England’s openside berth is vacant again, and Guy Thompson is enjoying a superb start to the Premiership season for unbeaten Wasps.
Guy Thompson began September 3, the first day of the Championship season, sitting on the fence. With Jersey travelling to newly-promoted Richmond, two of his previous teams were in action. Via the accepted modern medium of Twitter, the 29 year-old wished luck to both sides.
As it happened, Jersey ran out 41-16 winners. Regardless of that result, Thompson spent the next day with current employers Wasps. Starting at openside flanker, he helped carve out a 25-20 victory over Exeter Chiefs at the Ricoh Arena.
Three weeks later, Dai Young’s men are four from four and top of the Premiership tree. Their glittering backline and Galacticos recruitment policy get spoken about a great deal, but the back row has been a real strength.
Alongside Nathan Hughes, a one-man highlight reel, Wasps also boast Thomas Young and Academy graduate Sam Jones – two dynamic, honest grafters. Thompson also fits that mould and, as demonstrated by his rampaging try against Toulon in January when he barrelled through Juan Smith and Duane Vermeulen, he cares very little for reputations.
While James Haskell recovers from injury, these figures are bringing toughness to the tackle area and breakdown. Each of them carries like a locomotive too. Saturday’s 20-15 defeat of Northampton Saints was Wasps’ most significant victory yet, owing far more to tenacity than fluid phase-play.
In front of a watching Steve Borthwick, Thompson was excellent. Given Haskell and Jack Clifford will be absent for the autumn internationals, he did his hopes of snatching an England cap no harm. Here is a run-down of Thompson’s display.
Isolated, not destroyed
If forwards are comfortable in space, it is far easier for their team to impart width in attack. For instance, the manner in which New Zealand‘s forwards fill the field allows them to stretch defences on each flank and push opponents past breaking point.
Already this season, Thompson has shown his penchant for linking with backs in the 15-metre channel and marauding forward to munch up metres. But besides offering themselves as carrying outlets and in an expansive structure, forwards stationed out wide are also vital for ball retention.
On Saturday, Saints went ahead early on thanks to a slick team try finished by George North. However, Wasps hauled their way back. We join the match as Nic Groom finds Harry Mallinder. Take note of Thompson’s initial position, on the right of the defensive line:
Mallinder clears and Elliot Daly begins to retreat…
…so when Christian Wade recovers the ball, the young centre is past the halfway line:
Wade counters, stepping off his left foot towards the right touchline. Seeing a strong Northampton chase, Thompson arcs around in support:
Wade looks to beat Louis Picamoles. Although the France number eight is agile enough to make the tackle, Wade slips an offload to Daly. However, George Pisi skates across rapidly…
…and engulfs Daly in a strong challenge. Thankfully for Wasps, Thompson has tracked the attack well:
When Daly hits the ground, Pisi, Picamoles and Tom Wood look to contest for the ball:
But Thompson adopts a lower position than Pisi, thrusting his head under the Samoan centre’s chest while just about supporting his own bodyweight. Daly helps out by placing the ball towards arriving scrum-half Joe Simpson:
When the power from Picamoles and Wood comes through, Thompson is forced upwards into a weaker position and the ball is threatened…
…but then Pisi loses balance and falls through on to Simpson:
Referee Luke Pearce is quick to identify an offence that has been highlighted in officials’ directives for this campaign…
…and Wasps emerge from a potentially tricky situation with a penalty, largely due to Thompson’s technique and strength at the attacking breakdown. Not long afterwards, his defensive capabilities were called upon.
Scrapping and spoiling
After this game, Thompson explained that Wasps had expected a thoroughly “direct” challenge from an outfit that “base themselves on big collisions from big players”. The assessment was proved astute. Saints deployed a robust, confrontational approach.
