With only a few rounds of the 2021/2022 English Premiership season remaining, competition for play-off places is becoming increasingly intense. One of those fighting to reach the top four is Gloucester, with George Skivington’s side arguably one of the surprise packages of the season, having finished second bottom in the last campaign. Their game at the weekend was a crucial one, given that Exeter Chiefs had the weekend off, and the Cherry and Whites knew that a win was required at Kingsholm against a Bath side who have struggled to pick up points and only managed four wins in 22 games. However, they have run Northampton Saints close and drawn with Sale Sharks in the last couple of months, so Gloucester knew not to expect an easy match.
In practice, this was a very one-sided affair, with Gloucester dominant from the start and showing why they are once again challenging for the top four. Bath, meanwhile, failed to score a single point, and this tactical analysis will look at why that was the case. The analysis will also focus on Gloucester’s tactics, seeing how they got on the front foot early and kept the pressure on their opponents.
Gloucester had rotated their squad for their midweek Premiership Rugby Cup match against Worcester Warriors, but named virtually the same starting XV for this game as they had for their previous league fixture, a narrow loss to West Country rivals Bristol Bears. The alterations came in the front and back row, with loosehead Val Rapava-Ruskin dropping out altogether, whilst tighthead Fraser Balmain and Argentina hooker Santiago Socino moved to the bench. They were replaced by former London Irish player Harry Elrington and Russia international Kirill Gotovtsev, who were named at loosehead and tighthead respectively, whilst Jack Singleton was given a start at hooker. The other change saw Australian back rower Jordy Reid also move to the bench, with Ben Morgan coming in at number 8 and Ruan Ackermann switching to flanker. The seven backs were all unchanged.
Bath also made changes from the home loss to Northampton, with winger Semesa Rokoduguni left out to allow him to feature for the Army, whilst Scotland flanker Josh Bayliss was also dropped from the matchday squad. That meant that Joe Cokanasiga was given a start on the wing, having been on the bench against the Saints, whilst England’s Sam Underhill also returned and took his place in the back row. Stuart Hooper’s team suffered a late injury blow before the game, with Will Stuart ruled out at short notice, so experienced Tonga tighthead Ma’afu Fia started, having originally been named on the bench. Back rower Miles Reid was making his 50th appearance for the club, whilst fly-half Danny Cipriani was back at his old side for the first time since leaving in December 2020.
Gloucester on the front foot
Gloucester knew that a win in this match was essential if they wanted to maintain their momentum and take advantage of Exeter’s defeat at Saracens in the previous round, and it was evident early on that they had studied Bath’s play closely in their pre-match preparations.
One thing that Gloucester did a lot of was delaying passes and waiting for Bath’s players to be drawn out of position, with centre Mark Atkinson particularly effective at this. The result of this tactic was that spaces opened up and the Cherry and Whites could make runs behind the Bath defensive line and attack their 22, allowing them to keep the pressure on their opponents.
On this occasion, both Danny Cipriani and scrum-half Ben Spencer have run too far forwards and left the opportunity open for Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit to get behind them, and this almost led to a try for Gloucester. The only thing that prevented it being scored was Rees-Zammit’s decision to not pass to either Jack Singleton or Scotland centre Chris Harris, who had both made excellent supporting runs, and instead to take the ball inside Bath winger Will Muir, where he was closed down and tackled well.
However, whilst this was a wasted opportunity for the Cherry and Whites, it still showed how their patience in possession and spatial awareness were key reasons for their early positive play.
Gloucester’s movement around the pitch was also really good, with Atkinson easily their most dangerous player in the first part of the game. Here, the centre looks as if he will pass towards the far side wing, but then darts inside England centre Jonathan Joseph, as the red arrow shows, catching him out and once again getting the ball into the space behind the Bath defenders.
On this occasion, Atkinson was unable to score the try, as Cipriani ended his individual run with a good tackle, but Harris was on hand to get the points, and this reflects the communication and teamwork that was at the heart of the home side’s attack. Bath were down to 14 players at this stage, with Russia loosehead Valery Morozov in the sin bin, and this partly explains why Gloucester had so much space available to them. However, the home side still had to work hard to exploit it, timing their movements well, and this is another reason that they won the game.
This creative approach to their play continued into the second half, with each try-scoring opportunity different to the previous one. In this case, Gloucester have won a lineout and opted not to compete in a maul, with Ben Morgan instead taking the ball across the Bath defensive line and dragging Morozov and hooker Tom Dunn out of position. This left the gap open for Rees-Zammit to run through, with Muir getting back to tackle the winger, but not before Morgan had come through to finish what he had started.
Therefore, even when spaces weren’t immediately available, Gloucester found a way through, and that is the key point to take here.
In the latter stages of the match, Gloucester needed to focus more on defending, with Bath having had a lot of possession in the final stages of the game. However, their organisation meant that Bath couldn’t find a way through them, with substitute Jaco Coetzee unable to evade a tackle attempt by Gloucester’s replacement scrum-half Ben Meehan here.
What was important about this was that the Cherry and Whites didn’t overcommit to the breakdown, as this would have risked gaps being left open further across the line, which was Bath’s problem earlier in the game. Instead, each player knew their roles and showed a desire to not concede, and the fact that Meehan was the last player over and still put in an enormous effort to bring Coetzee down here reflects that.
In stark contrast to the home side’s performance, Bath were poor from start to finish and at times looked like they hadn’t turned up. They made error after error both in and out of possession, with Gloucester never having to work too hard to regain the ball or break through an unorganised defensive line.
They tended to play themselves into trouble a lot of the time, with this situation a clear example of that. We have already looked at how they stepped out of line unnecessarily, but this time we will examine it from their point of view. This situation comes after they have lost a lineout, with Argentina lock Matias Alemanno doing well to steal the ball in the air and get the home side on their way, moving it up the field at pace and trying to take advantage of the open spaces.
The gap between Joseph and Joe Cokanasiga here was small, and Gloucester would have found it difficult to break through them had the former not moved out of line. However, because he did, the gap widened and a good pass from Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings allowed Rees-Zammit to punish this error, scoring one of many tries in this game for the home side, and this is one way in which Bath were making life very easy for their hosts.
There was also a lack of urgency shown by the visitors at times, which was surprising given their position in the table. This particular breakdown came after nine phases of play, which had seen Bath recycling the ball efficiently and getting the likes of Wales number 8 Taulupe Faletau involved in their forward drives. However, they undid all of that good play when Spencer emerged from the tackle and then took too much time to retrieve the ball, allowing Morgan to lead a counter-ruck and regain possession for Gloucester, clearing their lines.
The key thing here is that Bath had Gloucester on the back foot and had put together some really promising phases, but a lack of urgency meant that it all came to nothing, and this is what their fans and the coaching staff will be most disappointed and frustrated about.
Even in the closing stages of the match, when Bath had nothing to play for except pride, they didn’t look like giving their fans any positives to take away. Here, there are three Bath players near the ball and in a position to close Gloucester substitute Billy Twelvetrees (in the red circle) down, but none look to do this. As a result, Twelvetrees has time to change his mind three or four times, and his eventual pass to Hastings led to the ball reaching Jamal Ford-Robinson, again in space, with the replacement loosehead going through to score yet another try.
Cipriani’s lack of effort was most notable here, as he watched the ball move across his path and then made no attempt to get back and tackle Ford-Robinson, and that summed up Bath’s performance in many ways.
One player who did turn up for Bath was Sam Underhill, with the flanker undoubtedly the visitors’ best and most effective player on the pitch. Whilst the whole Bath team will deservedly get plenty of criticism for their performance, Underhill as an individual proved once again why he is such an important player for club and country.
From the early stages, he was looking to make important tackles and keep Gloucester on the back foot as much as possible, with his tackle on Atkinson here forcing the centre to lose possession, and, given that this was early on in the game, it gave us hope that Bath had gone to Kingsholm to compete. Good combination play afterwards, involving Underhill and captain Charlie Ewels, led to centre Max Clark scoring under the posts, although this was ruled out for Underhill ripping the ball after Atkinson had hit the ground. Nevertheless, it was a good early reminder of his individual quality and what he could bring to this game.
Another of Underhill’s trademark qualities is making quick runs through gaps and gaining territory for his team, with this situation showing the damage that these runs can do. The key thing about his attacking runs is that they often catch opposing defenders out, with Bath getting behind their opponents before they can turn and backpedal. However, on this occasion, Underhill’s pass back inside to Cokanasiga went marginally forwards, with play being rightly pulled back, which again summed up Bath’s afternoon. However, again, Underhill was showing why Gloucester needed to keep an eye on him as the game went on.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Gloucester and Bath at Kingsholm, identifying the reasons why Gloucester won so easily and why Bath struggled and ultimately failed to score a single point. Gloucester will be delighted with their intensity and threat in the attacking 22, and the fact that their tries were scored by players in many different positions highlights how this was very much a team effort.
There is speculation that Bath have been playing so poorly due to there being no relegation this season, meaning that there is no reason to keep fighting, and it is certainly worth considering if they would have played any better if there was a risk of dropping down to the Championship. However, despite them staying in the division regardless of results, this has been a very poor season for them, and they have a lot of work to do under incoming head coach Johann van Graan in order to re-establish themselves as one of English rugby’s better sides.
Gloucester’s next game sees them host Saracens in the Challenge Cup on Friday, before they go to Harlequins in the league on 21 May (a game that is being hosted at Twickenham Stadium). Bath, meanwhile, will look to regain some pride when they host London Irish on the same day.