The final weekend of the 2021/2022 English Premiership regular season was one that did not disappoint, with something riding on most of the matches and many eventualities still possible. The focus for Northampton Saints was purely on picking up a win against Newcastle Falcons at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens that would secure a play-off place at the expense of Gloucester, and the fact that both Northampton and Newcastle were playing under their current Directors of Rugby for the last time gave this match an extra level of interest.
However, whilst the Saints were expected to win, not many would have predicted it to be as comfortable as it ended up, with Newcastle very capable of causing problems for their opponents when at the top of their game. This tactical analysis will look at the performances of both sides, identifying Northampton’s key tactics and expanding on how they used spaces around the pitch, as well as breaking down the positives and negatives of Newcastle’s display and showing what they can build on ahead of next season.
Northampton Saints made four changes to the side that narrowly lost away to Saracens two weeks ago, with Chris Boyd opting to bring props Alex Waller and Paul Hill and Fiji hooker Sam Matavesi off the bench to start this game, whilst the previous front row of loosehead Emmanuel Iyogun, tighthead Ehren Painter and hooker Mikey Haywood took their places on the bench. The other alteration came in the backs, with South African winger Courtnall Skosan dropping to the replacements and Rory Hutchinson coming in, with the Scotland centre partnering Fraser Dingwall in the midfield whilst Matt Proctor reverted back to the wing. In the second row, experienced Fiji international Api Ratuniyarawa was playing his final match for the club after six years in the East Midlands.
Newcastle Falcons had originally planned to make just one alteration from their home defeat to Leicester in the previous round of matches, with lock Philip van der Walt forced off injured during that encounter. Sean Robinson’s return was therefore timely as he partnered USA international Greg Peterson in the second row for this one. However, on the day, scrum-half Micky Young was also ruled out of the game, so young Fijian Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti was promoted from the bench to make an unexpected start. Hooker George McGuigan was the joint-highest try-scorer in the top flight before this game, tied with Saracens and England back Max Malins, so he was looking to get on the scoresheet in this game if an opportunity arose. On the bench, Will Haydon-Wood was making his final appearance for the Falcons; he will join Wasps in the summer.
Northampton Saints’ key tactics
When watching Northampton Saints this season, it has been hard not to notice that they have a very distinct way of playing, with well-planned tactics that have made it hard for their opponents to beat them, and this has been one of the key reasons for them looking like serious top four contenders as the season has progressed.
This was no different against Newcastle Falcons, as it was clear from the first minutes of the game that the Saints wanted to keep their opponents under pressure and look to force errors whenever they could. This often started from a kick up the field by Northampton, before their quicker players ran forward to get underneath the ball, with Fraser Dingwall often leading these charges and taking time away from the visitors. On this occasion, the centre didn’t manage to tackle Newcastle fly-half Joel Hodgson, but the fact that he had already won a penalty by combining with Sam Matavesi in a similar situation showed the effect that this tactic was having.
The other prevalent aspect of their play was that they moved the ball around the pitch at speed, with players working hard to support each other and ensure that they could outnumber Newcastle as often as possible. Here, winger Tommy Freeman is chasing down the ball with five teammates behind him, meaning that, should Freeman lose the ball, Northampton still have a good chance of keeping possession and maintaining their attack.
At this point in the game, Northampton’s performance level had dropped off compared to the first half, so it showed how they always pose a threat even when not at their best and can never be counted out of games, which is why teams have recently found it harder to beat them.
Northampton Saints’ spatial awareness
One area of Northampton Saints’ play that was critical to their win was their use of the spaces around the pitch, and this section of the analysis will explore this in more detail to demonstrate why it was so important.
Good attacking teams need to have a fly-half who is creative and comfortable at finding spaces, and Northampton have that in Dan Biggar. Whenever the Wales international had possession, the Saints always posed a threat, with his accuracy from the boot allowing his teammates to exploit space quickly and not allow Newcastle Falcons time to close gaps off.
In this case, Biggar has seen Rory Hutchinson on the far side of the pitch and kicked the ball in his direction, with Hutchinson then making his own kick into the space behind the Newcastle players and trying to give Freeman something to run onto. On this occasion, Newcastle’s England star Adam Radwan got back in time to ground the ball in the Falcons’ in-goal area, but this shows again how the Saints wanted to get on the front foot and put pressure on their opponents.
