The Six Nations came to a damp squib of a conclusion for Wales in Paris on Saturday as they went down 20-18 to France and end up with a fifth place finish, confirming them as the worst team in the tournament except for wooden spoon regulars Italy.
It’s certainly been a disappointing campaign overall, with the Ireland win a solo high point. Fleeting glimpses of promise were counteracted with prolonged periods of mediocrity, that often slipped into downright dreadful play at time. One constant though has been the refusal of the Welsh coaches to change anything to do with the team.
When looking at the France game there is one big sore thumb sticking out to be analysed, but the last 20 minutes of the game is something that shouldn’t be re-visited in a hurry. Only because it became comical did it not reduce to me to tears such was the shambolic nature of the game ending.
Did Atonio require a head injury assessment? Could Wayne Barnes have handled the whole period better? Important questions for the right people to answer, but for me it didn’t make a huge difference to the game. That may seem odd to say when it decided the result, but Wales were so dreadful that the chaotic 20 minutes helped take away from their performance, if anything.
For this final analysis piece I am actually beginning a new career as a ghost writer. This is my first book being written for a certain Welsh coach, so enjoy a world exclusive of ‘How not to attack in rugby’ by Robert Howley.
First Phase Failures
Let’s be fair from the start, Wales’ attacking this Six Nations has been pretty consistent in it’s ability to be utterly woeful. Creativity, versatility and dynamism have been almost completely lacking, meaning that tries from open back play have been non-existent.
However, there has been one saviour, to an extent, as from first phase ball the attack has at times looked almost dangerous. George North and Liam Williams have both benefited from the ball being shifted wide quickly and early, through the midfield and to the danger men, but that tactic went walkabout on Saturday.
First phase ball was actually hard to come by in France as the set piece mis-fired somewhat, while Rhys Webb may have spent the week reading his own press as he took the ball on too often, but when the first receiver did get hands on the ball things did not go to plan.
Twice, including the first time Wales claimed any sort of serious possession, Scott Williams came in at stand-off to tee up a runner outside him in a pretty well telegraphed manner. Particularly in the first clip there was never any danger of Dan Biggar taking the ball as he showed a lack of commitment in the dummy run.
The issue is that the distance the ball travels to get to the inside centre, before being shipped onto the player outside him, means that rucking support is a good 10 metres off the ball carrier, allowing France to get over the ball and either turn it over, as goes on to happen in clip one, or so the ball down dramatically in clip two.
Occasionally there was a bit of variation, but the issue is that the players are so drilled in specific attacking patterns they are simply unable to play what is in front of them. This move worked superbly against England, but George North runs straight into a blue brick wall against France.
If he gets a shout or gets his head up he’d notice Dan Biggar on the wrap around creating an initial 4-on-2 outside him, but unfortunately the ball is up the jumper and power mode is activated. The distance between the ball carrier and the support is underlined again as North is held up and the ball turned over.
Further mixing up of the game is also ineffective as the telegraphed nature of the move does not allow for any ground to be made, the kick execution is poor and a desperate offload give up possession. Overall a bad day for Wales’ first phase attacking play.
A Deeper Shade of Poorly Attacking Red
So the first phase attacking was misfiring big time, therefore the only chance to score tries would be from further phase play. But, I mean Wales, scoring tries from open play? I know, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and playing the way they are it feels like it may never happen.
Before I start I’d like to say, as I have throughout these analysis pieces, I am cautious to blame the players for these shortcomings. It feels like they have been so brainwashed by the stale coaching setup that they are drilled to play this one-dimensional way and not what’s in front of them.
We see week-in, week-out that, particularly the backs, are very good players at their clubs. When they come to the international setup though, they are so predictable and robotic in their attacking play it’s hard to recognise them from the domestic scene. It also takes a while for them to settle back in to their normal play when away from Team Wales, just ask Lloyd Williams.
Here’s something that happened far too often on Saturday. The circled area is the breakdown where this phase started, with the ball going through just Dan Biggar’s hands to the point where Sam Warburton takes the ball. A loss of almost 15 metres from start to this point.
This offensive setup suffocates those out wide. You can see Liam Williams at the bottom of the screen actually ahead of Warburton, how is he meant to run onto the ball at speed? When he does eventually get the pass he has so little space because the distance the ball has travelled sideways and backwards means France can just close the space as a line.
Actually quite a good attacking setup in this clip, but it’s all happening too far from the gain line. Ross Moriarty’s dummy run is a good one, but the back line being subsequently so deep it means that even if the defender ahead of Moriarty can buy his run, and still be able to recover to drift across and nullify what should be a 4-on-2 situation.
There has been a lot of criticism, from myself included, that Dan Biggar does not stand near flat enough when at first receiver, but in both of these stills he’s actually in a very positive attacking position, close enough to the line to ask questions of the inside defenders.
However, the players outside him have not followed, creating a big gap between 10 and 12. This then filters down the line and even though there’s an overlap on both occasions, all it takes for France to stop the move is to have a solo blitzer fill the big space between midfield and the wing. This leaves Biggar with a decision to throw the miracle pass or take the ball into contact, either way having more cons than pros.
When Wales do finally manufacture an obvious overlap, they manage to waste it again to due to how deep the attacking line is. Biggar makes the pass that should release the outside players, but he’s already 10 metres behind the gain line and the five players in space are stood next to each other, with little chance to run onto the ball.
The speed of the attack is subsequently slowed massively and France can get two defenders across to cover. Wales still manage to make a bit of ground, but it’s a clear line break opportunity missed out on. Pretty clear why there was only two line breaks in the game from the visitors.
In the end the attacking line is so deep that when they are outnumbered by the defensive line it can blitz and catch the ball carrier deep behind the defensive line. Losing that ground is a general demoraliser, means the attack has to be built again, and makes ball retention difficult as the defensive side have the forward momentum at the breakdown and your support is a distance away.
A general example of why the attacking line did not function, to finish off. The first still has a large gap outside the initial defence, and with dummy runners offering themselves there is ample opportunity to move the ball outside those defenders at pace to hit the wider channels where the outside backs are waiting.
However the positions of the backs mean that the ball has to travel a long way between players and a distance backwards, rather than laterally, so that when Jon Davies receives the ball he is 10 metres behind the gain line and the gap that was identified has been closed up by the drifting French defenders.
Wales should have been far more effective than they were against this France sides, especially with the players they possess, but the attacking threat has literally been coached out of them. There is so much to worry about on the back of this tournament. Firstly, the fact that the coaching setup is in place until after the next World Cup.
Secondly, that none of the exciting attacking minded youngsters have been utilised throughout this tournament or appear to be offered the opportunity to impress is concerning. Finally, the fact that Rob Howley will be the Lions attack coach is petrifying. How on Earth are they going to function against New Zealand when attacking in such a predictable, one-dimensional fashion? Pray for them.
Overall it’s a Six Nations to forget for Wales. The only slight hope is that with the majority of the regular coaches away over the Summer, the Wales team taken to play Samoa and Tonga will contain the likes of Sam Davies, Owen Williams, Keelan Giles and Steff Evans. Players will real attacking prowess, and we may even see some exciting rugby played. I so hope we do.