Saturday’s 34-7 win for Wales over Scotland was a momentous performance for Welsh rugby, as plaudits were rightly placed on the team for a free flowing and exciting attacking game plan.
It was what a number of supporters, journalists and former players had been crying out for, especially after the success of the Scarlets in the last 18 months, and with 10 members of their squad in the starting Welsh XV they transferred their club ethos to the international stage with aplomb.
Rhys Patchell ran the show from outside half perfectly, Steff Evans was lively throughout the game off the left wing, while Leigh Halfpenny ended a five-year drought at international level to score two tries and finish with 24 points for the game.
However, while the attack game has earned the majority of the headlines, the defensive side of Wales’ game underwent a transformation on Saturday as we restricted Scotland to just seven points. That’s a team who scored 53 points against Australia just four months ago only creating one try at the Principality Stadium.
To do this the masterminds of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards created a defensive game plan that, on paper at least, made no sense, but worked to perfection.
Concede the space
When looking at Scotland’s back three, there was a general sense that this is where the main attacking threat would be from the visitors. Tommy Seymour and Byron McGuigan are natural try scoring wingers, while Stuart Hogg is many people’s tip to be Player of the Tournament.
Keeping the ball away from them seemed to be the order of the day, however early in the game there was evidence that Wales would set up in a slightly different way.
Rather than stretch the defensive line in order to prevent Scotland from throwing the ball wide to the danger men, the midfield compact in a bid to actually shepherd the opposition out wide on our terms, rather than theirs.
This is a change from the Autumn Internationals, whereby we adopted a midfield blitz and tried to spread the defence outside of the 10/12 channel, subsequently conceding this try to New Zealand.
It’s Owen Williams defending at 13 who gets isolated and has no answer to New Zealand manipulating the defensive line to create space outside for their dangerous runners to exploit.
Fast forward to Saturday and suddenly we’re saying to Scotland ‘here’s the space for you, good luck getting there’. A risky game plan, if they were able to take advantage of the space on offer, but it also required the Scots taking risks to get the ball into those areas in the first place.
Fortunately for Wales the Scotland attack was never able to get a gamble to pay off. On this occasion the right hand side of the defence is left relatively open, allowing Finn Russell to put in the kick. A tough skill to execute, and on this occasion it doesn’t come off.
Ditch the team blitz
Ever since Shaun Edwards arrived in the Team Wales setup along with Warren Gatland the Welsh side has been famed for it’s intense and effective blitzes. Despite many people taking issue with the way the attack has been setup, the defence has remained totally free from criticism.
This season at Cardiff Blues we have also seen just what an impact the Edwards defence coaching can have, so it comes as a surprise to be analysing a defensive performance under his guidance that was effective without a team blitz.
Looking back at that Ioane try for New Zealand again the reason is obvious, so as not to be caught out by the screened pass out the back, and it worked a treat.
In the first still you can see Samson Lee and Hadleigh Parkes twice; where they’d be on the blitz, and where they were on Saturday.
As part of a blitz they would be a lot closer to the two dummy runners, trying to close the space and then get after the player out the back if Finn Russell were to choose that option.
However, with Scotland possessing such dangerous attackers, by not committing to the blitz Wales take the dummy runners completely out of the equation. Parkes has time to read the move, despite Russell’s disguised pass, adjust his body position to drift across the field, and make a tackle.
It was Parkes, along with centre colleague Scott Williams, who really lead and enforced the no blitz policy, consistently nullifying Scotland’s danger men when they were put in positions to take a run at the Wales line.
Two easy defensive reads for the Welsh centres as they fail to blitz, and Scotland fail to move effectively into the wide spaces offered by Wales as the attacks are stopped in midfield.
The away side just had no answer throughout the game as the gaps between the Scottish attackers and the defensive line grew ever wider, and Wales found it all too easy to prevent Scotland making ground. In all honesty, the scoreline should have been 34-0.
Release the solo blitzer
While the team blitz was definitively off the menu for Wales on Saturday at the Principality Stadium, the clever use of the solo blitz was a big success in narrowing Scotland’s attacking game when required.
By sending an outside man shooting out of the defensive line on occasion, it created doubt in the mind of playmaker Finn Russell, forcing the fly-half deeper in his first receiver position, and subsequently doing the same to the rest of the attacking line.
Three well timed solo blitzes that all resulted in Scotland either narrowing, being brought down behind the line or turning over possession.
The final clip is a simple one, but it results in a big moment.
Aled Davies solo blitzes out wide, makes the interception, and from the turnover ball Wales go and score in the left corner to secure a bonus-point win. Good defence into strong attack, finally a complete performance in the modern game from Team Wales.
Next week’s game will bring all new challenges, as England will present a different sort of attacking opposition.
The Ford/Farrell 10/12 axis can unlock defences almost at will, with Ben Te’o or Jonathan Joseph outside them and the in-form Anthony Watson on the wing. From the forwards there are threats from Maro Itoje and Sam Simmonds. Mobile yet physical men.
It will take a spotless defensive shift to nullify the English, with a return to the blitz likely to put pressure on particularly George Ford, with Danny Care inside him. Hopefully not allowing Farrell to get his hands on the ball with space to create outside him.
There’s still points to be taken forward from this performance against Scotland though, as they failed to get on the outside shoulder and properly threaten us out wide. What Wales then do with ball in hand at Twickenham remains to be seen.