Northampton Saints rocketed out of the blocks on Friday evening at Franklin's Gardens, starting their Aviva Premiership title defence with a 53-6 defeat of Gloucester. Their full-back James Wilson was excellent. Here, we analyse his attacking play.
Success tends to affect a team in one of two ways. Either self-satisfaction sets in and complacency results, or the taste of triumph inspires hunger for a repeat. After a coveted maiden Aviva Premiership title last season, Northampton Saints have taken the second option.
Of course it is early days, but the champions’ 53-6 thrashing of Gloucester on Friday evening at Franklin’s Gardens was a domineering display that demonstrated their desire to go back-to-back. Against a side of high-profile signings, Jim Mallinder’s men were so cohesive.
Refusing to bask in former glory, they have elevated fitness and handling levels. Saints managed 19 offloads, their dynamic, destructive pack accounting for seven. George North looked refreshed and superhuman once more, storming over for three of the hosts’ eight tries.
However, while the Welsh wonderboy won BT’s man-of-the-match award, Kiwi full-back James Wilson was utterly superb. He did the simple things – high-balls, clearances – but also became a brilliant catalyst in attack, scything in the attacking line at will. The best compliment you can give him is that his showing deserved comparisons with fellow South Islander and All Black sensation Ben Smith. There is a reason Ben Foden had to sit on the bench.
These clips show how Wilson’s outstanding core skills contributed to a trio Saints tries. Pause this first one at 1:15.
The Northampton pack was efficient and brutally mechanical, especially from lineout, for the majority of the game. However, on the stroke of half-time here, scrum-half Lee Dickson has to tidy up rather scrappy possession and does very well. Though his offload bounces into midfield, there is a chance to attack a disorientated Gloucester defence.
As the ball comes right to Wilson (circled in light green), he does exactly what every youngster in the world is taught: he holds the ball in two hands to cause uncertainty among would-be tacklers and runs straight. Notice North, who eventually scores the try, and George Pisi (both circled in black) head upfield, anticipating that their teammate will make something happen.
The faith is rewarded as Wilson gets onto the outside shoulder of Henry Trinder, frees his arms behind his opponent and turns inside to find Pisi with a textbook offload. So perfect is the technique, allied to a the tight support line, that this becomes a fairly low-risk play. The soft, sympathetic pass gets Saints in behind and North eventually finishes.
After half-time, there was more of the same. Pause this clip at 1:26
This try, Luther Burrell’s first of a brace, is collective effort that requires almost the entire Northampton team to be on the same page, working in unison and aware of their individual roles. First, prior to this clip, the lineout functions well. Then Samu Manoa carries hard before Tom Wood – who had a fine match – comes around the corner so Saints have possession from a ruck in midfield.
One key aspect of England‘s approach under Stuart Lancaster is “two-sided attack”, whereby play-makers can probe the defence on either the open- or blind-side of a breakdown. This situation is now perfect for that, and Stephen Myler spots the opportunity to isolate some of Gloucester’s tight forwards.
While the forwards continue to move towards and beyond the ruck to set up another phase, the Northampton fly-half (circled in black) begins to break left, communicating to Dickson. Wilson (green circle) instinctively follows, retaining his depth to hit the line as late as possible.
Here is a better view of how Wilson manufactures the break. In Gloucester’s front line (all circled in red) are, from the ruck outwards, John Afoa, James Hudson and Richard Hibbard. All three are tight forwards and are probably fatigued. All three are also new signings, and are perhaps still acclimatising to new defensive structures. Whatever the case, they are exposed.
Charlie Sharples is preoccupied by the threat of Burrell, and drifts wide. Hibbard is caught flat-footed and Hudson cannot make up the middle ground. A step off his left foot allows Wilson to ghost through. But there is still work to do.
A two-on-one is a very basic skill. That said, basic skills are not always easy to implement when the stakes are high, even for professionals. Wilson remains calm and gets it right, keeping his eyes fixed on the defender and straightening so none of Burrell’s space is taken up. The pass is not perfect, but Wilson continues on his path, cutting off full-back Rob Cook.
Work off the ball is often very important, as this last clip shows. Pause the video at 1:37.
Wilson’s role in North’s third score might seem innocuous at first view. On closer inspection though, it is vital. We start with Saints behind the Gloucester defence with a glaring overlap.
As Myler threatens the gain-line and winds up for a long pass, Wilson (green circle) identifies that Sharples is the last Gloucester defender and busts a gut to run an extremely unselfish decoy line.
This may be a subtle piece of gamesmanship, but it demonstrates hugely impressive rugby sense – the kind of rugby sense that might just help Northampton to a second successive Premiership crown.
To read our exclusive interview with Saints’ Dylan Hartley and Stuart Barnes’s extensive preview of the Aviva Premiership, check out the October issue of Rugby World! Find out how to download it here.