Being successful in the first West Country derby of the new English Premiership season was crucial for both Bristol Bears and Bath, with neither side winning any of their opening two games. As a result, both were desperate to get their season underway at Ashton Gate on Friday night, and to get one over on their closest geographical rivals. This tactical analysis will highlight the reasons why Bristol have struggled this season, as well as the second half improvements that led to their comeback and eventual victory. The analysis will also look at the attacking tactics that helped Bath to establish a relatively comfortable half-time lead, and the positives they can take away from their performance.
In an attempt to turn their fortunes around, Bristol Bears made eight changes to the side that suffered a heavy defeat at Wasps last weekend. Prop Max Lahiff, back rower Dan Thomas, scrum-half Andy Uren and utility back Alapati Leiua all dropped to the bench, whilst hooker Harry Thacker was injured and number 8 Nathan Hughes, lock Dave Attwood and winger Niyi Adeolokun missed out altogether.
Into the front row came Kyle Sinckler, following his time with the British and Irish Lions in South Africa, alongside hooker Will Capon, with Ed Holmes and Joe Joyce making up the second row pairing behind them. Chris Vui switched to flanker, playing alongside Jake Heenan and captain Steven Luatua, whilst England’s Harry Randall started at scrum-half. Sam Bedlow replaced Leiua at centre, and Henry Purdy started on the wing.
Bath, meanwhile, made five changes of their own from the defeat to Newcastle Falcons in their last game, with the entire front row being altered. Props Juan Schoeman and Johannes Jonker were left out altogether, whilst hooker Tom Dunn moved to the bench. Back rower Miles Reid and Zimbabwe-born lock Mike Williams also dropped to the replacements, with props Beno Obano and Will Stuart coming in, the latter from injury, alongside hooker Jacques du Toit, lock Josh McNally and flanker Tom Ellis. Max Ojomoh, who impressed against Newcastle, once again partnered England star Jonathan Joseph in the midfield, whilst academy product Orlando Bailey continued at fly-half, with Danny Cipriani still recovering from the injury he suffered against Sale Sharks on the opening weekend.
Bath began this game well, and were in control for the majority of the first half. This was a result of their good play, particularly in attack, as this section of the analysis will show.
One thing they have clearly been working on is passing the ball around at speed, with this image showing how they opted not to take the ball into contact, instead releasing it beforehand. Here, Semesa Rokoduguni, in the yellow circle, is waiting to receive the ball, with Jonathan Joseph and number 8 Josh Bayliss creating the space for the winger by drawing Henry Purdy and centre Piers O’Conor inside the field. Bath’s clever handling in these situations was critical, as it led to these gaps appearing all over the field, which helped them to keep Bristol on the back foot as much as possible, and it was common in the first half to see Bath regularly making breaks through them as a result.
Bristol’s main issue was their defensive pressing when out of possession, as shown by Purdy and O’Conor here, because Bath used this to force them to commit to individual players before passing down the line. This was one reason why they had so much possession in the middle part of the first half.
Whilst the previous situation didn’t lead to anything, this one did. Again, Rokoduguni is in space and ready to receive the ball, with Bath alive to the open space in front of him. Orlando Bailey did well to set up this opportunity, with England star Sam Underhill driving through the line and offloading to Rokoduguni, who scores the try. Bristol’s Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy is at the back, in the red circle, and is drawn towards Underhill, which again leaves the space open for Bath to exploit. Harry Randall has turned his back on Rokoduguni, making it hard for him to get across and bring him down, so there are a number of problems for Bristol here, which they will want to address in training. However, we need to attribute this try to Bath’s clever attacking play, and it was this that gave them a controlling lead at half-time.
The visitors continued where they had left off in the second half, tactically at least, and continually exploited any space they could find behind the Bristol players. Here, Bailey is kicking across the field, switching the direction of the attack, and some good combination play by Max Ojomoh and winger Will Muir allowed the latter to score his second try of the game from this opportunity. This demonstrates the quality that Bath have in their squad, and this try helped them to maintain their lead at this stage of the game.
Ultimately, Bath did end up losing the match, which immediately raises questions of their performance levels. However, as this section has demonstrated, they actually played well, with good tactics, so there were plenty of positives for them to build on in their next game.
Bristol Bears’ first half errors
However, they were helped in their early dominance of the game by poor Bristol Bears play, with the visitors committing plenty of errors in the first half, and this has been one of the main reasons for their early struggles this season.
One of their main issues was when in possession. Here, Randall has passed to Will Capon under little opposing pressure, but the ball was not gathered cleanly and spilled forwards by the Bristol hooker. The fact that prop Yann Thomas had run in to dummy a catch didn’t help, and these were the moments when Bristol were trying to be too clever. The Bears had made a good start to the game, keeping Bath under control and not allowing them to have much possession, but moments like this helped to swing the momentum towards the visitors.
