After what felt like an eternity, the new English rugby season finally got underway at the weekend, with 6 matches to enjoy and plenty of new signings to keep an eye on. One of the games taking place on Sunday saw rapidly improving Gloucester host a Wasps side who needed to make a good start to the season, having missed out on the Champions Cup for this year after inconsistent results during the last campaign.
This tactical analysis will look in closer detail at both teams’ performances, picking out the reasons for Wasps dominating the first half at Kingsholm and for Gloucester’s second half comeback, with the latter claiming the eventual win. The analysis will look specifically at Wasps’ early threat and key tactics that helped them control the first half, as well as why they fell apart after the break and enabled the home side to get back into the game.
Gloucester opted not to be too active in the transfer market over the summer, with Fiji forward Albert Tuisue the only major new name in the squad. He started on the bench, with Ben Morgan and Ruan Ackermann (who was captaining the team in Lewis Ludlow’s absence) joined by academy player Harry Taylor in the back row. Freddie Clarke, one of the Cherry and Whites’ star players last season, partnered Scotland’s Alex Craig in the second row, whilst props Harry Elrington and Fraser Balmain started either side of hooker Jack Singleton. Charlie Chapman was preferred to another former London Irish player, Ben Meehan, at scrum-half, whilst another Scotland international, Chris Harris, offered significant defensive protection at outside centre.
Wasps had several injury concerns for this game, with lock Elliott Stooke, fly-halves Jacob Umaga and Will Haydon-Wood and prop Rodrigo Martinez all ruled out of this match. Robin Hislop was the visitors’ only available loosehead as a result, and he joined Tom Cruse and new signing John Ryan in the front row, whilst Kiran McDonald, who signed from Glasgow Warriors this summer, started alongside captain Joe Launchbury behind them. Charlie Atkinson, Wasps’ only fit standoff, partnered Dan Robson at half-back, whilst new South African addition Burger Odendaal, a player that fans are excited to watch this season, was also included in the starting XV. The other notable name in the side was Italy full-back Matteo Minozzi, who had missed the majority of last season with injury problems.
Wasps’ early threat
It is safe to say that neither side took many risks in the opening stages of this game, with both trying to work each other out and get themselves into the swing of things after their summer breaks. As a result, there were plenty of high box kicks and attempts to find weaknesses in the opposing ranks, with both teams taking a short while to really find their rhythm.
However, it was Wasps who had the first clear attacking opportunity, with Gloucester making a small mistake in possession and seeing the pass from centre Mark Atkinson go astray. With Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit too far forward, it was left to Ollie Thorley, in the red circle here, to attempt to gather the ball, but he was unable to switch direction in time and Wasps wide player Zach Kibirige sensed the opportunity to steal possession.
The home side were let off here by the fact that Kibirige couldn’t get a clean connection and, as a result, his offload to Matteo Minozzi went forwards, but this was an early sign of Wasps’ attacking intent and their desire to get on the front foot whenever they had a chance to do so. From their point of view, this was really important, because this is a campaign in which they need to show what they can really do after last season’s disappointment. By the way in which they were quickly onto this pass and then supported the attack with numbers, it appears that starting matches well has been a key area of their pre-season preparations.
The half-time scoreline of 21-0 to the visitors was a good reflection of how the first half went, with Wasps controlling a lot of the play and keeping Gloucester largely on the back foot. One player who was central to their creativity was scrum-half Dan Robson, as his clever passing and ability to see spaces gave Wasps constant chances to penetrate the home defensive line. Here, he is making a long pass towards back rower Alfie Barbeary, but the clever thing here is that both Joe Launchbury and flanker Tom Willis, brother of England star Jack, moved forward to occupy the two Gloucester players nearest him, preventing them from making a tackle and giving Robson additional time to pick out Barbeary.
Where the visitors needed to improve was in their ability to finish chances off, because, for all of their clever play in possession, they were left wanting when it came to the final pass or lunge towards the try line. In this case, Barbeary couldn’t gather the ball cleanly once it reached him, so being tidier with the ball is something that Wasps will need to address ahead of their next game. Nevertheless, their ability to identify and target these spaces was another sign of their attacking intent, which would have pleased head coach Lee Blackett and his coaching team.
That theme of delaying passes and waiting until the last moment to release the ball was something that worked well for Wasps in the first half, with Charlie Atkinson doing the same thing here and waiting until Irish tighthead John Ryan had enough space to successfully break through the line between Freddie Clarke and Ruan Ackermann.
The fact that he moved onto the ball at pace meant that neither Gloucester forward was able to react in time, with the result being that the prop made a significant amount of ground with his carry, before Atkinson, Burger Odendaal and flanker Brad Shields combined to secure the try. However, as this situation shows, getting the ball over the line was the result of Atkinson’s careful judgement here, showing again how Wasps have been working hard on some of the smaller details of their play during pre-season in order to make themselves harder to beat.
Wasps’ second half defensive play
Many expected Wasps to kick on in the second half after what they had shown up to that point, but their discipline let them down and they began to look more like the Wasps team that we saw so many times last season, with the confidence draining away and Gloucester being allowed to get back into the game as a result.
The loss of discipline started with their defensive line, which, in the first half, had been well-organised with players in a perfectly straight line. As a result, Gloucester had not been able to find a way through them and had been unable to create many attacking opportunities. However, as can be seen here, that line discipline went away in the second half, with players moving out of line and gaps starting to open up, which was all the invitation that the Cherry and Whites needed to start probing the line and trying to find a way through.
