Northampton Saints and Worcester Warriors are currently at different ends of the English Premiership table; Northampton have lost just once this season, against Wasps at the Coventry Building Society Arena, and are aiming for a top four finish, whilst Worcester have only won once, at home to London Irish on the opening weekend, and have suffered heavy defeats to high-flying Leicester Tigers and an improving Exeter Chiefs in their last two games. As a result, this clash looked easy to call, and, whilst it was another heavy defeat for the Warriors, there were some interesting points to pick out. This tactical analysis will focus on both teams’ performances, looking at the tactics behind Northampton’s victory, as well as the positives Worcester can take from the game, and where they need to improve.
Northampton Saints, who had last week off, made four changes from the defeat to Wasps, with loosehead prop Nick Auterac and England full-back George Furbank missing out, whilst versatile back Matt Proctor had a hand injury and South African summer addition Juarno Augustus moved to the bench. Long-serving prop Alex Waller was named in the front row, starting alongside Fijian hooker Sam Matavesi and tighthead Paul Hill. Teimana Harrison took Augustus’ place at number 8, Scotland international Rory Hutchinson replaced Proctor at centre, partnering Fraser Dingwall, and Courtnall Skosan, another South African signing, made his debut on the wing. The other adjustment saw Tommy Freeman switch to full-back, in Furbank’s absence.
Worcester Warriors, looking to arrest their poor run of results, made five alterations to the team that lost to Leicester last weekend. Former Harlequins hooker Scott Baldwin and ex-Wasps back rower Sione Vailanu moved to the bench, whilst lock Justin Clegg, fly-half Billy Searle and winger Perry Humphreys missed out altogether. Into the team came hooker Niall Annett, lock Graham Kitchener, who partnered his brother Andrew in the second row, number 8 Matt Kvesic and full-back Jamie Shillcock, whilst there was also a start for promising young fly-half Fin Smith, and Harri Doel moved to the wing from full-back to make way for Shillcock. Injuries to England duo Ollie Lawrence and Willi Heinz before the game meant two further changes were necessary, with Oli Morris and Will Chudley taking their places at centre and scrum-half respectively.
Northampton Saints’ tactics
From the early stages of the game, Northampton Saints were playing cleverly, trying to find the weak spots in the Worcester Warriors line. This led to them controlling proceedings for large parts of the match, which resulted in them comfortably winning the encounter.
They were helped in this by Worcester going down to 14 players early on, with Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe sent to the bin, and Northampton looked to use the gaps left open by his temporary absence as much as possible, especially on the wing. They moved captain Lewis Ludlam into that channel, hoping that his speed and power would get them through where Worcester were now short of cover. The Warriors’ need to spread out more to cover the whole pitch increased the gaps between individual players, leading to Ludlam having a choice of where to run through when he did get the ball, which was key.
Northampton sought to kick the ball into the space behind Worcester for the majority of the game, allowing runners to gather it behind the line, and having Ludlam in this area helped in that. This was therefore one way in which they controlled the game tactically early on.
However, with Worcester proving difficult to break through once back to 15 players, Northampton also needed a good amount of creativity to find ways through their line. Here, Wales fly-half Dan Biggar, in the green circle, has shaped to pass the ball here, but dummies and instead runs through the Worcester players, who have opened up as a result of Biggar’s body shape. As their attention was on Biggar and the ball, Tommy Freeman and winger Ollie Sleightholme were allowed to run through virtually unnoticed, providing Biggar with support behind the line. This should have led to a try, but Freeman held onto the ball too long and didn’t offload it to Sleightholme, which allowed van der Merwe to get across and end the threat.
From Northampton’s point of view, this demonstrated their alertness and efficiency in attack, taking advantage of every opportunity they had to keep Worcester on the back foot, and this was another reason for their win. For Worcester, this served as another warning that they needed to improve defensively, as switching off here had allowed three opponents to get behind them, and it is moments like this that have cost them so far this season.
Creativity was a constant feature of Northampton’s play, with scrum-half Alex Mitchell another who caused Worcester plenty of problems throughout the game. He was at the heart of all the Saints’ attacks, with he and Biggar working hard to provide the other 13 players with opportunities around the field. In this image, Mitchell has spotted the gap between Graham Kitchener and Will Chudley, making a run through it and getting his team into the open space behind. Whilst he was tackled here, another break a few phases afterwards almost led to him scoring, with Harri Doel getting back well to tackle him.
Mitchell was unlucky to miss out on the England squad for the Autumn international matches, with Sale Sharks’ Raffi Quirke and Bristol Bears’ Harry Randall preferred to him, but he has a natural instinct for darting runs in tight spaces that would really benefit the national team. His presence caused Worcester plenty of problems, and was another reason for the Saints’ win.
As the game progressed, Northampton’s defence also needed to be well-organised, ensuring that the few opportunities Worcester did have never resulted in anything. The Saints worked hard as a team to limit the Warriors’ space, with Jamie Shillcock in the middle of the opposing lines here, trying to pass out to the wing. Northampton’s team press has led to Shillcock’s only option being a long pass, moving the ball out of danger as quickly as possible. However, this means the ball is in the air for longer, which allowed Mitchell to make an interception and run through to score his second try of the game. Therefore, even when the game was secured, the Saints were alive to Worcester’s tactics and looked to influence proceedings.
