Wales opened their 2017 Six Nations campaign with a 7-33 win over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday. Despite the convincing scoreline though, there was a distinctly underwhelming feel to the whole performance from a Wales point of view.
There’s been plenty of cliches handed out following the final whistle, ‘slow start’, ‘plenty to work on’ and ‘a win’s a win’ were amongst them, but ‘a game of two halves’ was the clear winner. For me though, it was a ‘game of a yellow card’, as the result turned on the 60th minute sin binning of Andrea Lovotti.
With Wales just 7-12 up at the time it allowed a Sam Davies inspired backline to take the game away from the Italians, but had the prop not been yellow carded it could have been a whole different story as a lacklustre away side slogged through the first hour with unimaginative attacking undoing some half decent defensive organisation.
What we were left with come Sunday evening was more discussion points than positive aspects, with written and social media full of opinion over what needs to happen before England come to Cardiff next Saturday.
Props, injured players returning and options off the bench have all been looked at. Rob Evans and Tomos Francis seemingly performed better off the bench than starters Nicky Smith and Samson Lee, while Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau may be in line to make a comeback at the Millennium Stadium and England’s replacements were so strong against France there is a worry amongst the Welsh rugby population.
My focus is on two of the bigger debates of the week, starting with the fly-half battle…
The Biggar the better?
In offices, pubs and rugby clubs around the country there will be one big question on everyone’s lips this week, are you Sam or Dan? The decision over who starts at 10 against England could well be one talked about for many months to come, so what will Rob Howley be looking at when he makes his decision?
Well the first thing will be whether Dan Biggar is fit to face the old enemy, after coming off at half-time in Rome with suspected bruised ribs. It just adds another dimension to the fly-half battle, with young Sam Davies perhaps seen as less of a gamble against the experience but not fully fit Biggar.
Assuming Biggar is fit though, and going forwards beyond the England game if not, let’s see what he brings. First things first with the 52-cap man is those safe pair of hands;
It’s a simple piece of play, but it’s massively effective game management. Off the weak foot, head up and pin Italy back inside their 22. If there’s one thing you want to do against an Italian side playing in Rome early in the Six Nations it’s to dominate territory and turn them round.
There is the obvious issue about how much he kicks though. It’s long been a criticism of Biggar, and quite rightly in my opinion, as he does often send possession away in good positions;
It’s not a great pass, there’s no getting away from that. However, if Biggar is more open to play though, then he needs to be closer to the line and it would open up channels for Leigh Halfpenny, Ross Moriarty and George North outside him, while a flatter position could see Alun Wyn Jones used as a decoy runner.
The key point of this analysis though, is who’s fault is this? For me the blame lies at the door of Rob Howley, and not with the player who many unfairly apportion it to. There’s a clear game plan that comes down from the normal attacking coach, and current head coach, and it seems indoctrinated in the more senior players.
What’s annoying is that you can see these men really just want to play rugby, and Dan Biggar more than has the ability to do that;
The very first front foot possession of the afternoon and the fly-half is flat, takes the ball to the line and in doing so draws the initial Italian blitz, before releasing Jonathan Davies for the half-break. This wasn’t an isolated incident either;
Both occasions we see Biggar in a good first receiver position drawing the initial blitz before going wide to Halfpenny for a half-break in the first clip, before finding Scott Williams on the switch crash ball in clip two.
So we know he can play that flat first receiver role, but why does it not get us anywhere? There were no clean breaks as a result of Dan Biggar creativity on Sunday, but again I revert back to the game plan, it’s just not set up for that. The simplicity of it always sees straight up runners going up against the defensive line and having to break tackles to make any ground, and there was a prime example in the first half;
Really early on in the game and Dan Biggar (circled) has taken the ball to the line, with Sam Warburton having run the decoy line and taken out a defender just above him. Wales are now in the situation where Scott Williams has a three-on-two overlap outside him, including two players from the back three.
What does he do? He puts the ball up his jumper and trucks it forward himself, ignoring the real possibility of a serious attack outside him. Again, indoctrinated players only seeing the narrow power game of Howley.
The stats show Scott Williams and centre partner Jon Davies made 23 carries and only 11 passes between them. The back three made just five more carries, in a game where there was a lot of kicking and opportunities to run the ball back, it’s not great. The ball was getting stuck in midfield a lot.
Yet the second half sees Sam Davies enter the fray, a young man playing with freedom and not yet pulled into the Team Wales way of limited rugby. He has the peripheral vision still, the ability to play what’s in front of him;
Incredibly this is a notable clip from Sunday’s game. Sam Davies takes the ball to the line and throws an inside pass. One of just three occasions that the first receiver didn’t pass straight to the man outside him, take it on themselves, kick it away or use the pyramid formation brought in by Matt Sherratt that was partially successful against Italy.
