Gloucester Head Coach Johan Ackermann has the Cherry and Whites back on track after what feels like an eternity hovering in Premiership purgatory. The combination of Mark Atkinson and Billy Twelvetrees is one such area the former Springbok has his new side ticking.
Gloucester are once agai nchallenging for Premiership glory, sitting only three points adrift of fourth place with two rounds of the regular season remainninng. The man to which the credit must go is former Springbok turned Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann and the role he has played in transforming the threat in nmidfield.
Mark Atkinson is fast becoming one of the Premiership’s top inside centres, with only Leicester Tigers’ Wallaby Matt Toomua disputing this claim. Along with fellow Cherry and Whites fly-half/centre Billy Twelvetrees, Atkinson is causing Premiershipo defences no end of problems. The risk Atkinson and Twelvetrees present as crash ball runners and distributors is forcing defence coaches across the Premiership to crane over video tapes of the damage the duo are reaping.
In last weekend’s all English clash in the Challenge Cup, Atkinson in particular played a key role in tying in three defenders at a time off set-piece moves. We take a look at the Tom Marshall-try last Friday and how Atkinson and Twelvetrees managed to create the space that resulted in Jason Woodward’s linebreak and eventual score by fellow Kiwi, Marshall.
Below we see the sizeable centre partnership of Atkinson and Twelvetrees used to hold Michael Young, Joel Hodgson and Josh Matavesi in their defensive lanes.
At the beginning of the move, we see the Gloucester scrum turn enough to deny Falcons openside, Gary Graham, a straight shot in assisting his half-backs in defence.
Atkinson acts as first receiver and runs straight towards Falcons fly-half Joel Hodgson.
Worried about the ground Twelvetrees and Atkinson had already made down Hodgson's channel in the first 20 minutes, Young and Matavesi both put themselves into a position to assist Hodgson.
Outside centre Maxime Mermoz also turns in to keep a keen eye on the yardage made by Atkinson or Twelvetrees through Hodgson's channel - and the running threat of Billy Burns and Tom Marshall in behind.
By the time Atkinson has flicked the ball back to Burns, most of Falcons' midfield have been held long enough to give Woodward a one-on-one chance with a back-peddling Mermoz, who has struggled for game time in the recent months and did not manage to slot into Falcons' backline as seamlessly as Dean Richards and Dave Walker would have hoped.
With Mermoz sprinting across the face of the defensive line - and backwards - Woodward knows that he can not defend some well placed footwork on the inside shoulder.
The former Hartpury student adds some x-factor to the move by faking the acceleration and seamlessly stepping inside, fending off Matavesi, who is still tracking back after planting his feet in anticipation of Atkinson's carry; very similar to the way England's Anthony Watson dispatches his opponents when at his blistering best.
Without Atkinson and Twelvetrees holding in four out of five Newcastle backs, Matavesi is able to make ground on Woodward and end the move at first phase.
The entire play is engineered to give Woodward the chance to do what he does best and produce some attacking magic, as he so often has for Gloucester this season.
Some serious credit has to go to Marshall for his supporting line. His run is very similar to the type of scores produced by former Sarries arch predator, Chris Ashton. Running down the middle of the pitch he knows he stands the best chance of receiving a scoring pass. An intelligent move finished by the former Hurricanes pairing.
Falcons clearly spent time in the week highlighting the threat of Atkinson. At the next Gloucester scrum we still see Young, Hodgson and Matavesi put themselves into a position to take him down.
This time he makes reasonable yardage through the Newcastle halfbacks and Graham is able to make up ground to be the first man at the breakdown.
A big physical centre that has plenty of experience playing at fly-half - will a certain Australian Head Coach be taking interest in Mr Atkinson this June?
Errors from new-Newcastle faces
In addition to Gloucester's effectiveness off set piece and dominance in the contact area, Newcastle just weren't as sharp as we usually see them.
The addition of 23-year-old Zach Kibirige on the left wing and French international Maxime Mermoz proved disruptive to a usually well-oiled backline.
While Kibirige showed glimpses of some sublime footwork and electric speed, his decision-making with ball-in-hand left something to be desired. Clearly desperate in the biggest game of his career to date, the Teesside-born wing backed himself to burst past his opposite man, Tom Marshall, along the touch-line. Once realising the man four years his senior had his number, he throws a speculative offload.
Turnover Gloucester. Momentum terminated.
It's the same story in the final five minutes of the game, Kibirige backs himself to outstrip Charlie Sharples and ends up being pushed into touch with the assistance of Andy Symons.
Kibirige clearly has plenty of raw potential, but on a handful of occasions Falcons handed ball back to Gloucester in situations that the likes of Goneva, Sinoti and Alex Tait would most likely have shifted inwards to avoid being dragged into touch.
While Kibirige's mistakes can be attributed to his continued development as a senior player, the same cannot be said of 35-times capped French centre, Maxime Mermoz.
Such is the quality of centres at Kingston Park, Mermoz has struggled for game time in a competitive backline this season. The 31-year-old struggled with a lack of accuracy at the weekend, throwing away a two-on-one for fullback Simon Hammersley and wing Harris.
Newcastle's woes continued against a side already in their groove, winning collisions and scoring off first phase strike moves.
Gloucester did well to capitalise on some of Newcastle's mistakes, with Billy Burns extending the lead to 15 points after a defensive malfunction from two of the Falcons more regular players.
Chris Harris and Joel Hodgson are the men responsible for the gap left open for Burns. Below we see both men in the line and in a good position to react to Marshall's next move.
Harris is then forced to drift out and cut down the time afforded Woodward after the troubles he'd been causing Falcons' defence. Hodgson can be seen turning as he starts to filter into a wider defensive channel, avoiding the risk of a one-on-one with a Gloucester pick and go.
However, Hodgson had not realised that the forwards running behind him who would usually have filled the gap he left were on their way to plugging the hole left by Harris.
Like the parting of the Red Sea, Falcons' defence opened up for Burns, almost willing him to take passage. You can see the younger of the Premiership's Burns brothers almost taken aback at the gap in front of him before accelerating through to score.
Gloucester's intensity and accuracy were far superior to Falcons' and not what we have become accustomed to seeing from Dave Walder's backline.
Newcastle welcome back the devastating Polynesian wing pairing of Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti SInoti this weekend, with Harris slotting back to his usual position at centre, replacing an out-of-sorts Mermoz.
The centre partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua with present a different picture to Dean Richards' defence tomorrow night, with Tuilagi threatening as the singular hard runner and whilst also on his return from a pectoral injury.
Gloucester meanwhile will look to combine the same backline against bitter rivals Bath. Along with home advantage the fact that their old foes are themselves in disarray at present, we can expect Johan Ackermann's backline to look to reproduce the success at Kingsholm for a second week in a row.
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