Worcester Warriors’ positives
Whilst Worcester Warriors undoubtedly need to improve on plenty of things, there were a couple of positives that they and their fans can take from this game, as the next section of this analysis will show.
Firstly, the one thing they don’t appear short of is strength when playing through phases of play. In this image, which came in the first five minutes, they are testing the resilience of the Northampton Saints defensive line and trying to find its weak points. Scotland prop Rory Sutherland, who joined the Warriors this summer from Edinburgh, is one of the best ball-carrying props in the game, and is trying to break through here. Worcester moved the ball around well in the early parts of the game, with Chudley finding space shortly after this, but the ex-Bath scrum-half was tackled well by Mitchell, his opposite number.
This was an example of the Warriors’ good early pressure though, and, at this stage in the game, it will have given them confidence that they could compete, although the end result showed that this was not the case in the remainder of the game.
They were also getting up early to the ball and anticipating Northampton’s moves, which was good to see. Here, Biggar has not yet received the ball, but three Warriors players have already looked to run up the pitch and close down any possible attack. Saints prop Paul Hill did manage to break between them, highlighting the gaps between individual players, but was brought down by a combination of centre Francois Venter and prop Christian Judge.
What this showed was that Northampton needed to be clever in order to break Worcester down at times. The home side undoubtedly had more possession and creativity, but were not always able to find a way through and make them count, which should give Worcester confidence going forwards.
Worcester Warriors’ positives
However, as with the last two games, Worcester Warriors ended up losing by a vast margin, and that was due to the mistakes made throughout the game in different situations.
Leicester and Exeter both scored plenty of times from short attacks, running through tight areas and converting rolling mauls into points. Northampton Saints also used this tactic, with plenty of short bursts from the likes of Alex Mitchell asking questions of the Worcester players. Here, we can see how the visitors’ line has narrowed nearer the ball, which in turn has increased the gaps further down the line. The players in those areas needed to be switched on to prevent Northampton exploiting those spaces, especially as this is where the Saints have looked to attack here. Mitchell has switched the direction of play, making it even more important for the Warriors to be strong defensively, but Fiji lock Api Ratuniyarawa is able to run through and score an easy try, as the green arrow shows.
This came because both Judge and flanker Kyle Hatherell, another summer acquisition, were caught watching the ball and not Ratuniyarawa. Therefore, it was the same issue as the last two games, with Worcester unable to defend these short attacks well enough, and Northampton benefitting from that.
In offensive situations, Worcester tended to lack quality with the ball. Here, Chudley has found Andrew Kitchener, who has a gap ahead of him to run into. Once the lock is tackled, the pass to Hatherell is spilt, meaning Worcester have lost possession in a good area and given Northampton the opportunity to clear their lines. These are the moments when they needed to keep their composure, but their inability to do so was another reason that they came away from the game with only 10 points scored.
This image shows another occasion when the Warriors lost control of the game. They did try to increase their numbers in attack by getting Matt Kvesic to pick the ball up from the back of the scrum, whilst Chudley became the first receiver, but the ball was not gathered cleanly here and the Warriors lost their element of surprise early on in the move. Given the scoreline, it was not surprising that Worcester were trying different things in order to get back into the game, but they were almost trying too hard, leading to mistakes like this. Kvesic did get back to regather the ball, but Worcester had conceded a lot of territory in the process, so needed to start their attack virtually from scratch.
Like with the previous image, this indicated that the visitors were getting themselves into good areas of the field, but didn’t then have the quality required to make these opportunities count. This was another reason why the Saints won by such a large margin.
What was interesting in the first half was that Worcester didn’t seem keen to use their wingers that often, with van der Merwe having to come inside to find the ball, whilst Doel was only involved when making tackles at the back, as was the case with Mitchell earlier on. Instead, the Warriors preferred to run through the middle and use their forwards to try and blast holes in the Saints defence, as we saw in the last section of the analysis. This worked to an extent, but a tactical switch may have given Northampton different problems, as they were strong defensively and Worcester were effectively playing into their hands.
In comparison, Northampton’s wingers, Courtnall Skosan and Ollie Sleightholme, were both heavily involved in the game, as was Fraser Dingwall after he switched to the wing in the second half once Sleightholme had been replaced by centre Piers Francis. Therefore, using the wingers in attacking situations may have been better for Worcester.
In conclusion, we can see how Northampton Saints against Worcester Warriors, whilst a one-sided affair, was an interesting game to watch, because it represented the differences in playing styles that both sides use. Northampton have a creative edge in the middle and use their wingers and half-backs to provide the end product, whilst Worcester like to attack centrally and use their powerful forwards to find gaps in the opposing line, relying on strength in their build-up play. However, the main reason that the Warriors lost was the numerous errors that they made, and this is what they need to work on with haste, otherwise they will continue to struggle, although there were also some important positives for them to take. Northampton will be happy with their performance, and to have got back to winning ways after last weekend’s defeat.
Northampton’s next game sees them host Leicester Tigers at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, in what is shaping up to be a very interesting East Midlands derby. Worcester are also at home next weekend, when they host a Sale side on the same day who have won just twice all season, and will be looking for a result to build consistency on after losing to Leicester at Welford Road last time out.