Match Analysis: Gloucester vs Saracens
The Six Nations window is traditionally giant-killing season in the Premiership, and last night's fixture at Kingsholm was no exception.
The Six Nations may be the clash of the titans at international level, but it's traditionally giant-killing season in the Premiership, and last night's fixture at Kingsholm was no exception.
In the fourth game of the season back in September, Johan Ackermann's Cherry and Whites were sapped of their early season energy and put to the sword by the reigning Premiership Champions at Allianz Park, putting an end to a stellar start to their 2018/19 campaign under the guidance of newly arrived, prodigal England fly-half Danny Cipriani.
But it would be Gloucester to return the favour this weekend, making the most of Saracens' Six Nations absences and their own blend of physical presence and attacking forte.
Three first-half penalties from the boot of Billy Twelvetrees and one converted try from man of the match and in-form former England number eight Ben Morgan set the home side onto a promising early start. Ackermann's charges went on to enjoy a hearty 30-10 lead once captain Ed Slater crashed over Sarries' line fourteen minutes into the second half and Ben Morgan claimed his second score in the 72nd minute.
Although, for all of Gloucester's dominance an acutely Saracens-esque finish saw the four-times league Champions claim an unlikely losing bonus point through 77th and 81st-minute scores for fullback Matt Gallagher and club stalwart number eight Jackson Wray respectively. Points that are sure to prove critical by the end of the regular season in May.
The absences of Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, Liam Williams and Sean Maitland took their toll on Mark McCall's side this week, and the Londoners were comfortably outgunned by their Cherry and White opposition in convincing fashion.
Gloucester are profiting from their playoff contenders' international absences this month and have managed to build up a degree of form and consistency at a time where their biggest rivals are scrambling to remain on the front foot. The end of the club's desperate injury situation has allowed Ackermann to put out a fiercely physical forward pack and a backline pressed with a more than healthy balance of physicality, attacking intent and game management.
The halfback pairing of Willie Heinz and Danny Cipriani is proving airtight and the back three of Ollie Thorley, Tom Marshall and Jason Woodward brings ample pace and skill to the table. But perhaps most influential last night was the presence of two playmakers at a combined weight of 210kg in Gloucester's midfield. Mark Atkinson (6ft6") and Billy Twelvetrees (6ft4") have formed a centre partnership that will surely be the envy of many a coach. For context, Worcester Warriors, England and British and Irish Lions centre Ben Te'o, regarded as one of the most physical centres in the country, is 6ft3" and 106kg.
Whether it be through trucking the ball into defensive lines for positive meterage or standing as heavyweight defenders, Atkinson and Twelvetrees are providing Gloucester with a crucial physical edge in the backline. When you add in the duo's ability to play at fly-half for Gloucester, their skill sets aren't far off ideal for the Premiership; and perhaps even international level depending on your preference.
Gloucester will be keen to carry tonight's winning formula throughout the rest of their season, focusing purely on domestic action after their European pool stage exit. A return to their old ways of criminal inconsistency and capitulation looks to be all that stands in the way of Gloucester and a playoff spot, with a relatively kind looking fixture list paving their way to the semi-finals in May.
Saracens will be desperate to Northampton Saints and Bath over the next two weeks before their England contingent, Williams and Maitland return for both the sake of their hopes of finishing top of the pile in the regular Premiership season and their hopes of claiming the Champions Cup title.
Gallagher Premiership, Match Analysis, Gloucester Rugby, Saracens
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag