it leads to the chance to score a try. It is in fact Hutchinson who receives the pass here, and he then walks over the try line to score too easily.
Hutchinson was instrumental in this try being scored too, which came just less than four minutes after the previous one. Gloucester have again left the gap open, because they are defending too narrowly, and the Scotland international kicks the ball behind for Number 8 Shaun Adendorff to run onto and score, again too easily. The mistake this time comes from Heinz, who was on the far side, but came inside to help out, leaving the way clear for Adendorff to go over. However, this was not the last time this happened in the game, so it really is a team mistake that they need to address and correct, otherwise opponents will score plenty of simple points against them between now and the end of the season.
Northampton Saints’ improving side
However, whilst we have looked in detail at the mistakes Gloucester made to give Northampton Saints the opportunities to score, we also need to look at what Northampton did well in the game, helping them to win.
In the first half, Northampton were playing with a creative edge, and that is something they had been missing until recently. Here, we see how scrum-half Alex Mitchell has passed the ball backwards to Furbank, who then runs behind him, towards the gap in Gloucester’s defence. This is not to say that Northampton found life easy in the first half, because they had to work hard to break Gloucester down, and that is shown by the fact that the Saints scored a try on the far side of the pitch after 16 phases, one of those being this run by Furbank.
Having said that, this image also shows how Northampton could see the gaps in the Cherry and Whites’ defence, and constantly targeted them. This situation was also the first time that Northampton had any possession, and they made it count, which was crucial for them. All of this shows how Northampton played well with the ball, and are definitely a team looking up the table at the present moment.
However, we should also remember that Northampton are still an improving side, meaning that they still make mistakes which cost them at times. In this image, we can see how there is a gap in their defence, and Gloucester winger Thorley has seen this and run through it at pace, which is where he carries a threat to opposing defences. It is ironic that the gap is between Ratuniyarawa and Hutchinson, because those two combined only a few minutes later for Hutchinson’s try, which was examined in the previous section.
In this image, which is another angle of the same attack, we can see how Thorley, in the red circle, has taken the defender with him, and then offloads to Heinz, who runs around the outside and scores next to the posts. This shows again how dangerous Thorley is when in these areas, making incisive runs into spaces, and also the role that Heinz has in supporting these attacks, which we have also looked at.
However, it also shows that, whilst Northampton are playing with more freedom and creativity, they still need to tidy up in a few areas, but, if they can work on those, and close off these gaps between players, then they will become harder to beat and start to get back to where they were previously.
In conclusion, we have seen in this analysis why Gloucester and Northampton Saints have struggled at times this season. We have seen how both had good parts to their play, but were also hindered by mistakes in key moments, and that is what they both now need to focus on. Gloucester’s biggest problem is that, whilst they always look to start games well, as soon as they make a mistake, they instantly lose confidence, and then the opposing team find more and more space behind their defence, as Northampton did here. For the Saints, they will be happy with this performance, as it was a third win for them in the Premiership this season, increasing the distance between them and the bottom of the table.