The final weekend of the English Premiership season before a two week break for European competition saw some tasty encounters take place. Defending champions Harlequins travelled to current leaders Leicester Tigers, Exeter Chiefs and Saracens renewed their fierce rivalry from previous seasons, and there was also the small matter of a West Country derby between Gloucester and Bristol Bears to keep an eye on, which had an added level of anticipation this season, due to both teams’ league fortunes so far. Gloucester have been a much-improved side, whilst Bristol Bears have been largely out of form and are languishing near the bottom of the table.
This tactical analysis will look at Bristol’s performance in more detail, as well as Gloucester’s attacking and defensive tactics, seeing why the Cherry and Whites were this game’s eventual winners. In the process, we will also make some general points about how both teams’ seasons are shaping up.
Gloucester made five changes to the team that narrowly defeated Wasps at the Coventry Building Society Arena last weekend, with full-back Kyle Moyle, centre Billy Twelvetrees and Scotland lock Andrew Davidson all moving to the bench, whilst England winger Jonny May and young back rower Jack Clement were left out altogether. Freddie Clarke, making his 100th appearance for the club, moved into the second row from flanker, whilst Ruan Ackermann, son of former Gloucester head coach Johan Ackermann, and captain Lewis Ludlow were given starts either side of Ben Morgan in the back row. Further back, Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit returned from Scotland and Wales duty respectively to start at centre and wing, and fly-half Lloyd Evans was given the full-back role.
Bristol Bears made six changes to their starting XV, as they attempted to arrest a poor run of form which had seen them lose five of their opening eight league games. Changes in the forwards saw hooker Jake Kerr, tighthead prop Max Lahiff and back rowers Sam Jeffries, Jake Heenan and Fitz Harding all dropping out, with Kerr, Heenan and Harding starting on the bench. Harry Thacker and player-coach John Afoa came into the front row, starting at hooker and tighthead prop respectively, whilst Dave Attwood partnered Joe Joyce in the second row, Chris Vui moved to flanker, captain Steven Luatua returned from injury and Dan Thomas also came in, completing the pack. In the backs, scrum-half Andy Uren was replaced by England’s Harry Randall, who also returned from injury, and Henry Purdy and Alapati Leiua swapped positions.
Bristol Bears’ performance
Bristol Bears, as mentioned, have not had a season to remember so far, and went into this game needing to find some form to avoid losing touch with the teams higher up the table. However, they didn’t make a good start, with plenty of mistakes committed which helped Gloucester to take control of the game.
One of the Bears’ main problems was a lack of space and time to move the ball around, which came through Gloucester’s pressing tactics. Bristol were set up to play at speed, theoretically countering this, but lacked the necessary composure at times, with this image showing one occasion when they were almost punished for it. Wales fly-half Callum Sheedy is passing to Henry Purdy, one of several ex-Gloucester players in the Bristol team, but Chris Harris and Louis Rees-Zammit have got up quickly to close both players down, as the red arrows show.
Gloucester were helped in this by Harris’ inclusion in the midfield, as he is one of the best defensive centres in the Premiership, and has been for a few seasons. His tackle on Sheedy here set the scene for the early stages of the game, and was a clear indication that Bristol would not have time to make decisions in possession. To highlight this, Rees-Zammit, Sheedy’s international teammate, almost intercepted the pass here, but knocked the ball forwards in the process. However, it was a warning sign for the Bears, which they needed to be watchful of as the game went on.
However, they still didn’t take enough care with the ball, with this image showing another time they made an error and allowed Gloucester to come onto them. This time, it is centre Piers O’Conor who is offloading to Purdy, but the ball was again not caught cleanly. As a result, hooker Jack Singleton and Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings could get forward and tackle the Bristol centre, with the red arrows showing how Gloucester pressed from all different angles in this game, indicating that this was clearly something they had been working on during training.
Bristol’s aim did seem to be creativity, as they made some good scissor passes and directional changes with their runs, trying to force gaps to open in the home defence, and this wasn’t a bad game plan to have. Gloucester as a result needed to work hard when out of possession, but they didn’t need to force turnovers too often, due to the Bears making these small errors, and that was the key thing. This particular situation was made worse by the fact that it came straight after the visitors had won a lineout, so they had momentum and could have got through the Gloucester line with a little more precision.
They were also too predictable, as they simply passed the ball along the line and allowed Gloucester to press them, playing to the home side’s strengths. However, in the second half, they showed more variation in their play, and looked to kick the ball into open spaces (as did Gloucester, for that matter), preventing the Cherry and Whites from winning the ball so often and using their high press tactics against them. Here, Sheedy has spotted an area on the far side of the pitch to kick into, and sets up Purdy to score a try, so changing their playing style was a key reason for their improved showing after half-time.
