The first of the play-off matches this season will see a vastly improved Wasps take on arguably the most exciting team this season, Bristol Bears, at the Ricoh Arena. In this tactical preview, we will look at their confirmed lineups, and pick out some of the key matchups and battles that will go on. We have crunched the numbers, aiming to come up with some answers to the question that everyone is asking: who will win this intriguing match?
This season’s meetings
Before looking at the statistics, let’s first consider the results of the matches between these two teams in the regular season. The first league meeting, at Ashton Gate, saw Wasps come through 26-21 against Bristol, but in the reverse fixture, at the Ricoh Arena, they managed to win by a greater margin, with 59-35 being the final score. Therefore, it looks like Bristol will struggle against Wasps.
However, if we look at the lineups, we can see that Bristol Bears have named a strong team to face Wasps.
That is not to say that Wasps have named a weaker side. However, when you look at the Bristol team, there is quality in all areas of the team. Max Malins returns to full-back, with Callum Sheedy coming in to play at 10, and this will give the away side a lot of creativity in the middle of the pitch. We saw against London Irish last week how, after Sheedy’s arrival into the game, Bristol managed to open up more spaces, so we can expect the same thing to happen here. Nathan Hughes comes back in at Number 8, with Ben Earl, who has scored 11 tries this season already, moving to his usual position of flanker. Captain Steve Luatua also comes back as the other flanker.
Wasps have the same back line as they named last week, with 37-year-old Jimmy Gopperth partnering Malakai Fekitoa at centre, and the pace of Josh Bassett and Zach Kibirige either side means that this will be a back line Bristol must keep an eye on. Further forward, club captain Joe Launchbury returns to the second row, and he epitomises the saying of “leave it all out on the pitch”, so you can expect him to go for everything and cause problems for Bristol. Flanker Jack Willis, who we will look at later, has arguably been Wasps’ best player since Lee Blackett replaced Dai Young as Wasps coach, and will be expected to make some dents in the Bristol defence.
The first matchup that we will look at in this analysis is the full-backs, and we have chosen these because they are both attacking players. If we look at the pie chart below, we can see the number of carries both have made.
Wasps’ Italy international Matteo Minozzi was originally signed to strengthen a poor Wasps defence, but he can also play as a winger, and loves to get forwards. He has made 102 carries this season, almost double the amount made by Max Malins. This is likely to be because Malins spent the first half of the season with his parent club Saracens, where he tended to be behind other players such as Alex Goode, and so he hasn’t played as many games this season. The main point to make about these statistics, though, is that both players tend to keep the ball in their hands and run with it, instead of getting rid of it from their boot as soon as they catch it. The next pie chart supports this.
Here, we can see the amount of metres that both players have made this season. Minozzi has made 583, compared to Malins’ 389, but again, this shows that they both like to run with the ball, getting involved, and are happy to take the ball into tackles if they have to. This is risky for their teams, because the try lines become undefended, but it also means that both teams have an extra player to move the ball to when in possession.
The main job of the full-backs is to be the last line of defence, so let’s now look at the tackling statistics of both Minozzi and Malins.
The interesting thing about this chart is that it shows how Minozzi has made less tackles than Malins, but the Italian has a better success rate. The lower number of tackles could be due to Wasps all helping out at the back a little more than Bristol Bears, but this is the first indication that the Bears will perhaps find it harder to attack Wasps than Wasps will against Bristol. However, the numbers are still close (Minozzi has made 23 tackles at a success rate of 79%, whereas Malins has made 27 at a success rate of 77%).
The second matchup to look at is in the centre, where we have an interesting battle between Malakai Fekitoa and Semi Radradra. Centres are generally known for their running and the metres they rack up, so let’s see how both players compare in this aspect.
Fiji international Radradra is a player we know likes to run forward and break through opposing defences, which is a key feature of Bristol Bears’ tactics, and, as we can see, he has made a lot more metres, with 679 in just seven appearances. Fekitoa, on the other hand, has made 625 in 16 appearances, so what this shows is that Radradra is likely to be the player running forwards more, although both will certainly get themselves in the middle of attacking moves.
