The English Premiership is nearing the end of the regular season, but there is a lot still to be decided. Play-off places can still be won and lost, whilst European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup positions still need to be finalised. In this tactical analysis, we will examine arguably one of the matches of the season so far, with Northampton Saints hosting London Irish at Franklin’s Gardens. We will look in detail at Northampton’s attacking play and London Irish’s tactics and errors, which ultimately cost them the win.
Northampton Saints London Irish
15. G. Furbank 15. T. Parton
14. O. Sleightholme 14. B. Loader
13. F. Dingwall 13. J. Stokes
12. P. Francis 12. T. Hepetema
11. T. Collins 11. O. Hassell-Collins
10. D. Biggar 10. P. Jackson
9. A. Mitchell 9. N. Phipps
- N. Auterac 1. A. Dell
- M. Haywood 2. M. Matu’u
- P. Hill 3. L. Chawatama
- D. Ribbans 4. C. Munga
- A. Moon 5. R. Simmons
- N. Isiekwe 6. B. Donnell
- L. Ludlam (c) 7. B. Cowan
- T. Harrison 8. A. Tuisue
Northampton Saints’ attacking play
Before coming to London Irish, let’s focus on Northampton Saints’ attack. Northampton have plenty of quality going forward, and teams always need to be at the top of their game defensively when facing them.
However, London Irish gave them a little too much space to play in, allowing Northampton to break through them and create good opportunities to score. In this image, we see how fly-half Dan Biggar, in the red circle, makes a run through a gap in the defence ahead of him. There wasn’t a lot of kicking in the early parts of the game from either side, with both focusing on forward runs through gaps like these, which led to plenty of end-to-end rugby. London Irish scored a try early on through scrum-half Nick Phipps, whilst this run from Wales international Biggar led to Northampton’s first from centre Fraser Dingwall, and that was how the first half tended to go.
From Northampton’s point of view, they had plenty of power in the forward ranks, whilst the pace and creativity of the backs helped them to turn their attacking play into points.
When London Irish didn’t leave gaps open, Northampton had to create them. To do so, they ran at the defensive line with plenty of pace. What is particularly clever here is that Biggar’s pass to lock David Ribbans is not directly towards the second row, but just in front of him, as the red arrow indicates. By aiming the ball there, it allows Ribbans to move onto it with momentum, hitting the defence with more impact, forcing the London Irish players to move further back. The home side are a team known for focusing on the finer details of their rugby, giving them the edge in well-contested games, and this is something that they have clearly been working on with regards to this.
Another strength of Northampton’s, which also comes from the quality throughout their squad, is the ability to mix up play when required. In this image, we see a long pass that was made by centre Piers Francis to winger Tom Collins, whereas shorter, quicker passes were what opened up the gap in the previous image. London Irish full-back Tom Parton attempts to make the interception here, but can’t control the ball, with Northampton scoring a try a few phases later through scrum-half Alex Mitchell. If we break this down, we see how the home side’s range of long and short passes stretched London Irish out, again creating the gaps for the home side to attack through.
This theme of Northampton mixing up their play carried on in the second half. As London Irish tired in the closing stages of the game, they left more space open behind them, whilst Northampton brought on players that added the energy needed to maintain their intensity. Centre Rory Hutchinson, who was one of their substitutes, kicks the ball through the defensive line here, giving both Dingwall and winger Ollie Sleightholme something to run onto, and the latter, who is furthest out here, scored his second try of the game from this chance. Sleightholme has plenty of natural pace, so fits in well with Northampton’s quick style of rugby, and this try was a result of them using the spaces and adapting to the game.
London Irish’s clever tactics
It’s easy to think that London Irish were always on the back foot, given the threat Northampton Saints clearly had, but the visitors had plenty of good tactical ideas in this game as well.
The most notable part of their play was in attack, when they looked to create their own gaps in the Northampton defence by making reverse passes and stretching the home side out. Northampton were defending well, colliding heavily when they needed to, continually pushing London Irish back, but that didn’t stop the away side showing desire to get forward and cause problems. In this image, the move is between Phipps, fly-half Paddy Jackson and centre Terrence Hepetema, with the latter two linking up plenty of times throughout the game to give their team options in the middle of the pitch. Jackson makes the pass back to Hepetema here, as the white arrow demonstrates, but it doesn’t lead to anything this time.
