NB: Click the pictures to embiggen.
For the last month or two Wasps have been the in-form team in the premiership. Yesterday however they played Gloucester at Kingsholm, and for the first time in seven games Wasps lost. I thought it might be interesting to look at what happened during Wasps vs Gloucester and see if we can work out what went wrong for Wasps.
Wasps vs Gloucester – What went wrong?
There are clearly a number of factors that played a part. Firstly the match took place on a rest weekend during the Six Nations. Players from the England squad were retained and not available to play, but players from the other nations were able to be selected. This hit Wasps harder than it did Gloucester. And the injury list for Wasps was quite spectacular with Festuccia, Launchbury, Gaskell, Haskell, Young, Thompson, Simpson, Leiua, Jacobs, and Masi all unavailable for one reason or another. However this is not the reason Wasps lost. Most of those players were unavailable for the other recent matches where Wasps won against some of the top teams in Europe.
Due to Wasps’ preference for Sunday games playing away at Kingsholm meant we had a six day turnaround. This meant players who had given their all in the win over Harlequins the week before had a day less to recover and get back to match fitness. Add this to the fact that we are at the tail end of an extremely busy season with little chance to rest then you could argue that our players would be tired. But it is the same season for Gloucester, so I don’t think this is the reason for the result.
Kingsholm is a notoriously difficult place to go to and come away with a win. Gloucester have always been good at creating the fortress mentality, and the crowd are loud, utterly one sided, and very close to the action. However we’ve won at the RDS in Dublin, We’ve won at The Rec in Bath, we’ve won at Allianz Park, and we’ve won in Franklins Gardens, in fact our away record has been extremely impressive. So this particular Wasps vs Gloucester result was not down to the fact that it was an away game.
We know Wasps play best on a hard pitch. The result at Allianz Park is testament to that. Our own hybrid surface is as good as we can make it and still be acceptable for Coventry City Football Club to play on. The surface at Kingsholm was not the worst we’ve played on, but it was pretty bad. The grass was sparse, and the ground was soft and slippery. It didn’t give traction to our forwards, and didn’t allow for the evasive footwork our back line are rapidly becoming famous for. But however bad the surface was, it was worse at the Rec. So we can’t blame the loss on the ground itself.
In fact I don’t think it is even fair to say that Wasps lost to Gloucester. I think it would be more accurate to say that Gloucester won. They came to the game with a specific game plan, and executed it well. They denied us the space and time we needed to play the game the way we wanted to. Let’s take a look at how they managed it.
The first thing to say, is that Gloucester have always been a brilliant team just waiting to happen. Players like Kvesic, Sharples, and Hook are amongst the best out there and once the team gelled they would always be a very small step away from some fantastic performances. They came out of the gates at full sprint and didn’t let up for the whole game. But it wasn’t just forward domination in the set piece, and rapid defence that won the game for them. Toulon did a very similar thing, and Wasps put 26 clear points on them.
Gloucester knew that Wasps’ game plan consisted of recycling the ball as quickly as possible and creating confusion in the defence by mixing the hard running of our forwards (and indeed centres) with the incredible pace of our backs. When the ball is passed out of the ruck there are always multiple possibilities – It may be going down the line, it may be going direct to the hands of a back row at speed, it may be picked from the ground and run straight down the middle. The defence cannot know until it happens. Each runner goes down their own line, and in doing so ties in a defender. Even without the ball they still run at the defenders. It is about as close to blocking as a team can get without actually infringing, and it works well. Gloucester turned the tables this time.
It was clear that the cherry and whites were not seeing the ruck as a time to reset the defensive line. They treated it as a genuine opportunity to get the ball. Every time a Wasps player hit the ground in a tackle there were multiple defenders there vying for the ball before the supporting players could reach them. They drove over the ball multiple times to create the turnover, and when they couldn’t manage this they created space for their back row to steal the ball. If that didn’t work, and the ball stayed with Wasps, it did so more slowly than we wanted.
Look at this photo. This was one of the first collisions of the game. You can clearly see the Wasps player on the ground with three defenders in place dominating that breakdown. There was one supporting player, and by the time we had enough numbers to compete, the ball was lost.
Even when this didn’t happen our players were harassed and bullied. It is a pretty common tactic for a defender to target the scrum half at a ruck. To run hard at them and up the pressure a little in order to try and force the error. Gloucester did this masterfully. They ran hard and fast at Robson and made it clear to him that if he did not get the ball away instantly he was going to be flattened. Not only does this increase the likelihood of a mistake, but it slows down the scrum half getting to the next breakdown.
In this picture we can see that Robson has got the ball away down the line (arrowed), but the Gloucester player is all over him (circled). It was arguably playing the man without the ball, but no more so than our dummy runners do when things are clicking for us.
