The first round of the Gallagher Premiership in 2021 saw a couple of games cancelled due to positive coronavirus tests in various squads. However, one of those that went ahead was Leicester Tigers against Bath; two teams who have been fierce rivals since the game was amateur, usually being the ones fighting for glory at the end of each season back then. Nowadays, both sides have fallen off the pace a little, although Bath were play-off semi-finalists last season. The first meeting between the sides this season brought us plenty of good rugby, and was an enthralling match overall.
In this tactical analysis, we will look in more detail at the tactics Bath used to control the game in the opening stages, as well as why Leicester came back to win the game. With a lot of focus being on the home side at the moment, given their poor form in recent seasons, we will analyse the good and bad of their defence and attack, as well as looking at one player who has made a big difference for them this season.
We will first look at in this analysis is Bath’s performance throughout the game. The West Country side had the better start, going 14-0 up before Leicester Tigers had got going at all. This was largely down to a few interesting tactics, which we will now go into.
Bath struggled to create many good moments in the early stages of the game, and needed their key players to be more creative with their movements at times. One thing we always associate with them is the speed of their back line, and England full-back Anthony Watson, in the blue circle here, is one of those who carries a threat, making plenty of darting runs whenever he is on the pitch.
The early stages of the game saw both sides kicking high into the air, but Anthony Watson here decided to carry the ball forwards, rather than kick it, as the blue arrow shows. By doing so, he wins a penalty for his side, and a yellow card for Leicester number 8 Jasper Wiese for a high tackle, but this is what we needed to see more of to open the game up in the early stages.
The overriding thing to take from this is that Bath wanted to make runs through any gaps they found in Leicester’s ranks, which we know they leave plenty of for opposing teams to exploit. This tactic continued in the second half, as we can see below.
Here, centre Cameron Redpath has received the ball, following a lineout won by his team, and instantly looks to start an attack. Leicester have again left space open, but this, as mentioned, is where Bath are dangerous. By running through the gap, Redpath starts an attack that, after a few phases, leads to a try scored by him. Bath hadn’t had much to do in the second half, due to Leicester’s resurgence after half-time, but this was still an area where the away side constantly provided a threat.
This good attacking play was built on a solid defence, which made it hard for Leicester to break through into the space behind them and make their attacks count. The away side were well-drilled and knew their roles, and that is evident from this image. Four Bath players are lined up with no gaps in between them, whilst Leicester have three players facing them.
Fly-half George Ford, who is Leicester’s main creative source, opts to pass to full-back Freddie Steward, in the yellow circle, but that doesn’t make a difference in breaking Bath down, because Steward is still taken down by Redpath. Eventually, Ford attempted a drop goal, which went low and wide. This came because he saw that there was no way through to score the try, and that proves how well Bath defended on the whole throughout the game.
Leicester Tigers’ defence
A lot has been said about Leicester Tigers in 2020/2021, because, after the last few seasons, and with a new head coach in Steve Borthwick, they need to turn a corner and start to look back up the table. This game showed us what they have improved, and what still needs work, both in defence and attack. We will first look at the defensive points.
They started off really well, looking to press the attackers, and that forced handling errors when Bath were moving the ball along the line. This hunger and urgency to close down the space is something we haven’t seen from them for a few seasons, and it has definitely given them more confidence. You can see how they have no gaps between their players, and have a slightly angled structure, which only increases the pressure on Bath to move the ball quickly before it is cut off altogether. This press has the desired effect too, because Bath make an error that leads to their attacking momentum being ended.
However, this strong defence was not always there, and this is where Leicester have fallen down in recent seasons. You can see here how there is a gap between two players, as indicated by the red line, and that is enough for Bath’s former Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer to make a run through and score a brilliant individual try under the posts. However, whilst it was well-worked, we can see how it all came from Leicester leaving too big a gap open, and it also shows why, particularly against Bath, defending is so important, because the away side find the gaps and punish opposing teams who leave too much space.
Spencer carried a constant threat throughout the game, and we can see another example here of him finding space in the Leicester defence, looking to gain ground for his team. This example shows Spencer picking the ball off the ground, and, rather than passing to any of his teammates behind him, he runs into the gap with it, which momentarily catches Leicester out. This type of instinctive run is what Spencer does, which is why he has been one of the best scrum-halves in the Premiership over the last few seasons.
Aside from Spencer running through gaps in the Tigers’ defence, Leicester also caused their own problems by players making early movements, as we can see in the examples below.
In both examples, you can see how Leicester have stepped out, allowing Bath to run through and into the space behind. We saw how Leicester pressed Bath in the early stages of the match, but Bath quickly worked out how to play against this tactic; they slowed the play down, and that, as you can see in the first image above, caught Leicester out. Now, as the red arrow shows, a Leicester player has run towards the wing, expecting the ball to go out there. However, Redpath keeps the ball, running through the gap created, as shown by the blue arrow. This is not necessarily a mistake by Leicester, because it came from good play by Bath, but the home side do still need to look at this as something to work on.
