I’ve held off getting to grips with the 16-21 defeat that Wales suffered at the hands of England in the last round of the Six Nations for two reasons; firstly, I have only just been able to bring myself to watch it, and secondly, because it feels like the game was largely down to death in the post-mortem week that followed.
Particularly in Wales the focus was on where the game was lost, as the home side dominated large parts of the first half and the beginning of the second half, but were never able to get more than five points ahead, before England turned the screw with the help of their ‘finishers’.
Rob Howley took blame for some poor substitutions, Scott Baldwin’s shocking lineout throw was mentioned, as was Jonathan Davies’ kick failing to find touch and Alex Cuthbert’s attempted tackle on Elliot Daly all contributors to Wales’ downfall.
For me though the massive issue was that failure to capitalise on that territory and possession experienced in those crucial periods either side of half-time. Take the points on offer and convert even one of the try opportunities and it would have provided a buffer in the scoreline to build on, as it was we allowed England back into the game.
Why so slow?
From 20 minutes before half-time until 20 minutes after Wales went through attacking sets of 10 phases twice, 11 phases, 16 phases and a whopping 23 phases. The combined result in terms of points? Just six.
In the same period we also saw two eminently kickable penalties turned down for attempts at a try, both of which faltered, as the English white wall held strong against a Welsh attack lacking creativity, and crucially, any pace at all.
When the initial phase structure breaks down in Wales’ attacking sets the game relies on a power-based one-up runner system which will hopefully create some space eventually for a centre break, if running from far out, or just wear down the defensive in a battle of attrition from close range.
It’s never been pretty, but it’s been effective with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard suiting that abrasive and physical setup. Now though times are changing. Midfield creativity is a huge part of the modern game, and the space required for that needs to be secured via quick ball.
That’s not to say the big carrying game is dead though, it can play a part on securing that quick ball. New Zealand, the kings of modern rugby, use their forwards in a 2-4-2 formation partially to allow carrying pods to pop up across the pitch, go through a quick phase to secure front foot ball and move quickly to the backs from there.
Wales’ issue on Saturday came in two links to the forwards carrying though. Firstly, they made very, very little ground. Looking at the starting ball carriers of Rob Evans, Ken Owens, both second rows, Sam Warburton and Ross Moriarty they made just 57 metres from 55 carries. This leads on to the second problem, which is trucking the ball up 55 times is too many.
Far too often one-up runners were knocked back by a well organised English defence that almost religiously stuck to double rucking in defence, meaning they had players at the breakdown to slow the ball down while still being able to maintain a strong defensive line.
Biggar the not so great?
There was much written about a return to form for Wales’ fly-half on Saturday, which in parts was true. A leading defensive performance, including 14 tackles and a crucial interception, was eye catching, as well as some clever kicking and a clean break in the first half that set up the pre-half-time attacking pressure.
However, his play from first receiver was lacklustre at best against England. Over thirty passes he threw and none put any of the players outside him cleanly through a gap. That lack of a platform at fly-half really stunted the Welsh attack.
His sole threat with ball in hand at 10 is the midfield miss pass to the player in the outside centre spot to get outside a blitz defence, which does often result in front foot ball, is fine. A refusal to take the ball to the line and throw an inside pass, or a no-look to the outside shoulder, is not.
Coming back to Rob Howley and his poorly used substitutions, the conservatism shown not to throw Sam Davies into the game with around 10-15 minutes to go was disappointing. The match was already slipping away from us at that point, Dan Biggar did not seem the man to inspire a counter-attack, so what was there to lose?
Webb’s X Factor
The one saving grace of the Welsh attack came in the shape of our scrum-half Rhys Webb, in my opinion. After a number of weeks out of Ospreys action in the build up to the Six Nations, Wales’ number nine seems to be quickly returning to his best, and for me is a real contender for that coveted British and Irish Lions starting berth in New Zealand.
The majority of Welsh attacking highlights against England came when the game was shortened up and we played off nine, instead of ten or whichever forward was stood at first receiver.
When Webb took control of our attacking we actually looked momentarily dangerous. His ability to take the ball to the line and bring in those outside him is excellent. He has options here, with Tipuric running the switch line and Warburton hitting the gap created by England’s fringe defence being more interested in the scrum-half.
Despite not making it through the gap, Warburton is able to secure front foot ball thanks to Webb, and crucially can present the ball quickly for the scrum-half to spin wide. Unfortunately Biggar’s fear of the gain line stunts the attack on this occasion.
This time it does result in big yards though as playing off Webb means that the first three English defenders in the line are pre-occupied with him, dragging the outside defenders narrower and eventually giving Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny the space to attack in the wide areas and carry the ball into England’s 22.
It doesn’t even require a wide openside to play into, as long as the fringe defenders are taken out of the game via a lateral movement that doesn’t mean missing out on any of Wales’ attackers.
It’s Coutney Lawes and Joe Marler circled here who are sucked in by Rhys Webb’s sniping before he slips the ball out to Dan Biggar who has Liam Williams on his outside to get over the gainline.
What this then results in is an opportunity for Webb to become unpredictable, having the option to bring in a runner outside him or mix things up in attack…
One choice is to go it alone. The English defenders fear of exposing their outside shoulders mean a turning of their shoulders away from Webb, allowing the much lighter scrum-half to make yards against the forwards, before quick ball is capitalised on by the next carrier who can take advantage of a scrambling defence.
The second choice is to slide the ball out the back door. The defenders don’t know whether it will be Webb himself, the crash ball runner or the blindside runner trying to make the break, leaving them unable to line up any hit properly and liable to be taken backwards, creating fast, front foot ball.
Of course this eventually leads to Liam Williams wandering through a large gap created by Wales playing the short game off Rhys Webb and taking the ball to the line. A wonderful move, but one that only serves as a frustration in the sense that it proves how we can attack, but choose not to.
Rob Howley will stick with a very similar team for the trip to Scotland this week, however with Webb now having extra time to train and getting further match minutes under his belt, hopefully he can continue to step up as the focal point of this Welsh attack, especially with George North now an added weapon.
Just one thing for Howley to do then, don’t taken him off for bloody Gareth Cawdor!!