Gloucester had clearly done their homework and had identified that the two most dangerous runners in the Wasps team were Hughes and Wade. They took specific steps to negate the threat offered by these players.
The standard defensive structure is the drift, which essentially allows a flat defensive line to target the inside of the attacker forcing them out and along the line towards the touchline which acts as an extra defender. For most teams this narrows the options of the attack, but for Wasps this plays into our hands, as it forces the ball to one of the most dangerous and fast attacking players in the game today. Gloucester did not utilise the drift defence. Ironically they used a variation of the Blitz defence introduced by Wasps some ten years ago. This effectively has the defenders running fast at the attacking line and targeting the outside shoulders in order to stop the ball going wide. Gloucester did this beautifully well. When this works it contains the ball in the centre of the field and allows the defenders to get numbers in the ruck (see above). But from our perspective this allows players like Hughes to run hard and fast at the defence. If they get it wrong he is likely to run straight over the top of them just as he did to George Ford in the game against Bath earlier in the year.
However Gloucester were fully aware of this risk. They negated it in two ways.
They abandoned the traditional flat defensive line, and created a wedge formation. This allowed them to get up to the ball quickly. It cut off the pass down the line and allowed them to be able to use the second tactic against Hughes. The gang tackle.
There are a number of different ways to tackle a man with the ball, and as a general rule none of them work one on one against someone like Hughes. He has the strength and power to break through most tackles. The best bet is a chop tackle. Take the legs as low as possible and force him to the ground. However this allows the tackled player to recycle the ball quickly. The gang tackle involves two defenders. The first hits low as in the chop tackle, but the second comes in higher to secure the ball. If the rest of the defense is there quickly then it is a great way to steal the ball. If they aren’t and the suporting attackers are there first it ties a defender in and makes the next defence harder. Because of Gloucester’s line speed it worked beautifully.
If we look at the next two pictures you can see the shape of the defensive line targeting the spot where the hard running forward – usually Hughes, sometimes Johnson, or indeed any of our forwards – is going to be. This stopped them getting any momentum and breaking the line. It cut off the pass down the line, and when coupled with the runner targeting Robson invariably lead to a very predictable result. Wasps fail to get over the gainline, they struggle to compete at the breakdown, and the ball gets turned over.
Wade’s try was a very interesting moment. It showed what a wonderful player he is to have on your team. It was one of only a handful of opportunities that came his way, and he beat a number of defenders to score it, but, it was entirely down to a failure of the Gloucester team to maintain the structure they were aiming for.
The player circled had failed to get forward quickly enough for the modified blitz to be effective. He has either been fooled by the player with the ball, or simply was not quick enough forward. Either way you can see he has put the brakes on in order to try to maintain some form of defensive structure, and in doing so has slowed the whole defence enough for Wasps to get the ball down the line into the hands of Wade. The rest is history. It was a tiny margin, but that is often all that a team of the calibre of Wasps needs. It shows conclusively that Wasps were still doing what they have done for the last few months. But that Gloucester had, up to that point, managed to contain it.
The failed try for Wasps earlier in the game showed exactly how it should have worked for Gloucester. Wasps were putting them under pressure inside their own 22 and the ball had gone rapidly down the line. The defensive player circled had trusted that the man on his left was covering the outside shoulder of the man with the ball and so was running hard at the next player down the line. As soon as he was far enough forward to prevent the pass he turned in and the Gloucester defence hit the ruck. That time they conceded a penalty allowing Wasps to get on to the board. But if they were using the drift all that would have happened is that the ball would have gone to Wade who would have likely dotted it down in the corner.
As a Wasps supporter it was a disappointing result, but as a lifelong rugby fan it was a beautiful game to watch. Gloucester played a brilliant tactical game and effectively cut Wasps out of all the things they wanted to do. The irony is that they did so by modifying the system of defence Shaun Edwards introduced to Wasps that allowed them to dominate the Premiership. It is high risk, but offers high reward if you get it right. They targeted the most dangerous players extremely effectively, and dominated Wasps from the beginning to the end.
The risk with the Blitz that Gloucester used is that it is possible to chip the ball over the defensive line and then carry the attack past them leaving them in disarray. This is what Wasps managed to do to Toulon at the Ricoh in November. It is one of the things Ruaridh Jackson does better than Jimmy Gopperth (go watch his try against Touon). Jimmy is a more dangerous runner, of that there is no doubt, and he is a better place kicker too. But perhaps, if Jackson had been brought on once it was clear how Gloucester were playing, Wasps may have managed to salvage something more than a losing bonus point from that game.
Either way Gloucester slowed us down, dominated the breakdown, and defended in such a way as to cut our best attackers out of the game. It was a masterful performance, and a real example of what Gloucester are capable of. They need to show somw consistency now and now we need to move on to the next game against Leicester at home.