Our resident analyst takes a look at where Bristol are beginning to turn things around in their fight for survival.
Bristol looked like another yo-yo team, promoted to the Premiership for a season of brutal defeats, only to fall back into the Championship with heavy debt and a weakened squad.
Anybody tempted to live beyond their means to achieve long-term success need only look at the dire straits that London Welsh have ended up in. However, in the last two weeks something unusual has happened, Bristol have started winning. This article will look at the attacking changes that they have made to start achieving success.
In truth, the Bristol renaissance began earlier in the season. Of the 12 points the West Country side have gained in this campaign, 10 of them have come since November. In addition to this, Bristol have essentially collected another win by picking up four losing bonus poinys, the second highest in the league. Although the desperate trio of games against Wasps, Exeter, and Saracens – at the end of September, where they conceded 150 points and scored just 39 – might have pushed the label of hapless losers onto them, in reality they’ve never been that far from success.
The stats would predict that they should be around the bottom of the table, but they’re not as dreadful as anyone who hasn’t paid a keen interest might expect. They have scored 22 tries, which puts them second bottom – ahead of Northampton on 18. But, there are a gaggle of teams just ahead of them in the low to mid twenties, including Leicester on 25.
A note of caution here though, in the last three games they have scored eight tries which means a third of all tries have come in a quarter of matches played – which may not be sustainable.
The first thing we will look at is when Bristol were at their poorest, their 39-0 defeat at home against Saracens. By stats alone, the game was fairly equal – possession and territory were slightly in the London team’s favour, but not by much. Rucks won were basically equal, 77 vs 79, but Bristol did far less when they had the ball, despite kicking six times fewer they passed the ball 34 times less.
In the below screenshot, Bristol have just had a half break on the far side and have the Saracens defense as disorganised as it ever gets, i.e. barely at all.
You wouldn’t know that though, the first receiver is so deep and has so few dynamic options that they get tackled for a loss. On the very next phase, they turn and go the other way but they haven’t moved the Saracens defensive line at all, they end up losing ground almost to the halfway line and kick it limply away very shortly afterwards.
As you can see above, in the penultimate phase of the first half, Bristol have lost significant yardage but yet their first receiver continues to get deeper and deeper without gaining any penetrating runners. It’s a little hard to tell with the static image above, but there’s only two players in that shot who can take the ball forwards, everyone else is either stood still, walking backwards, or in front of play. No wonder Bristol didn’t pass the ball much, there was nobody to pass it too.
Early on against Worcester, it was clear that this passive form of attack had been consigned, or at least moved towards, the scrap heap. Mitch Eadie hits a fantastic angled line and is met with a beautiful flat pass from scrum half Will Cliff. Within the first five minutes, and the plan was simple, bring playmakers much closer to the line and have numerous running options.
That style continues and leads to the first try. This is as much poor Worcester defense as it is good Bristol attack, but crucially it’s another example of Bristol’s aggressive style of play. The ball is quick off the top of the lineout and so flat, borderline forward, that Billy Searle is through the defense before they have any chance to react. Tom Varndell is then on hand to trot in for his first try of the hat-trick.
Compare the above screenshots with the two above, the first receiver is not only much flatter but he has three serious attacking options immediately to his outside. It’s no surprise then that despite having fewer rucks and a man sent off after 13 minutes, Bristol still racked up more passes than they did against Saracens.
Even when Bristol weren’t attacking with a set backline there were still signs that things had changed for the better. In the above clip, Cliff sees that the Worcester hooker, Jaba Bregvadze, has a lot of ground to defend. He hits the gap and squirms through then feeds Varndell, who can finish from anywhere, for the second try. The situation might be different but the principles are exactly the same – run towards the defense and you will either go through or create a hole for someone else.
This continues into the most recent victory over Sale. I’ve spoken a lot about the importance of taking the ball to the line and distributing, but, when you have the option of going wide it’s best to just spread the ball as quickly as possible.
In the above clip, Bristol don’t have an overlap but they do have a chance to run at Josh Charnley. Charnley has been a fairly steady performer since moving over from League but he looks completely out of his depth in this example. Jason Woodward runs directly at him, the wing misses two chances to tackle him and then misses a third as the move continues on to the opening Bristol try.
Bristol aren’t just reliant on moving the ball to score tries, they can also get points the ugly way if needed. When they needed a try and conversion to beat Sale they were able to simply drive over the line and then clinch the game with the conversion. Three beautiful tries are great but four ugly ones are better.
Defensively, there are still problems. They sit dead last in the tries conceded table with 46, eight away from Worcester. What is more worrying is that they have conceded nine tries in their last three games, outscoring an opponent just once.
Although Wasps have reached the top of the table with a leaky defense but a rampant attack, this isn’t the best way of setting up your team unless you can call on one of the best backlines assembled in Premiership history. In fact, by conceding 46 tries in 12 games, Bristol are allowing teams to gain, on average, a try bonus point every game they play.
There is a lot to like about the rejuvenated Bristol team. Tries, which had been hard to come by, are now flowing freely and Tom Varndell is all but assured to break the Premiership try scoring record. Technically, they are attacking the ball much better and creating problems for defenses, this sounds like an easy fix but it requires constant work. As any fly-half will attest, the feeling of hitting the line and using deft hands to put a teammate through a hole is fantastic.
Unfortunately, the feeling of being driven back when you do hit the line will often leave you taking a few steps backwards when you find yourself at first receiver. Often, the things that look simplest are the hardest to implement.
The attack alone might be enough to keep Bristol in the Premiership, but unless they can find a way to stop teams consistently scoring more tries than them, this mid-season revival won’t be anything other than attractive window dressing.