As the English Premiership reaches the final stages of the regular season, every team is intent on finishing as high up the table as possible, setting themselves up for either the play-offs or for another push next season. Whilst Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs and Sale Sharks had already ensured their play-off places before this round began, Harlequins needed a win against Bath at the Twickenham Stoop to guarantee their place. Bath, meanwhile, were still looking to secure a top eight league position, which would give them Champions Cup rugby next season.
This tactical analysis will look in detail at what turned out to be a really entertaining and high-scoring game of rugby, looking at the tactics both teams played with. The analysis will also focus on Bath centre Max Clark, and his role in the away side’s performance.
15. T. Green 15. T. de Glanville
14. N. Earle 14. J. Cokanasiga
13. L. Northmore 13. M. Clark
12. J. Lang 12. M. Ojomoh
11. J. Marchant 11. W. Muir
10. M. Smith 10. R. Priestland
9. D. Care 9. B. Spencer
- J. Marler 1. J. Bhatti
- S. Baldwin 2. J. du Toit
- W. Louw 3. W. Stuart
- M. Symons 4. J. McNally
- S. Lewies (c) 5. C. Ewels (c)
- J. Lawday 6. M. Reid
- J. Kenningham 7. S. Underhill
- A. Dombrandt 8. T. Faletau
Harlequins’ mixed game
For Harlequins, the situation was simple; win with maximum points, and the final play-off place was theirs. Whilst they were clearly up for the game, they lacked quality with some of their play, which cost them at key moments.
Here, South African utility back Tyrone Green, who has been operating at full-back since Mike Brown was suspended, has got his body ahead of Bath winger Joe Cokanasiga, looking to offload to centre Luke Northmore. However, the timing of the release is not right, and the ball goes behind Northmore, ending the attacking opportunity.
This is not the only time this happened, and both teams were guilty of it, but, for Harlequins, these unforced errors highlighted why they are the last team to seal their top four position, and reminded us that there are still poor aspects of their play which could let them down in the knockout stages.
Defensively, they also left plenty to be desired at times. This has been their biggest problem in recent games, conceding too many tries and leaving too much space open for their opponents to exploit. Bath found and attacked through plenty of gaps, with lock Josh McNally running through here and evading tackle attempts from Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care and Green, eventually scoring a brilliant try as a reward for his efforts.
Bath do not have as sharp an attacking setup as Bristol, Exeter and Sale, and yet found ways to expose the home side’s weaknesses, so Harlequins will need to address these problems if they want to challenge in the knockout stages.
The second half saw Bath play with a higher intensity, and Harlequins struggled to manage the game as much as they had been. As a result, they didn’t seal their win until the closing stages of the game, when a series of phases eventually led to a gap being forced open.
Harlequins have plenty of weight going forward, with the likes of number 8 Alex Dombrandt and prop Joe Marler constantly colliding with the Bath defence, forcing them backwards. When the ball hit the floor, the likes of young flanker Jack Kenningham, who was outstanding all game, led the efforts to maintain possession and prevent jackal attempts from the Bath players.
With all of these things working in unison, Harlequins kept pushing forwards, but never lost the ball, which was crucial in tiring Bath out and creating the gap to run through. Good combination play from fly-half Marcus Smith, winger Joe Marchant and substitute winger Aaron Morris set up substitute scrum-half Martin Landajo to go through, as the red arrow shows, with the Argentina international claiming the team’s reward for persevering in Bath’s area.
It is moments like this that highlight Harlequins’ revival since Paul Gustard left the club, and show why they have been so difficult to play against in the second half of the season. This is what they need to carry forward into the knockout stages.
Bath struggled to get into this game, with plenty of unforced errors allowing Harlequins to build up a 32-18 lead at half-time. They had plenty of promising moments in the first half, but couldn’t make them count.
Bath knew that Harlequins would leave gaps open, and so got their ball-carriers colliding with the defence as often as possible. The try scored by McNally came from one of these forward runs, but this image shows Wales number 8 Taulupe Faletau trying to find a way through, testing the defenders’ strength and ability to hold him back. He had already broken through on a previous occasion, as had former Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer, so this was definitely something Bath were using to keep the pressure on their opponents for as long as possible.
