Northampton Saints and Bristol Bears have been two of the best-performing teams in the Premiership this season. When they met back in February of this year at Franklin’s Gardens, it looked to be a really exciting game. However, as often happens when two good teams clash, it was a little bit of a drab affair. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse the game, mostly the second half, looking at how Northampton’s setup forced Bristol into errors, and how Bristol turned the match in their favour to come out as eventual winners.
Northampton Saints Bristol Bears
15. Harry Mallinder 15. Charles Piutau
14. Tom Collins 14. Luke Morahan
13. Matt Proctor 13. Piers O’Conor
12. Rory Hutchinson 12. Sam Bedlow
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro 11. Alapati Leiua
10. James Grayson 10. Callum Sheedy
9. Cobus Reinach 9. Harry Randall
- Alex Waller 1. Jake Woolmore
- Mikey Haywood 2. Shaun Malton
- Owen Franks 3. John Afoa
- Alex Coles 4. Dave Attwood
- Alex Moon 5. Chris Vui
- Mitch Eadie 6. Steven Luatua
- Tom Wood 7. Daniel Thomas
- Teimana Harrison 8. Nathan Hughes
Northampton Saints’ high line
Before we analyse the turnaround from Bristol, let’s look at how Northampton piled the pressure on the Bears during the game.
In both of these examples, we see how Northampton have a strong defensive line, marked in green in both images. The line is close to Bristol’s attack, and what it means is that, when Bristol had the ball, they had no space to think or manoeuvre or do anything. This was partly what contributed to Bristol’s poor first half, but it was also clearly a tactic that Northampton Director of Rugby (DoR) Chris Boyd had worked on.
We know from this season that Bristol are dangerous when allowed to attack, and the stats show this. Bears winger Luke Morahan is the joint-top try scorer in the Premiership this season, with seven. He has also made the most clean breaks this season, with 18. Full-back Charles Piutau, one of the best players in the league, has made 1223 metres so far; the most of any player at any club this season. Piutau and England back row forward Nathan Hughes lead the table for defenders beaten, with Piutau top on 62 and Hughes second with 60.
From these, we can see just how much of a threat Bristol pose, and therefore Northampton’s tactic to press them centrally makes sense. By taking time away in the central areas, Bristol couldn’t play their usual attacking game, because there simply wasn’t the time to.
Bristol Bears’ poor start
However, the Saints’ high defensive line was not the only reason that Bristol had a poor first half. Their DoR Pat Lam admitted in a mid-game television interview that they were “terrible”, and he was referring to their handling errors by this.
Here, in the first half, we see how Bristol have found some space to attack through the Northampton defensive line, and centre Sam Bedlow has made the run through to try and score. The red line marks his path through the gap. However, he ends up losing the ball through a fumble, and this was just one example of this during the first half. You can see in the bottom corner how Bristol have yet to score, and these errors were the reason for that.
In the second half, it wasn’t any better to begin with, and passing errors continued to occur. Here, we see a forward pass, which was unintentional, but costly. Bristol have winger Luke Morahan available and in space on the left wing. Centre Piers O’Conor is trying to find him, but the pass goes forwards, as shown by the red arrow. This ultimately means that another handling error has cost Bristol a potential try here.
Bristol Bears turn the tide
The tide really turned for Bristol when Northampton were reduced to 14 men, when Scotland centre Rory Hutchinson was sin-binned for a high tackle on substitute Bristol prop Lewis Thiede. At that point, Northampton had gaps in their defence, and you can see below the effect of that.
Here, Bristol’s substitute winger Henry Purdy has found a way through the Saints’ ranks, and goes over for Bristol’s first try of the game. Purdy is currently on loan from Coventry, and has also played for Gloucester in the Premiership before. He added a newfound threat to the Bears’ play, replacing Alapati Leiua at half-time. This shows that he had the desired effect.
This score gave Bristol the hope and drive they needed to go on and win the match, coming from behind to do so. The sin-binning of Hutchinson really was the turning point in both teams’ fortunes.
This image shows us how Bristol played Northampton at their own game once they had gained the momentum. You can see how the Bears have formed a defensive line, and set up close to Northampton’s attack. This was a change from the first half, where they had sat back and waited for Northampton to get the ball before charging at them. Here, they are actually charging whilst the ball is still in the air, giving Northampton no time at all to get the ball and decide what to do with it. The line is also straight, as you would expect, and this adds even more strength to it, and makes it harder for Northampton to breach it.
The red arrows show how this worked. Whilst the breakdown situation is still being untangled on the ground, the Saints have played the ball out into the space. However, the red arrows show how Bristol Bears have moved to close down the ball before it reaches the Northampton Saints player who is receiving it.
Therefore, what we can see here is that Northampton were played at their own game. Whatever Pat Lam said in the dressing room at half time worked perfectly.
In conclusion, in this game we saw two sides to Bristol Bears. We saw what happens when they are not having a good day, and then we saw how they have the ability to change those games towards their favour. Here, there were two major turning points in the match; the half-time substitution of winger Henry Purdy, and the second-half sin-binning of Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson. Ultimately, Bristol Bears have been in the top four for the majority of this season, and this was a reminder of why they have been there. It is games like this where they prove they are genuine contenders for the play-offs.