Here, during a prolonged period of possession five metres out from the Wasps line, Groom launches loosehead prop Alex Waller:
Panning out, we can see that Thompson, initially stationed on the right of the previous ruck, is edging to his left:
After Wade and the irrepressible Matt Symons combine to stop Waller, Thompson circles around to the left of the breakdown with James Gaskell…
He adopts the role of guard, pushing Gaskell out further so Wasps’ defensive line is not overly bunched:
From a wider angle, we can see Wasps’ arrangement. The entire back row, plus Gaskell, are in place on the left side of the ruck. Ken Pisi storms back against the grain…
…but Jones steps up to make a dominant tackle and Thompson swoops towards the ball. It is worth taking note of the clock at this point as the breakdown begins:
Rather than moving the ball away, Groom must resource the ruck to nullify Thompson’s threat:
Thompson forces Groom to the ground, meaning Kieran Brookes has to charge in…
…hitting the flanker as he steps through the tangle of bodies in an attempt to disrupt the platform of stand-in scrum-half Ben Foden:
When Foden does release the pass to Stephen Myler, three seconds have elapsed. Myler is outnumbered by Wasps defenders that have been allowed precious time to organise themselves:
Northampton’s fly-half throws the ball back left to North. Meanwhile, next to Tommy Taylor, Thompson gets to his feet:
Hooker Taylor, already proving to be an excellent signing for Wasps, brings down North. Thompson, standing again, is alert…
…and pounces before the ruck forms in plain view of Pearce. Start the breakdown clock once more:
As tackler Taylor rolls away, he impedes Waller, who is looking to clear the ruck. Sam Dickinson cannot shift Thompson, so Northampton’s recycling speed is sapped. Gaskell moves back into the guard role, helping Wasps to set their defensive structure:
Eventually Thompson is shunted off the ball. He obviously feels he has earned a penalty:
Even so, his interference has caused the ruck to last between four and five seconds. Because of this, Wasps have men on their feet in a strong-looking line when Groom hits first-receiver Foden:
One phase later, after a run from Courtney Lawes, Myler is faced with a sturdy set of tacklers.
He conducts a classic shield play, passing to Mallinder behind the decoy line of Picamoles:
And when Mallinder drops off an inside pass to blindside wing Ken Pisi, a sizeable gap has been manipulated. It appears Wasps’ resistance might finally have been broken:
However, Jake Cooper-Woolley and Danny Cipriani readjust brilliantly to shut the door and force a knock-on:
So far this season, there has been a steel about Wasps. And they still have the style to score tries from nothing.
Smash and grab
Even deep inside the Wasps 22, this scrum delineates the effect of having two playmakers at fly-half and inside centre. The presence of Cipriani on the blindslide to complement Jimmy Gopperth on the openside requires North to ensure both touchlines are covered:
Here are the respective starting positions of Gopperth, Thompson and Cipriani at the scrum. These are the three players to slice open Saints:
Simpson feeds the scrum…
…and a decent shove from Northampton means Hughes is under pressure on picking up the ball. He releases an offload to Simpson as Wood and Picamoles break from the scrum:
Still though, Simpson manages to release the ball to Cipriani…
…who sees that North is pressing flat and drops the ball to boot:
The grubber is weighted wonderfully, allowing Cipriani and Wade to chase. Thompson and Gopperth make tracks upfield – showing pace and anticipation to get into open space:
When Cipriani regathers, both Thompson and Gopperth are into their stride:
Thompson collects an acrobatic flick from Cipriani that takes out Foden…
…and calmly draws a scrambling Ken Pisi to send Gopperth under the posts:
As well as athleticism, this score accentuates a considerable degree of instinctive rugby intelligence in reacting to an unexpected attack from Cipriani. Wasps went ahead. Soon though, they needed to withstand more Northampton pressure.
We begin this passage with Saints in the fifth phase of a foray that has brought them on to Wasps’ five-metre line again. Mallinder locates Dickinson with another inside pass while Thompson, some 15 metres infield, looks over at the action:
Rather than gravitate towards the tackle area though, Thompson keeps his discipline and retains the integrity of Wasps’ defensive structure. Symons fells Dickinson…
…and Jamie Gibson picks from the next breakdown, attacking the left fringe where Wade and Cipriani stop him:
Now, Groom decides to bounce back to the right. Thomas Young and Mullan station themselves in the guard and bodyguard positions…
…with Taylor and Thompson further out, either side of Hughes. Supported by Waller and Mike Haywood, Picamoles is primed for another carry. Identifying the chief threat, Thompson speeds out of the blocks looking to chop down the Frenchman behind the gain-line:
Perhaps after noticing Thompson’s aggressive line-speed in his peripheral vision to the right, Picamoles comes back inside:
Thompson and Taylor combine for a strong, low tackle that puts Picamoles to ground immediately. The carrier also falls towards Mullan and Thomas Young. With Waller obstructed by the tacklers, there is a perfect chance for the steal:
Sure enough, Thomas Young and Mullan clasp on to the ball before Waller can clear…
Thompson then gets to his feet, obstructing Haywood as Dickinson struggles to shift Thomas Young…
…before curving back into the defensive line as Taylor rolls clear. Thomas Young and Mullan are still clamped to the ball…
…and Pearce whistles to penalise Picamoles and extinguish the attack:
Fittingly, another desperate defensive effort from Wasps ended the half.