However, Bath lacked quality with their overall play in the first half, missing plenty of opportunities to punish their opponents. This was one of the main reasons they had such a low number of points at half-time. In the second half, they seemed to have more energy and intensity, leading to quicker rugby, and this asked more questions of the Harlequins players.
This image shows Bath in a good attacking situation in the second half. They have more players involved in the attack, supporting each other, giving them more passing options. Spencer has the ball, whilst flanker Miles Reid and winger Will Muir, in the yellow circles, are both offering themselves to him, with both in good positions to take the ball forward.
Harlequins now have a choice, because winger Nathan Earle, in the red circle, can either stay back and block the space off, or come forwards and meet the ball early. He chooses the latter option, but comes too far forward, leaving space open behind him. This allows Reid to get between him and Marler, before offloading to Muir in the space Earle left, and this leads to an early second half try for the visitors.
This image shows another example of Bath’s improved second half play. Harlequins have come inside too much, leaving the wide channel open for Bath to exploit, and this may have been because Marchant was in the sin bin at this point, meaning the home side were one player down. Centre Max Ojomoh uses his spatial awareness to play the long pass to Muir, who crosses into substitute flanker Josh Bayliss’s channel to catch it.
The yellow arrows show how Muir and Bayliss swap, with Bayliss receiving the pass back inside from Muir to score the try. Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care is behind the main defensive line, but can’t block the try being scored, because he is caught in a 2-v-1. Therefore, this is another example of Bath’s increased confidence and quality after half-time, giving them more success in Harlequins’ half of the pitch.
Max Clark’s impact
We have already mentioned how Bath struggled in the first half, but arguably their best player on the pitch was outside centre Max Clark. He was at the front of all their attacks, made strong defensive tackles in key moments, and was generally an important player for them throughout.
In the first half, Bath’s communication and teamwork was poor, which is one reason why they have struggled in the Premiership this season. This image highlights their disjointedness, with Clark advancing deep into Harlequins’ territory, before being brought down by home captain and lock Stephan Lewies. Now, he is isolated, with teammates over the top of him, but no-one coming in to receive the ball. It therefore rolls free, allowing Marchant, in the red circle, to run forward and pick it up, combining with flanker Jack Lawday to set up Care for their second try of the game.
We can therefore see how Bath’s failure to support Clark’s quick break forward with enough urgency led to Harlequins scoring at the other end of the pitch. However, the fact that Clark got so far forward before being brought down highlights the threat he posed during the game.
Clark continued making these runs in the second half, gaining plenty of ground for his team. Here, he has picked up the loose ball and spotted where the gap is, getting behind the main Harlequins’ defensive line and offloading to Muir, in the yellow circle. This combination play set the foundations for Ojomoh to almost score a debut try on the far side of the pitch, so, again, Clark’s dangerous forward runs created opportunities for Bath in attack. Unlike in the previous image, he had support, as Bath were playing with more urgency, but every time Clark had the ball, he looked confident and Bath looked dangerous.
Clark’s defensive play was just as sharp. When Harlequins were breaking forwards, he was the one making strong tackles to prevent them advancing too far up the pitch. Here, Green is making the run, but is unable to get out of his own half. We know that Green is a quick player, able to cover plenty of metres every time he has the ball, and that shows how well Clark did to anticipate his run and tackle him early. Whilst Harlequins did eventually score through Northmore a little later, the try could have come from Green, and it is little moments like these that Bath need to build on.
Whilst Clark was replaced early in the second half by England’s Jonathan Joseph, his impact on the game cannot be played down. His pace in attack and strength in defence means he will be a really important player for Bath in the remaining games, particularly with Cameron Redpath out injured at the moment.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has looked at the English Premiership match between Harlequins and Bath, picking out the good and bad of both teams’ performances. Harlequins would have been delighted with their first half play, and some complacency perhaps crept into their performance in the second half. As a result, they will be relieved to have got the job done, securing their place in the top four. Bath, meanwhile, will know that they have plenty of things to improve on ahead of next season, including their quality in attacking situations and aerial battles. However, they scored four tries to claim a bonus point and caused Harlequins plenty of problems at the Stoop, so there are positives for them to take too.