Match Analysis: Gloucester v Saracens
Both teams came into this game off the back of defeats, and both would be looking at this fixture as a key turning point for their respective seasons. An astute tactical game plan and strong defence from Gloucester went up against a Saracens team capable of beating anyone on their day.
Gloucester continued to show their inconsistency with a superb display of defensive resilience and game management that brought them a win against Saracens in front of their home crowd. Coming into this game off the back of a strong defeat to Leicester on the road, they would have been looking for a strong reaction and a result to match.
Saracens stuttered to defeat at Worcester in the previous round, and they would want to reestablish themselves in this game to keep their season on track. They certainly came off as second best in that fixture, and Gloucester would go into this game with plenty of tactical ammunition.
You could see in the reaction of the players as Hibbard crashed over for his try in the 74th minute what this victory meant to the Gloucester players, and they fully deserved the win. They were ferocious in the tackle, clinical at the set piece, and played to a game plan that ensured they kept Saracens at a safe distance.
Saracens were like a wounded animal at times, never quite getting out of the blocks, but it was clear that they still had the ability to rip the game open and get something from it, and but for costly mistakes and poor management might have taken more from the game.
Gloucester made 5 changes to the side that lost to Leicester in round 14, with Salesi Ma’afu coming into the side for the injured John Afoa, who has been one of Gloucester’s top performers this season. Ross Moriarty returned to the side after a strong performance against England for Wales, but Gloucester would be without their talismanic captain Greig Laidlaw, who had been ruled out after injury against France during the Six Nations.
Ben Morgan would also return to the side at number 8, adding his ball carrying skills to a well balanced back row, with tackle machine Moriarty at 6, and the ever impressive Jacob Rowan at 7.
The biggest talking point around Saracens selection was the return of Mako Vunipola after an extended period of time on the sidelines; the autumn internationals, and knee ligament damage meant he returned for his first Premiership game in nearly four months. His inclusion will be a blessing for the Saracens scrum, which is certainly better when he is part of it. Saracens have an 87% success rate at the scrum, and with Gloucester matching them on 88%, they would be hoping for Vunipola to give them the edge.
With the absence of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, as well as Will Skelton returning to the Waratahs, their problems at second row remain, but Mike Rhodes continues to fill one of the berths, and for this game plays alongside the incoming Jim Hamilton.
Jackson Wray at number 8 continues to provide some strong performances in the absence of Billy Vunipola, and combined with Schalk Burger and Will Fraser at 7 and 6 respectively, the back row appeared to be one of the key battlegrounds going into the game.
In the opening ten minutes of the game, Saracens looked cool and sharp. Despite conceding three points early on from a penalty for obstruction, they settled into the game well, shifting the ball quickly from the point of contact in the tackle and creating space amongst the defence. Gloucester were scrambling, and Schalk Brits went over for a try. With great tempo and offloading, it looked in these opening minutes like Saracens would be able to put the Worcester game behind them and move on. Gloucester had other ideas however.
It was clear early on how Gloucester had approached the game tactically; they wanted to avoid playing in their own half. To that end, they relied on effective game management from their halfbacks, and Willi Heinz and his box kicking was central to this. Equally important was the ability of the outside backs to chase these kicks and put Saracens under pressure. This was apparent in Gloucester’s first try; a fortunate mistake by Schalk Burger, who, befuddled by a box kick tried to control it with his foot. Despite having a foot in touch, the ball remained on the field of play because he did not have control of it and it had not crossed the vertical threshold of the touch line. He knocked it into the path of the on rushing Halaifonua, who kicked through to Saracens 22. The pressure from the chase brought a scrum for Gloucester, and a simple set move allowed them to break through the defensive line. Further phases brought a try for Tom Marshall.
Willi Heinz and Billy Burns’ tactical kicking remained spot on throughout, and the pressure generated by Gloucester during the chase ensured that Saracens had to start from deep to get anything out of the game. Saracens however compounded this with silly mistakes and an uncharacteristic lack of composure, and while a try from Will Fraser brought them level on 60 minutes, they never had control of the game.
Alex Lozowski showed in the early part of the season what a precocious talent he is, but recently he has perhaps not lived up to the same level. The main difference between the two periods of the season has been the ability of his pack to put him on the front foot. Gloucester matched Saracens up front, and Lozowski was playing behind a pack that wasn’t going forward, which is perhaps not a position he is used to playing in. Saracens will certainly lament the loss of Owen Farrell every time he goes on international duty, but the key difference between this season and last, is the loss of Charlie Hodgson.
The ability of Farrell, and more importantly Hodgson in his absence, to manage a game was certainly the difference in their ability to win when variables were against them. Lozowski is still gaining experience at this level, and the ability to know when to open the game up, play for territory or change tempo is something learnt over years of playing. His lack of experience played into Gloucester’s hands at Kingsholm.
While there was more to Saracens defeat than the inexperience of Lozowski specifically, some of their mistakes could have been alleviated by someone with the ability to assert some dominance on the game. After a period of sustained pressure, Lozowski tried to break the Gloucester defence down with a grubber through in the 22, but in doing so conceded possession. Later, after another period of pressure, he aimed unsuccessfully for a drop-goal. Indeed, minutes after his grubber through, Saracens were pinned back in their own 22, and a failed chip over the top from Marcelo Bosch resulted in a try for Jeremy Thrush. This action highlights the lack of a strong game manager for Saracens; they should never have found themselves in that position.
As I mentioned, Gloucester’s game management was an extension of their tactical setup for the game; they wanted to keep play out of their half and not allow Saracens to settle into their normal game. They did this to perfection. Their box kicking was neither too short nor too long, and allowed their chasers to put maximum pressure on the receivers. When they played for position, they pinned Saracens back and then put them under huge pressure in the tackle. Importantly, they kept their mistakes to a minimum.
On balance, Saracens had the better of the stats, more metres, more clean breaks, more territory and more possession, but they couldn't convert this into points due to ferocious Gloucester defending, and uncharacteristic errors. With better game management, they would have won this game, but they left Kingsholm without picking up a single league point from a game for the first time in 11 months.
Gloucester on the other hand will be delighted to have consigned Saracens to a second consecutive defeat and kept themselves heading in the right direction in the table. However, they will be aiming to build some consistency off the back of this fixture and start showing the same form that has seen them match Exeter, Wasps and Saracens this season.