The 2019/2020 English Premiership season is drawing to an end, with the final round of the regular season played last Sunday. There were still some big matches though, with Bristol Bears, Bath and Wasps all fighting to get the points they needed to seal a place in the play-offs. In this tactical analysis, we will look at Bristol Bears’ visit to the Twickenham Stoop to play London Irish, who have been temporarily using the Stoop as their home ground before they move to the Brentford Community Stadium next season. We will look at Bristol’s tactics in attack, aiming to create space in the Irish defence, and the positives and negatives of London Irish’s performance in this match.
London Irish Bristol Bears
15. T. Homer 15. I. Lloyd
14. B. Loader 14. L. Morahan
13. C. Rona 13. S. Radradra
12. P. Cokanasiga 12. S. Piutau (c)
11. O. Hassell-Collins 11. P. O’Conor
10. P. Jackson 10. M. Malins
9. N. Phipps 9. H. Randall
- A. Dell 1. J. Woolmore
- A. Creevy 2. H. Thacker
- S. Kepu 3. J. Afoa
- G. Nott 4. E. Holmes
- C. Munga 5. J. Joyce
- M. Rogerson (c) 6. C. Vui
- J. Cooke 7. J. Heenan
- A. Tuisue 8. B. Earl
Bristol Bears’ tactics
The first thing we will look at is Bristol Bears’ tactics. Firstly, they are a team who like to pass the ball quickly, catching their opponents out, and that was evident throughout the game.
In this image, we can see a pass that Piers O’Conor made to Semi Radradra. O’Conor is normally a centre, but played this game as a winger; Radradra is normally a winger, but has played for Bristol as a centre, which, as we have established previously, gives him more space to get through opposing defences and create opportunities behind for his teammates.
The pass here is made just before O’Conor is tackled, and it actually leads to the first try of the game, scored by Radradra. O’Conor broke through too easily, which is something we will come back to, but the offload was timed excellently, with the aim being to give Radradra as much space and time as possible to get through and over the line. This was an early indication of Bristol’s threat, especially as they needed all five points from this game to give them the best possible chance of earning a place in the play-offs.
The other feature that we saw in Bristol’s play was the variety of passes they were making. In this image, we see a scissor pass being executed, with captain and former Tonga centre Siale Piutau running across the path of Semi Radradra, before offloading to him. The aim of this was to ensure that, again, Radradra had space to run through, indicated by the yellow arrow, thanks to the clever pass from Piutau to take London Irish centre Phil Cokanasiga (younger brother of Bath’s England winger Joe) out of the way and create the gap. London Irish had a strong defensive line, as we will look at later, but this was the way that Bristol Bears created gaps to get their key players through it.
If we look at another image, we can see how, in the second half, these creative passes kept coming. Max Malins, on loan from Saracens, started the game at fly-half for Bristol, and this was perhaps as a way of giving Bristol more creativity in the middle of the pitch, whilst keeping regular 10 Callum Sheedy rested for the play-offs, should they get there, and the European Challenge Cup final. Malins here has taken the ball forwards, but instead of passing along the line to hooker Harry Thacker, as the white arrow shows, he passes it back where it came, giving it to Piers O’Conor, in the yellow circle. O’Conor then has space to run through and gain a few yards for the Bears, as the yellow arrow shows. The body positions of the London Irish players suggest that they weren’t expecting this pass, and so we can see how this move creates gaps in the defence, like the previous example.
This was one way that Bristol tactically looked to force their way through the London Irish defence. Another way was in their setup, which we will look at now.
Here, we can see how the spine of Bristol’s backs, in fly-half Max Malins, centre Semi Radradra, and full-back Ioan Lloyd, all worked together to try and create space for the team. This setup was always going to cause problems for London Irish, because we know how important all three have been to Bristol since the restart, and all three are creatively-minded players. It was a constant sight in the first half to see them work together, such as in the image above.
However, in the second half, Lloyd went a little quiet, and Bristol Bears Director of Rugby Pat Lam obviously saw that they needed more in the middle to help them. He brought on Callum Sheedy for Lloyd, moving Malins back to his natural position of full-back. This was a good move tactically, because it meant that Malins could move around to be wherever he needed to be, whilst Sheedy could direct play from the middle, as we know he likes to do. If we look at the spine of the team now, having Sheedy and Malins on gives Bristol more of everything, and that showed with the speed and accuracy of the passes and some of the runs being made into spaces behind London Irish’s defence after Sheedy’s arrival.
Bristol came away with all five points from this fixture, and we can see how they used several different tactics to help them do so. However, this is not to say that their performance was spotless, because they made a lot of errors and gave away a lot of penalties, particularly in the second half, but ultimately they got what they needed. We will see in the next sections some of the reasons why this was.
London Irish’s positives
London Irish have had a solid if not spectacular season, and this game showed some of the positives and negatives that we can attribute to their overall season performance.