Their spatial awareness was also key in tighter areas of the pitch, with this situation coming after Northampton had won a lineout. However, whilst it appears that the home side are looking to drive forwards together, what is actually happening is that Matavesi is waiting for Newcastle flanker Gary Graham to commit to the defensive effort. Once the Scotland international, in the red circle, does so, the gap is there for Matavesi to run through and score.
This brings us to a key point about how the Saints look to play, as they are not a team who favour collisions and building attacks through phases of play. Instead, they use quick ball movement to target gaps in defensive lines, as Matavesi did here, and it was perhaps surprising that the Falcons didn’t seem aware of this in the first half, leaving spaces open and allowing the home side to play to their strengths.
However, as previously mentioned, Newcastle came out much quicker in the second half and caught Northampton out. This spatial awareness therefore became even more vital as the game went on, helping the Saints to regain control of proceedings and go on to win the match. Replacement scrum-half Tom James has seen the gap between Sean Robinson and substitute hooker Jamie Blamire here and knows that there is a chance for his side to break through the defensive line, with his pass giving Saints back row replacement Juarno Augustus the opportunity to make a strong carry and push the visitors backwards. The fact that Hutchinson scored in the corner only a few passes later shows again how this tactic is key to Northampton winning games.
Newcastle Falcons’ mixed game
It wasn’t only good play from Northampton Saints that led to them winning so comfortably at Franklin’s Gardens though, as Newcastle Falcons gave them plenty of help. The visitors were, in the words of their own coaching staff, “their own worst enemies” at times and undoubtedly made it very easy for the Saints to take control of the game.
This situation came early on and, in a lot of ways, set the tone for the match, with Argentina centre Matias Orlando trying to play a quick pass down the line but mistiming it, preventing Greg Peterson from gathering it whilst loosehead Adam Brocklebank was too far away to react in time. As a result, Matavesi was able to take advantage of the momentary confusion and run between both players to pick up the ball and score, and the ease of this try showed how Newcastle were creating their own problems and Northampton were ready to punish their mistakes.
The theme of poor handling continued in the second half, with Jamie Blamire this time carrying the ball out of his 22 after making a very good interception. However, a good tackle by Saints replacement Courtnall Skosan ended his advance, although Newcastle still had possession and needed to keep their momentum going. Unfortunately, the pass from full-back Alex Tait to find Newcastle’s other Argentina international, winger Mateo Carreras, was not expected and Carreras wasn’t ready, meaning that they lost the ball and Augustus was able to set up Freeman for his hat-trick.
At this stage, with the Saints so far ahead and Newcastle’s second-half resurrection well and truly over, the try was just another to add to the Saints’ tally in this game. However, it shows once again how the Falcons were giving their opponents chances to score through their constant individual mistakes, and this is something that they need to look at ahead of next season.
The middle period of the game did see them get into the game much more, with strong breaks by captain Callum Chick and some good defensive work by tighthead Trevor Davison helping them to grow into the match. However, they didn’t make the most of their opportunities, with their attacking play often too narrow and Northampton therefore having time to organise their defensive line after each phase of play.
Here, Graham has gone to ground after a Newcastle lineout, having been tackled by Dingwall, but Newcastle don’t get over the ball and Biggar and flanker Aaron Hinkley get over the top of him to win the turnover and clear their lines, so these are the chances that they need to start taking advantage of if they want to finish higher up the table in 2022/2023.
However, as highlighted throughout this analysis, they were much better after half-time with Hodgson at the centre of much of their good play, making runs and linking up with teammates to keep the ball moving in the right direction. What was very noticeable was that he was the one making key decisions at each stage of the game and he also made the important decisions at set-pieces, kicking for lineouts rather than taking three points and giving his teammates opportunities to push for tries, and the fact that they had two on the scoreboard before Northampton could respond highlighted their confidence and energy and demonstrates how dangerous they are when at their best.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked in detail at the English Premiership match between Northampton Saints and Newcastle Falcons, identifying the different tactical aspects of the home side’s performance and the ways in which the visitors contributed to the game’s sizeable points difference.
Northampton knew that a win was all they required from this game, be it ugly or stylish, and they will be happy with how they played and will now look forward to next weekend’s semi-final, an East Midlands derby at fierce rivals Leicester, with added confidence in their performance levels. Newcastle, meanwhile, will be disappointed with the outcome but can take the positives from the section of the game which they controlled, knowing that they caused their hosts some major concerns at the start of the second half, and this will provide them with something to build on in their pre-season preparations.