This image shows another individual mistake made by Bristol, with Randall again the culprit. This time, he is looking to kick the ball forwards, which is the right thing to do, but it goes out on the full, meaning that the lineout was taken from further up the field. As a result, Bath had gained ground very cheaply, with Bristol forced to retreat a few metres closer to their try line, all due to a poor mistake. These were the moments where they needed to be better in order to get back into the game, but it was obvious that they had been rattled by Bath’s early dominance, and were struggling to find a reply.
Randall was also initially slow at getting the ball out of rucks, with referee Ian Tempest having to tell him a few times to play the ball when it was available. The first time this happened, less than a minute beforehand, the England scrum-half got away with it, but Bath counter-rucked on this one, with England’s Will Stuart, in the blue circle, driving Purdy back and allowing scrum-half Ollie Fox to pick up the loose ball in too easy a manner. The fact that this was in Bristol’s half made it worse, as, only a few phases later, Jonathan Joseph almost scored a try for the away side. Therefore, by making a mess of situations like this, Bristol were proving to be the source of their own problems.
Tackling was also a problem for the Bears, especially when advancing up the field to meet the ball early. Here, Joseph has passed to Will Muir, with Bristol winger Ioan Lloyd running up to attempt the tackle. However, Lloyd comes too far up the field, allowing Muir to run inside him and through the gap he had created. This led to the Bath winger’s first try of the game, and it was a reward for their good attacking play, which we previously looked at, but it is unlikely that the try would have been scored in the manner it was if Bristol had stayed back and kept the gap closed off. Director of Rugby Pat Lam will no doubt have drilled this into his players during the break, telling them that they needed to improve in these situations in order to get back into the game.
Bristol Bears’ second half improvements
Whatever he did say had an immediate impact, as Bristol Bears came out with more confidence and purpose, and their second half performance showed vast improvements.
Here, we see Piers O’Conor, Jake Heenan and Ioan Lloyd in close proximity to each other, with their interplay in this attacking move typical of the free-flowing Bristol we saw plenty of last season. Their quick, accurate passing around the attempted Bath tackles almost got them into open space behind the visitors, but the fact that they kept the ball moving and looked sharper in possession showed how Pat Lam had reinvigorated them at the break, getting them onto the front foot. This wasn’t the only time that they attacked through gaps in the second half, with Bath quickly finding that the tables had been turned on them. This was the first sign that the Bristol performance in the second half would be very different to the one we had seen before half-time.
Bristol’s passing also improved, as a result of their newfound confidence. This image shows Randall playing a long pass out to O’Conor directly from a free kick, with the centre able to run forwards into space and gain ground for his team. The fact that Bristol were covering greater distances with their passes made it harder for Bath to get across the pitch in time, and allowed the home side to break through their opponents more easily. This particular attack almost led to a try, but replacement flanker Miles Reid got back to gather the ball in his try area. Bristol were causing more and more problems for Bath at this stage, and it seemed like only a matter of time before they did take the lead. There were still a few poor moments, but these were fewer and far between, so didn’t matter as much as they had beforehand.
Bristol had struggled with their lineout in the first half, with many throws being stolen by Bath or lacking accuracy. However, the introduction of Jake Kerr for Capon at half-time fixed this, and it again gave Bristol more confidence in their attacking play.
Here, Bath have opted not to challenge the lineout, and have instead waited for the ball to come down before engaging in the rolling maul, but Bristol executed this set-piece perfectly, pushing forwards and forcing Bath towards their try line. As more numbers poured in, Kerr managed to score the try that gave the visitors a deserved lead and reflected their second half dominance. Admittedly, Bath were down to 13 players at this stage, with Tom Ellis on the brink of returning from the sin bin, whilst replacement hooker Tom Dunn had just been sent there for collapsing the last rolling maul, but Bristol’s improved lineout, although still not perfect, was a clear reflection of how their second half improvements led to the Bears’ derby day win.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the first West Country derby of the season between Bristol Bears and Bath, held at Ashton Gate. Bath will be understandably frustrated at their loss, with Director of Rugby Stuart Hooper’s face at full-time reflecting their disbelief. However, they didn’t play badly in the second half, which is what they need to hold onto, and they did still claim a third losing bonus point in a row to show for their efforts. The main reason for the result being in Bristol’s favour was because the Bears upped their game, making huge improvements after the break, and they will be pleased to have finally got off the mark this season.
Bristol’s next game is at defending champions Harlequins, when they visit the Twickenham Stoop on Friday night, whilst Bath have their first weekend off, and will next host newly-promoted Saracens at the Rec a week on Sunday.