Starting with the positives, we can see in this image how they began the match by getting up to Bristol Bears when out of possession, instead of sitting back and waiting to tackle them as Bristol ran towards them.
Here, Bristol have possession, and have passed the ball to Ioan Lloyd on the far side of the pitch. However, before Lloyd has had a chance to steady himself, London Irish winger Ben Loader, who has been one of the Exiles’ best players this season, has charged him down. This takes time away from Bristol. We know and have already mentioned how they have a lot of pace in their team, so this tactic that Irish were using was a way of nullifying that, pinning them back as far as possible.
However, when the ball was further forward, London Irish defended well as a team. You can see in this image how their defensive line is well-organised, with no spaces between. Bristol Bears may have had the ball, but they could never get too far forward whenever they looked to run through the Exiles’ defence, and this was due to each attacker being met by two or three Irish players, rather than just one.
We will come onto their one-v-one defending, but tackling together allowed Irish to bring them down quicker, and thus Bristol couldn’t get through them. This is something that we expect when hunting in packs, but when we consider that they are bringing down the likes of Radradra fairly quickly, then we can appreciate how this was a big positive for the home side.
The final point in this section comes from the second half. London Irish were the better side after half-time, but couldn’t get what they deserved due to the errors they were making. However, this breakthrough from Ollie Hassell-Collins led to their only try of the game. Hassell-Collins, in the blue circle here, has been one of the Premiership’s breakthrough players this season, but had been quiet in the first half. However, following full-back Tom Homer’s catch and pass to him, he managed to run through and score next to the posts. You can see how he has space ahead of him here, and options of where to get the ball to. He dummies the pass to his teammate on the wing, as the yellow arrow shows, before running past Malins and then Lloyd very easily to get the try. This showed the threat that we know he poses, and was what Bristol didn’t need as they chased a place in the play-offs.
London Irish’s errors
However, London Irish only scored seven points in this game, which all came from that converted try by Hassell-Collins. Therefore, it goes without saying that there were negatives in their performance, which we will analyse now.
We mentioned previously that London Irish were organised when working together, but that in one-v-one battles, they tended to lose out. This image shows one example of what happened when they did get into these situations. Max Malins is the Bristol Bears player in possession, and he has received the ball following a set of phases in front of the Exiles’ try line, ending up with the ball being moved quickly across the line to reach him. The gap is open in front of him, which is partly to do with the Irish players being dragged across to help out in front of the posts, and partly because the Exiles were not as strong in these tackles, with this one being missed.
What is unfortunate here from Bristol’s point of view is that Malins ends up dropping the ball once over the line, thereby not scoring, but the gap was there, and it was clear that getting the London Irish defenders isolated gave Bristol a better chance of getting past them, as was the case here. This situation and the earlier try from Semi Radradra, which also came from a missed tackle, meant that the warning signs were there for the home side.
When attacking, London Irish made a lot of errors, and this was the reason that, aside from Hassell-Collins’ try, they didn’t get any points on the board. This image shows how Irish have got the ball into the centre of the pitch, in front of the posts, but Hassell-Collins has dropped the ball and collided with Radradra, meaning that Bristol have gained possession cheaply. This came following a clever penalty take by fly-half Paddy Jackson, who looked like he was going to kick the ball out for a lineout, before turning quickly and passing to substitute prop Ollie Hoskins.
This showed that Irish had their chances, and knew what they wanted to do, but the constant handling errors when playing the ball quickly meant that they could never make them count. Just to prove this point even more, London Irish regained the ball after this, and attacked again, but Number 8 Albert Tuisue was penalised for holding onto the ball in the tackle, after Bristol prop John Afoa got over the ball quickly, which supports what we have said in this point.
In the second half, despite playing better, the errors were still there. This image comes late on in the game, when Bristol had scored two further tries. We can see how the Exiles’ substitute full-back James Stokes has looked to kick the ball across the field towards winger Ben Loader, but the kick is too hard, and ends up going over Loader’s head and into touch, as the blue arrow shows, meaning Bristol won a lineout five metres out in a very cheap fashion. It gave them a golden chance to get the fourth try and secure the bonus point that they had been looking for, and, at this point, needed. In fact, this led directly to the fourth try for Bristol, which was a penalty try, with Irish’s substitute flanker Ben Donnell also sin-binned. However, had the ball not gone out of play so easily, none of this would have happened, so we can see how these errors from London Irish helped Bristol to win the game comfortably in the end.
In conclusion, we can see that this game was a tactically difficult one for both sides. Bristol Bears knew that they had to go for it, and needed to secure the four tries and subsequent bonus point to give them the best chance of sealing a place in the play-offs. London Irish, meanwhile, knew that, by stopping Bristol’s dangerous backs from getting forwards, and by defending in groups, they had a chance of preventing that happening. However, whilst both sides made plenty of errors, it was Bristol that managed to come through and take their chances, and that was what made the difference and won them the match.