Northampton Saints got their first Premiership win since September at the weekend when Gloucester visited Franklin’s Gardens. Gloucester – in the top 4 and revitalised this season under Johan Ackermann – rested a couple of key players and never quite got hold of the game, but still went into half time 8-14 up, before John Afoa’s try extended the lead in the 53rd minute. Nick Groom scored within minutes, however and Saints grew into the game, eventually getting a last minute penalty try as their line-out drive was brought to ground illegally to win the game 22-19.
This will be looking at the game from a Gloucester perspective. Sorry Saints fans, but I’ve not been following Northampton’s season that much and I didn’t feel there was much really worth noting other than Luther Burrell’s injury and another poor performance (and early substitution) for Dylan Hartley.
Improving, but not the finished article
If someone had told me over the summer that Gloucester would be sitting in the top 4 at this stage of the season, I’d never have believed them. I had faith that Ackermann would have an impact, but thought it would take some time to see considering his late arrival after the Lions’ run to the Super Rugby final. However after an up-and-down start to the season, the cherry and whites went on a run of great results towards the end of 2017, despite not yet having put out their ideal XV courtesy of a number of injuries – British and Irish Lion Ross Moriarty has only played 62 minutes in the Anglo-Welsh Cup!
Ackermann used this game to rest some players who have been playing a lot of rugby recently, allowing some players like Ben Morgan to make their way back from time out.
The impact of some of these selections could be seen on the performance – the back line did not appear to have the same chemistry with both Billy Burns and Billy Twelvetrees missing – but the performance on the whole was still good enough for the team to win. However this team are clearly not completely past the errors of previous systems and once again surrendered a promising lead in the latter quarter of the game, losing to a late try. This was probably not helped by a stomach bug that hit the team the night before (though credit to Ackermann not using this as an excuse) but it was an all-too-familiar sight for Gloucester fans.
The line-out which had functioned so well in the first half (including a 20m driving maul for a penalty try) fell apart after James Hanson was removed and allowed Northampton to get the territory to cause problems. A kickable late penalty was turned down in favour of a kick to the corner, but the maul was poorly controlled and turned over by Northampton. Nick Groom’s try also came from Gloucester not dealing with the restart following John Afoa’s try, while Owen Williams missed a couple of kicks at goal.
A couple of late decisions from Ian Tempest certainly didn’t help Gloucester – Jason Woodward’s fumble of a high ball clearly went backwards and I’m still to see an angle that convinces me Henry Trinder was offside for the penalty that led to Northampton’s winner – but I agree with Ackermann’s assessment that Gloucester’s indiscipline and mistakes lost them the game rather than Northampton winning it.
What a signing Jake Polledri has been for Gloucester this season! Last year, the young flanker was playing in National League 1 (the 3rd tier of English rugby) with Hartpury RFC, this year he has been tearing things up in the top flight. He has such strength, he always seems to make at least a couple of metres with every touch of the ball and it generally takes a couple of men to bring him down, creating space for others. He is still not the finished article, but has clearly taken advantage of Moriarty’s injury issues and become a vital cog in the back row alongside Ruan Ackermann and Lewis Ludlow.
He may have been a bit lucky to avoid stricter punishment for his reaction to Campese Ma’afu holding him beyond the ruck, but he will learn from experiences like this and be a better player for it. With his form at the moment, you have to imagine Conor O’Shea has a close eye on him and I wouldn’t be overly surprised to see him involved in the Italian squad for the 6 Nations.
Expanding your skills
Ben Vellacott is a fantastic young scrum half and I can’t speak highly enough of him and the impact he has had on the senior team. A former Scotland U20s player, he qualifies for England on residency and is believed to have caught the eyes on the England selectors. He brings such quick ball to the game and is always a danger at the back of a ruck or looking for a quick-tap penalty.
The one big area he needs to work on is his kicking game. In the first half against Saints, Willi Heinz was doing a great job of kicking Gloucester into the right areas of the field, but as Gloucester came under pressure in the final quarter, this territorial game was missing as this is not a strength of Vellacott’s game at the moment. While I love the impact that Vellacott can have on a game, there will be times when what is needed is a calm head and a mind-set of playing for territory. I’m not saying he needs to have a kicking game to rival Conor Murray or Richard Wigglesworth, but if he can learn from Heinz and expand that aspect of the game, he could arguably develop into one of the best 9s in the Premiership.