The main question now is why they looked better, and there are several possible answers. The first is that Director of Rugby Pat Lam had spoken to them at half time and pointed out where the spaces were, as he was visibly frustrated by some of their first half inaccuracies. However, the more likely reason is that Fiji back Semi Radradra had come on at half-time for his long-awaited return to the matchday squad after an injury, replacing Alapati Leiua, who had taken his place in the treatment room just before the break. Once Radradra was involved, Bristol looked stronger and more confident in all areas of the game, making more breaks and generally showing more pace and quality in attack. Therefore, it is possible that we could see improved performances from the Bears in the coming months, if they can keep Radradra fit.
Gloucester’s first half attack
Whilst Bristol Bears’ problems in the first half benefitted Gloucester, the Cherry and Whites still had to work hard to keep on top, and this section of the analysis will pick out a few key features in their performance that helped them to do that.
A lot of the action in the first half took place in the middle of the field, with both sides finding it difficult to make massive gains in open play. As a result, both put plenty of phases together, with this image showing one break made by Ruan Ackermann, following a small gap opening up for him. Whilst the South African back rower did manage to twist through a couple of challenges, he was quickly brought down by Harry Thacker, giving the other Bears players time to reset behind the ball.
Another attempted break saw Harris and new England centre Mark Atkinson almost reach the try line, but they were similarly brought down. However, this was the difference between the two sides; Gloucester didn’t make as many errors and managed to find a few gaps as a result, and this was one reason for them being the better side in the first half.
As we mentioned, Bristol were too predictable before half-time, looking mainly to pass down the line and go through phases of play. However, Gloucester showed more creativity, with this image indicating how Rees-Zammit initially shaped to pass, but then moved behind Bristol winger Toby Fricker to give his team a better chance of running towards the try line under little opposition. He was brought down by Fricker here, but not before offloading to Lloyd Evans, who then fed it to the other Gloucester winger, Ollie Thorley, to run at the line.
The Cherry and Whites have been one of this season’s surprise packages, having struggled over the last couple of seasons, but this level of creative thinking and skill was a clear demonstration of the improvements they have made and the threat they currently carry.
Gloucester’s second half play
It was the same story in the second half, as Gloucester continually searched for the bonus-point winning try.
Here, both teams are engaged in a scrum, which Gloucester had the put-in for. However, they didn’t hang around and wait for the scrum to end, with replacement scrum-half Charlie Chapman instead picking the ball up quickly from the back of it and running through the gap that Bristol had left open. Bristol’s replacement scrum-half Tom Whiteley, who joined the club after helping Saracens to promotion from the Championship, had looked to harass Chapman in his attempts to gather the ball, but the speed and directness of the Gloucester substitute meant that he was caught out and unable to get back into position and make a tackle. Chapman’s quick break also meant that Purdy was caught on the back foot, also unable to react in time and bring him down.
As a result, Gloucester scored their fourth try of the game and sealed a valuable winning bonus point, seeing them climb into the top four for the night, and it all came because of their quick thinking and edge over Bristol when it came to the key moments.
However, whilst we have praised the attacking side of their game, we also need to mention Gloucester’s immense defensive effort, especially in the second half when Bristol looked reinvigorated. The Cherry and Whites did concede plenty of penalties at the back, which George Skivington will no doubt have been concerned about, but they also won balls back well and kept Bristol out, which, given the visitors had Radradra, Charles Piutau and John Afoa on the pitch at one point, was no mean feat. Here, the Bears have passed the ball into space inside the pitch, but Sheedy has been instantly closed down by four Gloucester defenders, taking us back to their pressing tactics and making it harder for him to move the ball anywhere or run forwards.
Bristol kept pushing for a way through with every pass, but generally failed to find one, which was down to the home side’s excellent work rate when out of possession. A few phases after this, they won the ball back after the visitors failed to release it on the ground, so this is another demonstration that they are going from strength to strength at the moment.
In conclusion, both teams would have no doubt been feeling sore after this clash, with a lot of physical 1-v-1 battles taking place as each tried to open the other up. However, in the end, as this tactical analysis has shown, Gloucester were the side who deservedly took the points, sealing a win over Bristol Bears for the first time since 2018 in the process. Bristol will be disappointed with their first half errors, as they put them on the back foot from the early stages of the game, and they now sit second-bottom of the table, just above Bath. However, with some of their key players now back in the fold, there is hope that this will change in the near future, and we will begin to see the Bristol that we all know.
The European campaigns begin next weekend, with Gloucester travelling to Lyon on Friday night, whilst Bristol will be back at home, when they will welcome Scarlets to Ashton Gate on Saturday evening.