This situation is the result of Chris Harris’ attempt to break through a gap, but he was stopped early on and Wasps surrounded the ball on the ground to prevent Gloucester making a quick break down the short side. However, this was a warning that Wasps didn’t heed, with another gap appearing on the far side of the field which the home side also targeted, as the red arrow shows. That time, it was loosehead Harry Elrington who took the ball forward, and his attack proved to be far more successful, with the ball moving to Albert Tuisue, who had replaced Ben Morgan in the first half, and then Charlie Chapman, who was in the perfect position to score an early home try and get them back into the game.
Director of Rugby George Skivington said after the match that his team had not been far off the pace in the first half (a point that some fans might debate), but moments like this showed that they had clearly spoken at the break about tightening up some of the loose areas of their play and taking the initiative when chances presented themselves. For those watching in the stands, this moment showed that they had regained their belief and were now looking to assert themselves in the game, whilst also highlighting how Wasps were not alive to the warnings that they were being given.
Wasps also conceded a vast number of penalties in the second half, with two resulting in them being down to 13 players as the match neared its conclusion. Those cards were awarded for avoidable things as well, which is what would have been the most frustrating thing for the coaching staff, with this situation showing how Tom Willis picked up the first by changing his bind in the maul, getting his hand on the ball and pulling Gloucester’s replacement hooker Santiago Socino over in the process, all of which he simply cannot do. However, whilst that only resulted in another penalty, the next yellow card was shown shortly afterwards and led to a penalty try, with replacement tighthead Biyi Alo sent to the sin bin for collapsing the maul following the next lineout.
Ultimately, it was a couple of really poor moments from Wasps, and moments that they will look back on and know that they could have done better with, as these mistakes were another key reason for Gloucester getting back into the game and building momentum as the game went on.
It would be an honest observation to say that Gloucester simply weren’t in the game at half-time, having struggled to contain a Wasps side that had looked dangerous and reasonably clinical whenever they had had a chance to get forward.
The main problem that they had was that, as mentioned, they couldn’t get forward as often as they would have liked to, with Wasps keeping the pressure on them and preventing them from breaking into the spaces behind. However, towards the end of the first 40 minutes, they did start to put together some phases and get the ball into Wasps’ half, which gave them a chance to at least get something to build on after the break.
What stopped them from getting on the scoreboard was a lack of quality with the ball, as the throw from hooker Jack Singleton at this lineout went too high and over Clarke, giving Launchbury time to gather the loose ball up and attempt to clear his lines. Not long before this, Clarke had spilt a pass just next to the try line, so the Cherry and Whites did have chances to score before the break but lacked composure when they got into threatening areas.
However, there was a start contrast between that and their second half play, as they kept pushing into Wasps’ 22 but were tidier in possession, not allowing their opponents the same chances to clear their lines. Again, it is Clarke who has the ball here, and his body position means that he can turn around both Wasps centre Sam Spink and substitute hooker Dan Frost, who both came off their line to tackle him, and take both out of the game. By doing so, a gap was created where those two players were beforehand for the Gloucester lock to score in, which he does as neither flanker Ben Morris nor back Ali Crossdale, who both came off the bench during the game, could get their hands underneath the ball in time.
It should be noted that Wasps were without Tom Willis and Alo at this point, so they did have a numerical disadvantage which was perhaps working against them, but ultimately Gloucester deserve credit for persevering with their offensive style of play in the second half and gaining their rewards, and there is no doubting that they were the better team in all areas after the break.
One of Gloucester’s most improved areas was their set-pieces, with this situation showing a maul during the second half. The lineout throw from Socino that led to this was taken well by replacement lock Cameron Jordan, and that allowed Gloucester to get the ball down and instantly push Wasps back, with the away side looking unprepared to defend against the drive here. As a result, Gloucester not only secured possession but also earnt a penalty, showing again how every one of their players on the pitch was working together to get the team back into the game, knowing that the win was there for the taking.
For the home fans, situations like this will give them plenty of encouragement for the season ahead that the Cherry and Whites can maybe break into the top four after narrowly missing out on the playoffs last season, as it is clear that their players never know when they are beaten.
The Cherry and Whites were much better in defence too, with players again working together and preventing Wasps from breaking through them in the same way as they had been doing in the first half. This situation comes from the latter stages of the game, but the way that Gloucester are still committed to the cause shows how they wanted the win and also recognised that it wasn’t secured until the final whistle was blown.
The key thing here is that replacement centre Billy Twelvetrees has teamed up with Harris and Thorley to form a three-player defensive line, which forces Wasps into passing along the line much quicker and doesn’t allow them to plan their move. When the ball moved along the line from Atkinson to winger Josh Bassett and then to Crossdale, each of the three Gloucester players moves to close them down, staying with one player each, and this means that Crossdale’s only option when he receives the ball is kicking it up the field and trying to give his teammates something to get on the end of.
However, because of the home side’s defensive work, there were no teammates available to meet it, with Rees-Zammit instead gathering the ball under little pressure and getting back on his feet before any Wasps players arrived. This happened a few times as the game drew to a close and showed again how the home side had more ideas in the second half and made themselves harder to beat, which is why they were the ones who came away with the win.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Gloucester and Wasps at Kingsholm, identifying the reasons why Wasps controlled the first half and why the Cherry and Whites came back in the second 40 minutes to win the game. Wasps head coach Lee Blackett said afterwards that he felt his side were in full control, but their second half performance was poor and they allowed Gloucester to get back into the match through their errors, and that is something that Cherry and Whites counterpart George Skivington will partly agree on. He will know that Gloucester weren’t themselves in the first half but will be pleased with the reaction after the break, and it is always good to start the season with a win and have something to build on going into the next round of fixtures.
Gloucester have the coming weekend off, as it is their first break week (each team has two throughout the season as there are 13 teams in the division). Their next match therefore takes place on 24 September, when they travel to last season’s runners-up Saracens. Wasps, meanwhile, will have another opportunity to get their first win on Saturday afternoon, when they host Bristol Bears.