Such a simple play, but it keeps the defenders on their toes. On this occasion, a defence that had worked us out down to a tee, as you can see from the organisation in their ranks. A reasonable fringe blitz supplemented by a lone blitzer wider keeping the attack confined to Wales’ midfield.
This willingness to play from Davies was the catalyst for the try of the afternoon;
I’m sure I wasn’t the only Wales fan expecting a kick from the young man on the cover, but he stays calm, makes a half-break and releases George North for the try. Made by the player in the black scrum cap, no question.
How does all this impact on our general phase play though? Well there was one big change in our attacking when Sam Davies was introduced, and it came in the sole form of Scott Williams. Gone was the Howley’d centre of ignoring overlaps, and back was the Scarlets centre looking dangerous himself, and distributing to those outside him;
Gone is the one track mind to carry at a defender. He momentarily straightens the line, keeping the defender on his left shoulder interested to stop the drift defence, and making the defender on his right shoulder take an extra step backwards which Halfpenny can run at and break the tackle. There’s enough cover defence on this occasion, but;
Obviously the first clip includes some beautiful hands from Sam Davies, but Scott Williams has the awareness. He sees that if he keeps putting the ball through the hands it would put pressure on the wide men as the drift defence comes across, so he straightens the line, checks two defenders, as well as the man under the posts, and allows Jon Davies the simple run in with two attackers to spare.
The second clip is the real quality piece of play, and as such deserves a closer look;
Scott Williams straightens the line to draw the attention of the second-to-last defender, as a consequence the outside man has to turn his shoulders in, but it’s easy for Jon Davies to put his hands through the tackle and find Liam Williams. Simple as you like.
The long and short of it is this. Rob Howley, I beg you, let the players play what’s in front of them. It doesn’t matter who starts at 10, Dan Biggar can do it if you let him, Sam Davies will do it anyway, these players are more than good enough. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Sam or Dan, it matters that everyone is on team rugby.
We have a bloody talented set of backs, and when they’re on form they’re unstoppable. The question has to be, why is our own head coach holding them back?
When two become one
The Spice Girls had a massive hit with their third single, which became Christmas number one in 1996, which was about the developing special relationship between Geri Halliwell and writer Matt Rowe. Where’s the relevance to Wales? I hear you ask. Well, on Sunday in Rome we saw another relationship take another step.
Plenty was written about the make-up of Wales’ back row coming into the tournament, as Justin Tipuric was in the form of his life, Taulupe Faletau was in the highest bracket of world number eights, while Ross Moriarty had an excellent autumn international series.
So where would former captain, and national team stalwart, Sam Warburton fit in? Tipuric was undroppable, but Faletau’s injury left a gap at blindside flanker, and didn’t the Cardiff Blues man just take it with both hands. The most impressive thing though, the work with his Ospreys counterpart.
For me this was the highlight of Sunday, and here’s why;
Two cracking pieces of link-up play, gaining dangerous front foot ball each time. There’s clearly an understanding between the two, and with the clips being almost 75 minutes apart it brings me onto my second point;
Both clips within the last two minutes of the game, and we see Justin Tipuric chasing down a long kick far beyond his team mates, while Sam Warburton is right up on George North’s shoulder as he runs in for the last try. Magnificent work rates and they definitely push each other along.
What of where flankers earn their bread though, in defence? Well there’s a little bit of work to be done;
Both Warburton and Tipuric end up lurking around the same breakdown, get in each other’s way and end up in positions that should be occupied by a tight five forward around the immediate fringes of the ruck. Only Ross Moriarty is really maintaining the correct position, somewhere around the third man out.
This lack of awareness of the other’s position eventually leads to both flankers standing in each other’s pockets as Italy drive straight past them and over the line. Not great at all.
However, it’s early days as they rediscover the partnership, and when it works, it works very effectively;
A better setup sees Warburton guarding the blindside while Tipuric waits to compete at any openside rucks, this leads to the perfect ‘every other’ technique that is the lynchpin of playing two 7s;
Justin Tipuric is in the first ruck competing with the outside centre and slowing the ball down, before Sam Warburton hits the second breakdown after the tackle and getting his own hands involved.
Then, after 40 minutes of practice, they get it spot on;
Now quite rightly Sam Warburton took plenty of plaudits for this turnover, in a classic piece of openside play he’s made the hit, got back to his feet and is over the ball before the support has even bound to the ruck.
However, and this is something I missed when viewing it live, there’s a crucial assist from Justin Tipuric who clears out the first Italian support before drawing the attention of the second man, leaving Warburton free to complete the turnover.
If they continue with the work rate, the attacking dynamism, and most importantly the co-ordinated defence and breakdown work, then Wales are onto a real winner. Australia have flourished with Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the side, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we could talk about Warburton and Tipruric in the same breath.
With Taulupe Faletau still to come back and complete the back row, we could be looking at a match winning trio. There will be some mistakes in the matches to come as they take on the bigger teams, but I 100% believe that this flanker partnership is the future for Wales, so let’s get behind the boys.