This time, Jackson and Hepetema are again positioned close to each other, combining well to set up winger Ollie Hassell-Collins to score. Therefore, London Irish’s tactic of moving the ball in tight spaces to a third player running through on the inside got them plenty of rewards, with the try here getting them back into the game at an important moment. Francis is unable to tackle Hassell-Collins, so it was poor in that respect from Northampton, but the way that London Irish looked to create gaps in their defence was really clever.
The other way they looked to cause problems for Northampton was through the performance of 34-year-old captain Blair Cowan. The Scotland flanker was one of their most important players in this game, involved in all of their good play, leading from the front in every aspect of that saying. In the second half, London Irish started to flag a little, as already mentioned, but Cowan was the one giving them energy around the field.
In this image, we see how London Irish have won their lineout, but don’t hang around in a rolling maul. Instead, Cowan, circled, takes the ball and immediately looks to run around the remnants of the lineout, trying to find a gap further down the line to attack through. Whilst he is tackled here, it shows his intent. His alertness was a running theme throughout the second half, as he was alive to different situations and made ground whenever he had possession. Whenever the ball hit the ground, Cowan was always first to it, stopping Northampton from jackling it.
One of London Irish’s second half tries came from them playing the ball to centre James Stokes from a breakdown, with Cowan providing the defensive cover on the ground. Stokes’ run through the defence eventually led to Fiji number 8 Albert Tuisue going over for the try, so this showed how important Cowan was to them remaining in the game as long as they did.
His presence was just as crucial in defensive situations too. In this image, we can see how Northampton have had an attacking scrum, just outside London Irish’s try area. Cowan, being a flanker, can see any potential danger, and spots how Northampton number 8 Teimana Harrison, who is one of the most potent players in the home side’s squad, picks up the ball from the base of the scrum and runs forward. Cowan gets up to him and brings him down, anticipating the play and preventing Northampton from breaking through them whilst the majority of their big players are still in the scrum. This allows his teammates to get across and fill the gaps, and Tuisue gets over the top of the ball at the next phase, so, again, Cowan’s hard work, which was perhaps unseen by many, was key for his team.
London Irish’s errors
However, the simple fact is that London Irish lost this game, and that was because, as they faltered in the second half, they left more spaces open that Northampton Saints could exploit.
Northampton had a lot of luck when playing in the wide channels, as that was where London Irish tended to leave space open, and two of the home side’s second half tries came in these areas of the pitch. Northampton’s initial break forward from captain and England flanker Lewis Ludlam has dragged Phipps, Hepetema and Hassell-Collins well inside the pitch. This is where Biggar comes in, because he sees this and plays the pass out to Sleightholme, who can then score easily in the corner. London Irish needed to stay wider, ensuring that Sleightholme didn’t have the option to score here.
If they had remained where they were, Northampton’s only hope of scoring would have been by making a forward run in between two of them, at which point the London Irish defenders could have forced them back and looked to win the ball.
The second try that came from this open space was on the other wing. Again, London Irish have come too far inside the pitch, with their other winger, Ben Loader, abandoning his channel. Biggar spots this, feeding the ball to Francis this time, setting up the centre to run through and score, as the yellow arrow shows. Loader isn’t able to get back in time, so this was another example of London Irish leaving the gap open and giving their opponents space to score in.
From Northampton’s point of view, it was the pace of their passing and clever movement that helped them to take advantage of these spaces, catching the away side out, and this is something we have become accustomed to seeing from them.
In conclusion, this game was a really exciting one to watch for the neutrals, but also had plenty of interesting tactical points to pick out and analyse. We have looked at how London Irish came to the East Midlands with a plan for how they wanted to play, but also how Northampton Saints’ quick attacking play ensured they took the full five points from this fixture. The visitors did earn a losing bonus point for scoring four tries, but will know that they lost because they tired as the game went on, leading to spaces being left open which Northampton could then take advantage of.