Northampton Saints vs. Scarlets, 23 Jan 16

Northampton sent the Scarlets to their sixth ERCC pool defeat of the season at Parc y Scarlets on a sodden January evening last Saturday, and ensured that they remained in the running for a place in the knockout rounds. Other results fell their way over the weekend, and as a result they will face Saracens in an away quarter final in April. Despite achieving a attacking bonus point, it wasn’t a convincing performance from their misfiring backline – they managed to keep the Welsh region at arm’s length with harrying defensive effort, effective work at the maul in both attack and defence and opportunism when try-scoring chances arose.

Scarlets

The Welsh side began the game with issues at the set piece: within the first ten minutes, they had conceded a penalty and a free kick at the scrum, and an attacking line out had faltered when a maul was whistled for accidental offside. This was a theme that would continue throughout the game. Despite winning ball on 85% of their own lineouts, their post-catch execution was poor – once in each half, promising attacking position in the opposition 22 was lost due to knock ons after the initial catch had been secured. In addition, Sam Dickinson’s try from the back of a Saints rolling maul was poorly defended; Courtney Lawes engineered the catch and drive skilfully, and the Scarlets’ forwards were not able to establish strong position because of the opposition’s manipulation of driving angles. However, a second lineout drive from a similar position was defended much better minutes later – despite being reduced to 7 forwards after Maselino Paulino was sin-binned, they were able to keep the Northampton maul square, bring the drive down and win a turnover penalty.

The Scarlets have looked to implement a quicker, skills-based style of play under former Auckland head coach Wayne Pivac, and despite their imperfect execution there was evidence of the structures that had been put in place. For much of the game, Aled Thomas, Steve Shingler and Regan King functioned as the more threatening midfield trio. Thomas carried the ball much flatter than his opposite number, Stephen Myler, and Regan King – while lacking some of the physical capabilities he once had – remains exceptional at picking his running lines. Steve Shingler, meanwhile, was the most impressive player for the home team in this contest: he consistently took strong angles off his fly-half, and distributed well from 12.

A set play early in the second half typified their attack in this game. From a lineout just outside the 22, Gareth Davies peeled round and held Northampton’s defender at the back of the lineout; Aled Thomas received the ball flat, and hit DTH van der Merwe on an arc behind Shingler, who had run a strong dummy line:

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This was executed at pace and close to the advantage line, and had the Canadian international winger held on to the ball he would likely have found the semblance of an opening between Harry Mallinder and his inside man. Nevertheless, the pass was dropped; throughout the entirety of the game Northampton met the Scarlets’ attempts to play flat to the advantage line with quick line speed, and were consistently able to cause dropped ball and ruin their attacking structures. Courtney Lawes in particular had a strong game in the contact area, and was the source of a number of turnovers in open play as a result of his tackling.

Another Scarlet who has impressed throughout the season is former New Zealand U20 centre Michael Collins. He has been selected at fullback for the majority of this season, and has made some strong defensive reads from that position. He made one of these critical interventions in the first quarter of the game, forcing Tom Kessell to a poorly executed grubber and avoiding a 3 vs. 2 situation:

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This is an excellent defensive hedge: seeing that Saints have numbers up on the outside, he takes an extra step forward to cut off the pass to Christian Day. Crucially, however, he controls his movement and does not overcommit; if he takes a further step, he will give Kessell enough room behind him to take the defender out of the game and feed his second row forward with a clear run to the line.

Northampton

The away side struggled to generate quick ball from which to attack for much of the evening; as a result, when running against a set defensive line they achieved little success. Stuart Barnes commented before the game that Saints face a choice between the kicking game of Stephen Myler and the spark of JJ Hanrahan at fly-half, and Myler did little to threaten the gain line with ball in hand; too often their attacks were lateral and easily defended. The example below follows on from Jamie Elliott doing well to beat a defender after fielding a clearance kick and putting Northampton on the front foot:

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Sam Dickinson had taken the ball at first receiver, with Myler outside; their starting positions and movement are illustrated on the image above as the fly-half is about to pass. In this instance, ideally Harry Mallinder would straighten the line by taking an angle between the Scarlets’ final defender and his inside man, but Myler is forced even further across the pitch by Dickinson’s inaccurate pass.

One occasion on which Northampton exhibited some positive back line play was in the buildup to George North’s bonus point try in the second half. George Pisi took a flat pass from Stephen Myler and shifted his weight to Steve Shingler’s outside shoulder as the tackle was made. This enabled him to free his arms to keep play alive with an offload; Mallinder – in perhaps his most impressive sequence of play – took a hard step off his left to halt his arcing run as soon as Pisi found the weak shoulder and offered himself as a support runner:

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After receiving the offload, he was able to hit North in stride with a perfectly flat pass as he was brought to ground and the winger finished in the corner.

Mallinder was also influential in the build up to Pisi’s try (Northampton’s 2nd) in the first half. With Myler stationed on the other side of ruck, he took a screen pass from Kessell behind Wood (whose angle committed Paulino) at pace and with a quick transfer  was able to feed Waller into a gap. Crucially, he then hit the ruck to clear the Scarlets man and secure clean ball for Kessell, who threw a wayward pass which was collected by the Samoan and well finished in the left corner.

The 19 year old – for the second week in a row – won the Man of the Match award, and bagged another try after his first in the competition against Glasgow last week. This was a result of defensive opportunism and impressive physical ability: he intercepted a pass near halfway and was able to beat the Scarlets’ cover defence to cross the line. However, it’s worth looking at the action immediately preceding the interception to gain a little more insight into Mallinder’s current defensive abilities. The centre, standing at 195cm and 108kg, is generally strong in the tackle – despite on occasions becoming a little crouched in his defensive stance  – and showed good instincts on this interception. One area in which he still has room to improve is his defensive movement in general phase play: he has the tendency to cheat in towards his inside man whenever that defender makes a tackle, and leaves himself with extra work to do to return to his own defensive position. This is likely to due to communication and trust: defending at centre in the professional game is an extremely challenging job, and those characteristics allow a 12 or 13 to play ‘eyes up’ defence and focus on the attackers coming down their channel rather than being drawn to action on the inside. This is hardly surprising for a 19 year old in his first professional start, and will undoubtedly improve as he learns that he can rely on the abilities of teammates such as Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes. There was an element of this tendency evident in his interception try:

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After a lineout turnover, the Scarlets carried the ball into midfield and had numbers up on the outside. Mallinder showed good instincts in stepping up just far enough to force the ball carrier to make a decision without overcommitting, and in waiting until the ball was just about to be released to jump the passing lane. However, in the image above we can see that the centre’s body angle is back towards the ball carrier, and risked leaving himself in no man’s land with a 4 vs. 1 opportunity outside him if the interception didn’t go to hand. The Saints’ inside defenders have not covered across well, but ideally Mallinder would be able to bring his defensive line with him on the drift and cut down the space in the outside channel. This may be down to communication, as I mentioned above, and is likely something that will improve with more game time with the first team.

All in all it was an extremely impressive outing from Mallinder, and he fully deserved his Man of the Match award. He distributed well off both hands in some imperfect attacking structures, showing a good range of short and long passes. In addition, his kicking game was a great asset to Stephen Myler at fly-half – on two occasions, he was able to release pressure from his 10 with excellent touch-finders from inside their own half, and in the second half showed good touch and precision on a low attacking kick. He is due to represent the national U20 side in the upcoming 6 Nations, but as Alex Shaw noted on Saturday, performances like this may well force his father to keep him involved in the first team for the foreseeable future.

 

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