After struggling for most of this season in the English Premiership, Bath have now won back-to-back league games, with fellow strugglers Worcester Warriors and defending champions Harlequins both falling at the Rec. A big reason for the latter’s defeat last Friday was the inclusion of back row forward Nathan Hughes in the Bath back row, following his recent loan move from West Country rivals Bristol Bears, and his experience and explosive power could give Bath the confidence they have been lacking so far this season.
In order to see why he was essential to their win, this tactical analysis will pick out a few key aspects of his performance and explain why they will help Bath during the remainder of the season.
Something that we have always associated with Hughes is the way that he gives his team energy with the ball, and his break here came directly after loosehead prop Arthur Cordwell had been tackled. It took the Harlequins players by surprise, as the scrum-half normally picks the ball up and passes it out to a teammate, so the defenders weren’t able to stop Hughes from breaking through and gaining some ground for his team. As a result, the ball is now behind the Harlequins defensive line, with Hughes looking to offload to a teammate; it was not a clean pass, but fly-half Max Ojomoh managed to gather the ball and feed it to winger Will Muir, who has undoubtedly been Bath’s most dangerous attacker so far this season.
While Muir was the one to convert the opportunity, Hughes’ run through the Harlequins line was what gave Bath the space to attack into, and this is one key quality that the back rower will bring to their tactics going into the next couple of months.
Another point worth raising in this scout report is that Hughes was regularly picking the ball up himself from the back of scrums, rather than staying bound to the back of them and pushing forwards. Bath’s tactics seemed to revolve around not competing as hard in these set-plays, instead looking to move the ball out as quickly as possible and into the spaces left open around the pitch. By tasking Hughes with making the first pass, it meant that scrum-half Ben Spencer could become the first receiver, giving them an extra player and a better chance of making the opportunity count.
It also showed that they regard Hughes as someone who needs to be involved as much as possible, and freeing him up means that he can get over the ball and protect it when his teammates are tackled, especially if the other forwards have not yet emerged from the scrum. Therefore, this is another example of Bath’s good thinking about how to use Hughes’ abilities to aid them in the best possible way.
The other thing that Hughes will bring to the team, which is not necessarily as noticeable, is a good level of leadership, and this is something that Bath have been seriously depleted in. As this image shows, Hughes is pointing around and knows where he wants his teammates to set up, and he is the type of player that others listen to. Therefore, having him in the middle of things, like here, will also help to make Bath more watertight and prevent opponents from breaking through them with as much ease. His experience has come from his time with Wasps, Bristol and England, where he has played alongside some of the best players in the country, so his knowledge will also be critical during the next two months in transforming Bath’s season for the better.
In conclusion, this analysis has identified a few examples that show why Nathan Hughes’ arrival at Bath could provide the spark that they have been searching for this season. One reason that they have perhaps been lacking in this is because Zach Mercer left for Montpellier last summer and his replacement, South African Jaco Coetzee, has not been fit enough to claim a regular starting place. Now though, they have someone with the power and presence required to make the impact they require, and some of his collisions against Harlequins showed that he is ready for the task in hand. There is no doubting that Bath have a better chance of winning matches with him in the team.