In the second Scottish outing this weekend a patchwork Glasgow Warriors side were denied a losing bonus by a Northampton team who rolled forward in the second half.
Despite an abrasive and dynamic opening half hour from Glasgow – which led to a 15-0 lead – the visitors were left with nothing to show for their efforts. Two tries before the half and two tries in the second ended Glasgow’s challenge.
They began to shed players as the game dragged on and this altered their tactics. As soon as their shape changed it was advantage Saints and the Warriors never recovered from the third try. However, the shape was there for a large part of the game.
In the beginning Glasgow looked strong because of their guddling at the breakdown. They were perhaps lucky that John Barclay and Al Kellock were able to make fingertip tackles at the fringes, but their aggressive line speed paid dividends because of the clinches and snatching at the breakdown.
Lee Dickson was struggling to gain quick ball in the first quarter. Outside him Stephen Myler was slowing proceedings down further and the more he drifted or slowed the more likely it was for Glasgow to catch an offensive play. Indeed, because of the pace of Myler’s game his opposite man, Ruaridh Jackson, had several attempts at an interception.
This looked great straight away. The traditional Glasgow tactic of hunting in pairs and looking for a ‘sting’ tackle spooked the home crowd and certainly got to Myler. The more he hesitated the more effective Glasgow’s defence was.
What broke this cycle was inertia.
Northampton only needed to pass to the blindside a few times and they realised Glasgow could be exposed. Then as Samu Manoa or Courtney Lawes broke from a tiny pass to the inside of Jackson Northampton were in behind.
When you are heading back to catch the Saints they will build and build. Suddenly they had the quick ball that was not there before and with Glasgow less organised they stuck to what they know. As the Pisi brothers, George and Ken, proved, a stretched defence that converge on a point to make a double tackle are easy to swerve round (see the image above with space outside Glasgow’s double tacklers).
While in the opening 30 minutes the biting defence was going forward and did not need appropriate width while the source was plugged, the Saints found that when they rolled forward they could create tries from inside Jackson and arcing round the otherwise impressive Alex Dunbar. That or they would claim penalties.
Tries were prevented by Sean Lamont and the pack, but by the time Jackson was replaced by Niko Matawalu and he went to the wing, Saints were able to pick their targets. With him and Tommy Seymour rushing out of the line, tries appeared.
When Glasgow were on top they made constant forays with the ball. The breakdown was quick and Henry Pyrgos could be as enterprising as he liked.
With Josh Strauss, Ryan Grant, Dunbar and Lamont going forward with the ball and Pyrgos looking sharp, Jackson was made to look classy. He kicked sensibly and his passing was where the team needed it to be.
So much of that good 30 minutes came down to long ball placement and offloads. Strauss scored from an over-the-top dunk pass by a tackled Kellock and Lamont was able to barrel over after non-existent breakdowns where a long ball placement allowed Pyrgos to pick, run and pass at speed.
However, Jackson went off just as the shape was melting. Playing from a back foot, a drift appeared in the game and lateral passing invited pressure. With Chris Fusaro and Matawalu on the wings eventually, it was a case of needing impetus from Dunbar and the pack. They stuck at it, but they had to play out of the corners that Fusaro and Manawalu were lost in.
The scrum was impressive. Soane Tonga’uiha struggled with Mike Cusack and the hit was aggressive in the first half.
The lineout was a contrast to this, though. Defensively they insisted on giving up a lot of uncontested, off-the-top ball. For example, on the 47th minute, had the defence not been fierce, Tonga’uiha would have been allowed to sashay over from a popped lineout pass.
In an attacking sense, a confident start was undone by lazy communication. Two lost balls in the second half coughed up costly yards and in the 67th minute a hideous lob to a static man summed up the fall in quality.
Injuries meant that tactics had to change. With the team that started Glasgow had a style that played around Saints and chanced its arm defensively. It was perfectly Glaswegian. But with key decision makers off the field the biting defence was what created gaps and the attack just barely held together.
Next Friday they will need to regroup and recreate that first half hour. Ulster can slide in like an avalanche. Glasgow, though, showed a strong side that they can mix it up, even with walking wounded.