On the final play of the first stanza, Saints talisman Wood trucks ahead with Daly grasping his foot. Thompson arrives at the scene…
…and bundles his rival to the floor. Start the breakdown clock as Wood rolls over, cleverly making himself a moving target for anyone looking to compete on the floor:
Rather than release the tackled player before contesting, Thompson attacks the ball straightway – deliberately slowing Saints’ attempt to recycle and forcing Foden to join Waller in the ruck:
When Groom can release the pass, another precious four seconds have elapsed:
Picamoles takes the ball into contact again, before Northampton spread the ball wide. Take note of Thompson’s starting position:
Mallinder finds George Pisi…
…who cuts back inside, coming within three metres of the try-line before Taylor tackles him. Cipriani is brilliant here, swooping back…
…and adopting the right guard position as Haywood picks:
Out of nowhere, Thompson then arrives on the scene. He dives into the tackle area, wrapping himself around Haywood…
…and compelling Pearce to rule that the ball is held up over the line:
After the break, Wasps’ rearguard continued.
Sitting in the Franklin’s Gardens stands, Borthwick would have been watching out for understated details, especially those regarding the set piece. Presented with this scrum early in the second half, Wasps needed to execute a cool, clinical pattern to clear their lines:
Simpson puts the ball in…
…and Hughes careers off the base. Kyle Eastmond and Thompson are in support as he bypasses Gibson…
…and reaches the channel between fly-half Myler and inside centre Mallinder:
Thompson and Eastmond latch on at this point, driving Hughes through contact…
…and helping to service the ensuing breakdown:
Wasps have secure the ball and forged a good angle for the clearance, but Picamoles gets impatient. He dives through on to Simpson…
…and is pinged by Pearce:
Wasps find touch from the penalty and used the resulting lineout as a launchpad for Thompson.
Race around the corner
Stationed at the tail of the lineout…
…Thompson demonstrates further set-piece diligence with a supporting lift on Jones:
Simpson finds Eastmond and the code-hopper careers towards the gain-line. Now, we have examined how a zig-zag pattern of attack can catch out overeager defences that fold past the breakdown too quickly.
Here though, we see completely different tactics. Seven members of the Saints pack are inside the ball as Eastmond steps in. Note Taylor and Thompson aiming ‘around the corner’ – past the imminent tackle towards the right-hand side of the field:
Daly wrestles Wood off the ball, and though Gibson and Waller manage to join a concerned George Pisi on the Northampton left…
…there are still five forwards redundant on the blindside as Simpson sends up Taylor with Thompson arcing around. Here, you can see the distance he has travelled from the lineout before even touching the ball:
Gibson steps out of the line to confront Taylor, but a deft pass transfers to Thompson and a dog-leg is exposed. The gap between Waller and George Pisi is inviting…
…and Thompson has the power to burst through it:
He stays firm in the collision…
…before surging away from it, swinging the ball under his right arm to fend off Picamoles with his left:
Thompson escapes from the ex-Toulouse icon…
…and brings the ball back into two hands to burst the cover tackle of Ken Pisi:
When Thompson is finally brought down by Picamoles and Groom, who has tracked all the way back from the front of the initial lineout, Wasps are in a dangerous position:
Symons flies in to recycle, Thompson presenting the ball to Simpson…
…who follows up to find Gopperth:
Despite facing a glaring overlap, Saints scramble extremely well to derail this attack. Even so, Thompson’s more eye-catching traits have hauled Wasps on to the front foot.
Explosive carrying will remain a big part of what he brings to the table as a player. But to ignore the less conspicuous things – tireless defence, breakdown disruption, off-the-ball energy, clever support lines – would be to sell Thompson short.
Those are the attributes that are hardening Wasps into resilient Premiership contenders and driving Thompson’s claim for an England place.
Images courtesy of BT Sport