Perhaps more interesting is their average metres per carry. We can see how, again, Radradra has a higher average, with 7.9 metres, whereas Fekitoa has 5.08 metres. This shows that, out of the two, Radradra is likely to be the more dominant with the ball, and is likely to make more breaks through. His ability to travel at speed will also help this. The result of this is that Bristol are likely to be the team pushing Wasps back more than Wasps will do to Bristol, because every time Radradra gets the ball, he will gain a few more metres for his team, whereas Fekitoa, by these statistics, will not be able to gain as many.
The final chart to look at with these two players shows the number of defenders that they have beaten this season. This will show us how much both players are likely to get through defenders. It is interesting that Fekitoa comes out on top here, with 35 defenders beaten, compared to 22 for Radradra. However, this is likely to be because Radradra only started playing for Bristol after the restart. To beat 22 defenders in seven appearances, which is, on average, 3.14 defenders beaten every game, shows how good he is, and how difficult he is to stop.
The third battle that we will look at is the fly-half battle. It is unlikely that these two will take part in many tackles, but they will be expected to create plenty of opportunities for their teammates, as we know both can.
Here, we can see how Bristol Bears’ Callum Sheedy has seen more of the ball over the course of the season, and has made more passes than his opposite number, Jacob Umaga, with Sheedy making 492, compared to Umaga’s 263. However, this is explained by the fact that the Wasps player makes more kicks from hand, with 115 compared to 102. However, the fact that both players have made a lot more passes than kicks shows us that, again, like with the full-backs, both like to keep hold of the ball, taking it into tackles and opposing defensive lines, rather than just kicking it into the air. This means we can expect that kicking will not be a priority for either team, as both will want to keep it and run with it, which will mean more opportunities can be created.
The final matchup we will look at is the back rows of both teams. We can see how both have gone for their first-choice combinations, and this is where games tend to be won or lost, as these are the players who make the tackles and win the turnovers. Therefore, it goes without saying that these are the two statistics we will look at for these six players.
In this chart, we can see the number of tackles that each player has made (blue bars, and the numbers on the left of the chart), and the tackle success rate of each player (orange line, and the numbers on the right of the chart).
If we take each team at a time, we can see how Wasps’ players on average have made less tackles than Bristol Bears on average, and Ben Earl has the highest of all six players, with 154, whilst Jack Willis has the most for Wasps, one behind Earl, who has 153. This is the reason that both players are starting the game, because they can be the first line of defence whenever their opponents look to make a breakthrough, particularly at scrums.
If we look at the tackle success rate, however, then we can see that the highest is Thomas Young’s with 92%, but he is only one ahead of Earl, who has a success rate of 91%. Bristol’s players are closer together in their success rates, whereas Willis, despite having made the most tackles, is not as successful with them, suggesting that Wasps’ tacklers might not be as consistent with them. This perhaps shows that, in these battles, Bristol have the edge, and this is perhaps one area where the Bears can look to exploit their opponents, especially when Semi Radradra is on the ball.
The final chart looks at the number of turnovers that all six back row players have won. We can see how Willis has the most, with 43, whilst the next best is Earl, with 18. This is the reason that Willis is so highly-rated, and why he is such a dangerous opponent. Thomas Young and Brad Shields don’t have as many turnovers, but neither do Luatua or Hughes. Therefore, what we can expect to see is Willis getting on top of Bristol every time the ball is on the ground, fighting to take it off them, and this is why Bristol could struggle in this area, giving Wasps an edge in winning the game, given how crucial turnovers can be in deciding the match.
In conclusion, we have seen many different battles that could occur across the pitch, in different ways, and have given some thoughts as to how the match could go, based on the statistics for this season of individual players in the team. We have analysed the key areas where the game could be decided, and it is very likely that the result will be close, whatever happens.