Match Analysis: Gloucester v Bristol
Gloucester achieved a resounding victory with thirty-two unanswered points in a powerful second half performance against Bristol at Kingsholm. And while the visitors succumbed to a second successive defeat, there are a lot of positives to take out of the game.
Gloucester and Bristol played out a fascinating fixture at Kingsholm, with the hosts’ pack grasping control of the game at the outset of the second half to accrue thirty-two unanswered points.
Bristol came into this fixture off the back of another impressive but equally disappointing result against Saracens, where their high risk strategy had also given them a half time lead. As a club who have made their return to the top flight, they go into every fixture with little pressure on them. Combine that with a head coach who has proven himself an excellent reader of the game, and you begin to see where the team’s game plan is born from.
High risk strategies have appeared and been brutally torn asunder in this league before. Look at London Welsh’s return to the league in 2014; their strategy of bringing high profile players into the club left them with a winding up order, though not before losing every game through that season. Perhaps what marks this Bristol side out against others who have come up and gone back down is that their high risk strategy extends to the field of play.
While supporters and pundits alike might lament the seemingly futile attempts to run the ball from their own half, the tactic employed is one seen across many sports. This isn’t about ball retention; neither is it necessarily about unlocking the opposition defence. The first half in this fixture showed exactly why it is absolutely the finest tactic that Bristol can employ to maintain their status as a top-flight club.
The objective is control. Not control of the ball, nor control of the fixture, but control of the minds of the opposition. By retaining possession of the ball and with little focus on moving forwards, as was seen through the early passages of this fixture, Bristol forced Gloucester to wait for their time in possession. From a psychological stand point, this is the most important aspect; once Gloucester do get possession, they have already been drawn into the high-tempo, frantic pace to the game, and as such make far more errors than they might otherwise. They’re on edge, and this plays straight back into Bristol’s hands, who can continue to maintain control of the ball, and the fixture.
It was their shape in attack too that allowed them to keep the ball as well as they did. Their forwards appeared to sit in more of a string of 2s, than the more common 1-3-3-1, and committing fewer players to the breakdown gave them numbers to attack the wide channels. The ebbing of the ball from left to right ensured that the defence was working hard to get into place; defending forwards attacking through the central channels is far less sapping than strafing from touchline to touchline.
When Bristol go up against sides whose pack are less able to stamp their authority on the game, they will win. It is looking very likely that they will survive the drop this season, and if they do, it is down to the fine work that Pat Lam has done in understanding how they can unsettle and shock their opposition.
They could have done it tonight had Gloucester’s pack not grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck.
In the first half, the Cherry & Whites were guilty of making mistakes, but as we have talked about, they got too caught up in the frenetic high tempo that Bristol so successfully forced upon the game.
An oft touted rugby phrase is ‘forwards win matches, backs decide by how much’. Tonight was the epitome of this. In the opening half of the game, Gloucester’s backs had little to no time on the ball. In the second half, the dominance of their pack manifested itself in Cipriani controlling the attack, opening the door on numerous occasions for Charlie Sharples to burst through; the best on 48 minutes when he was released to crash under the posts, in much the same position as Gerbrandt Grobler had touched down almost immediately from the outset of the second half.
Through the first half, Gloucester had shown they had the upper hand in the contact area, consistently making ground with their pack, but ultimately throwing away any meaningful possession with silly mistakes brought on by the high tempo of the fixture.
After a deep breath at half time, they were able to stamp their tempo and control on the game, which yielded their thirty-two unanswered points, and an unbeaten campaign to date.
Our projection algorithm had this one down as a 32-11 win to Gloucester, and with a final score of 35-13, it wasn’t too far out. That said, the scoreline belies the level of detail and quality in the Bristol game plan, and we should all be grateful that such a high tempo, high risk team is gracing the competition.