As sages bemoan the lack of attacking ambition in modern rugby, Saturday's 33-33 draw between Gloucester and Northampton was saturated with free-running skill. We analyse the best bits
“I have big concerns about the game because there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away…If we do not address it, we are going to have very boring rugby matches.” Steve Hansen
Last week, New Zealand honcho Steve Hansen gave an unapologetically blunt interview to WalesOnline in which he bemoaned a collective neglect of entertainment in the modern game. Everyone, he claimed – referees, coaches and players alike – should take responsibility for making rugby more watchable.
They were immensely intriguing sentiments. And, in a season that has seen humble kick-chase evolve from desirable extra into precise science, the quotes carried significant weight. Space does seem at a premium these days, especially as the stakes rise for Test match competition.
For those reasons, Saturday afternoon at Kingsholm represented a welcome tonic, a breath of fresh West Country air. Six tries shared evenly between Gloucester and Northampton Saints brought a thrilling 33-33 draw. There was a succesful driving maul for either team – enough to appease the purists – but the other four scores were wonderfully-worked long-range efforts.
One of Hansen’s worries was an overbearing focus on defence. However, while large scorelines tend to encourage cynicism around commitment to the contact area, a few statistics stood out. Gloucester returned a tackle success-rate of 89 per cent across the clash, Northampton 83. In total, just 27 runners were missed. By comparison, on Friday at a windswept Rec, Bath and Sale missed 29 in a turgid, tryless encounter.
Such numbers go to show how well the respective attacks of Gloucester and Saints executed things. Now let’s take a closer look at the highlights.
Delightful offloading frees up Laidlaw
James Hook was exceptional throughout this clash and it is his endeavour to keep the ball alive, passing off the deck to Matt Kvesic, that initiates this opening.
The Gloucester openside hits the pass at pace before feigning a pass to the right and stepping inside to buy a few more metres. By looking at his eyes as he throws the dummy, we can get a great idea of Kvesic’s balance and deception:
When Saints defenders Tom Wood and George Pisi do scramble back, the number seven keeps his cool and finds the support angle of scrum-half Greig Laidlaw with a delicate one-handed flick out of contact:
This should really have resulted in a try. Fortunately, the hosts laid on something special less than 10 minutes later.
By Hook or by crook
Sheer game-breaking ability usually comes down to two things – raw athleticism or speed of thought. Sometimes, it is a combination of both that blows a match wide open.
This try came from turnover ball, like so many in the modern game. Still, there is no divine right to cross the whitewash once you wrestle possession away from the opposition.
Opportunism requires rapid reactions, awareness and communication before anything else. Watch how Hook, at second receiver, demands the ball as Laidlaw passes it out from the preceding ruck:
Once the Welshman gets the ball in his hands opposite tight forwards, the magic happens. A step past Courtney Lawes was so smooth:
Salesi Ma’afu did not have the pace to get across, meaning Hook could open his legs and stretch out into open space. Then, rather than panic, he assesses the situation.
Of the two circles below, the top one shows a simple inside ball that may have led to a try. The bottom circle highlights a teammate that has recognised that option and is trying to communicate it.
However, wary of throwing the ball forward (or perhaps having simply not seen the easier pass) Hook draws Ken Pisi before weighting a grubber perfectly with the outside of his right boot:
The result is a breathtaking try, and a surge in confidence. Gloucester broke free from first phase not long afterwards.
Slicing through from set-piece
Two passes crack the well-set Saints from this scrum. First, Billy Twelvetrees’ long, flat ball sends full-back Steve McColl onto an outside arc and stretches George Pisi:
Then, McColl himself takes the ball right to the line before flicking out another fine offload. Notice that Northampton wing Jamie Elliott has turned back towards his inside, non-plussed as to whether Pisi has been beaten:
The indecision caused by McColl gives Sharples enough time to sprint clear. To nit-pick, he could perhaps have fed Hook an inside pass for a certain try:
Still, this move foreshadowed a long period of pressure that ended as Richard Hibbard dotted down following a lineout drive. However, Saints were not about to give in, even at 23-6 behind.
James Wilson was a shining light as Northampton opened their title defence by thrashing Gloucester 53-6 on the first evening of the campaign. He also sparked his team’s comeback at the weekend. But this is all about George Pisi, who effectively takes out three defenders with a single grubber.
As he takes the ball to the gain-line, opposite number Bill Meakes must step in to make the tackle. Outside Meakes, Jonny May presses to cover Wilson. In turn, Gloucester full-back McColl is compelled to fly up in case Elliott is released.
This screenshot demonstrates the predicament of the Gloucester trio, as well as how a kick ahead wrong-foots them, forcing them to turn as Wilson and Elliott can canter through unopposed:
A neat finish. The see-saw kept bouncing, though.
Off-the-cuff counter into structure
Early in the second half, the pace of the game began to show and everything grew more fractured. This suited the spontaneity of Gloucester, as this score for loosehead prop Dan Murphy demonstrated.
It came initially from a kick-return, Hook throwing a long pass McColl, who finds May. The electric wide man steps up the middle:
Carrying into centre-field, May creates an enticing blindside, which Hook and McColl then exploit to free Meakes:
Tom Stephenson does brilliantly to make the try-saving tackle. To their immense credit though, Gloucester stay patient, retain possession, maintain pressure and trade rapier for Murphy’s battering ram as lock Tom Savage transfers the point of contact with a quick pass on the gain-line:
Laidlaw converted to make it 30-16. Again, the East Midlands outfit refused to relent.
Stunning sucker punch
In the corresponding fixture last season, Elliott landed the try of the domestic entire campaign – a length-of-the-pitch effort marrying slick handling with pure pace. Wilson’s second was a fine reminder:
Long before he trots over the line, it is the New Zealander that ignites the counter. This long ball feeds Samu Manoa and suddenly the attack is on:
Facing a staggered defence, the rest comes down to tireless support lines and freeing arms in contact. Elliott begins by riding the challenge of Twelvetrees to hit Manoa on the inside:
As Manoa carries, it is worth tracking George Pisi and Wilson, the next two recipients, who respond to their teammates’ direction of running by snaking behind them:
They are rewarded for their off-the-ball industry in turn as first Manoa gets a gorgeous pass away to the left…
…and then Pisi slips in Wilson to the right:
Some collective brawn sealed the result as Manoa burrowed over in the final seconds to secure a draw for Saints, but there had already been plenty to shout about in terms of invention.
Played in this spirit with this level of quality, rugby produces phenomenal spectacles. Whatever Hansen’s quibbles, do not write an obituary for the sport just yet.
Thanks to BT Sport and Premiership Rugby for the match footage. Follow this link to buy tickets to the Premiership Rugby Final.