The second image shows how prop Ellis Genge has run out to tackle Bath centre Jonathan Joseph, his international teammate, as the blue square indicates, but Joseph allows him to commit to the collision before passing to Redpath. Now, with Genge out of place, you can see the gap that Redpath could run through to unlock the space behind, shown by the blue arrow. This doesn’t come about, however, as Redpath is tackled by Leicester centre Jaco Taute, but this is another situation where Leicester lose line discipline, and it leads to gaps that Bath look to move through.
This section has shown us how Leicester started the game well, with a strong defence, but then left more space open as the game went on, leading to Bath controlling the game for the majority of the first half.
Leicester Tigers’ attack
Leicester Tigers’ first half attack was quiet in the first half, with clear chances few and far between. However, the image below shows one chance that they did have, which led to a try.
This situation came from a quick penalty in their own half, which gave them the space to then get up the pitch and push Bath all the way back to their own try line. After that, some good handling and sustained pressure led to the gap opening up here, with George Ford running towards the line. However, his intention is to make the Bath defender ahead commit to tackling him, which he does, and the delayed pass to Steward allows the full-back to go over for Leicester’s second try of the game.
This whole move shows what Leicester can do when everything clicks, and therefore why we believe there is more in the team than we see on the field in most games. What they need to do is to work on their consistency, making these good moments more frequent, and that will then lead to more chances being created, and more points being accrued.
The link-up between Ford and Steward was a constant feature of the game, with one of Leicester’s key tactics being to put spiralling kicks high into the air, as the red arrow shows, aiming to get them into the area marked by the green square here. Once the ball was in the air, Steward ran through the Bath players to meet the ball when it came down. In this particular example, he doesn’t reach it, but the intent was there, and it put more pressure on the Bath defence to use the ball quicker; something we have mentioned previously that Leicester were looking to do in this game, aiming to force Bath into making mistakes.
Another thing that we saw from Leicester was that they increased their creativity in the second half, in an attempt to dominate the game much more. In this image, Ford has taken the ball from his teammate at the breakdown, but, instead of passing straight away, he wheels around, as the red arrow shows. This is because he sees that the space is available on the far side of the pitch, and this is where he looks to put his teammates through and behind the Bath defence. The England fly-half ends up passing to Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo (out of shot), who then offloads to lock Harry Wells, in the green circle, who goes over for an easy try.
This all came about because Leicester’s quick passing meant Bath couldn’t organise themselves at the back in time to stop the second row scoring. The fact that this comes just a couple of minutes after the second half began highlights how Leicester came out of the changing room on the front foot, and it worked for them.
This type of attacking is what we have wanted to see more of from Leicester, and, as mentioned previously, we know they have this in them. Therefore, if they can keep playing in this way, teams will find it harder to stop them, and that could be what is needed to help the Tigers climb the table and challenge at the top again.
One player who has made a big difference to Leicester Tigers’ attacking game this season has been South African back row forward Jasper Wiese. In this game, he was the one who got Leicester going forwards when they needed a spark, finding defensive gaps and gaining ground.
Wiese is the type of player who loves to run with the ball, and his immense ball-carrying ability is a big part of this. In this image, we see how he has found a gap in Bath’s ranks, and has ploughed a path right through the middle, now finding himself as the furthest player forward for his team. This time, it doesn’t come to anything, but his presence is another sign that things are starting to look up again for Leicester after many seasons of poor performances.
By making these runs, he is much more in the mould of former Leicester back rower Sione Kalamafoni, who left Welford Road for Welsh side Scarlets at the end of last season. Tonga international Kalamafoni was a runner who made metres for the team, and having that on the pitch is vital for creating chances and keeping the opposing team on the back foot as much as possible.
We can see here another example of Wiese finding space in the Bath back line, with prop Beno Obano, in the blue circle, stepping out of line and leaving the gap open. Again, the South African is unable to score here, as he is brought down by other Bath defenders, but it again shows his intent, threat and ball-carrying ability when in possession. This burst through did eventually lead to a try from substitute second row Cameron Henderson, so, even though Wiese was brought down, his attacking move through the space here wasn’t for nothing.
In conclusion, we have seen how Leicester Tigers and Bath fought out a very tight game, with good points from both sides throughout the match. Ultimately, Leicester will be delighted to have come out of this game with the win, because Bath carried plenty of threat and the result could have easily been reversed. However, both sides will also know that, despite the positives, there were also negatives that need to be addressed and improved as the season goes on, because other teams could be more productive when given those opportunities. However, as a spectacle for the neutral, this was a very enjoyable game to watch, and that is sometimes all that matters.