Wales suffered their first defeat in this year’s Six Nations when they fell to 12-6 defeat to England at Twickenham on Saturday. A game that has since been dominated, on this side of the Bridge anyway, by the berating of a Television Match Official.
Whether Steff Evans did knock it on, Gareth Anscombe got his hand to the ball before Anthony Watson, or Scott Williams had barged over instead of slide, some aspects of the game would likely have stayed the same.
England physically dominated Wales, particularly at the breakdown and in their tight carrying, often putting the visitors on the back foot and leaving half-backs Gareth Davies and Rhys Patchell under almost constant pressure in midfield.
With a strong midfield defence coming at them, Wales resorted too often to one-up runners, a departure from the ball playing on show against Scotland in the bonus-point win of round one.
When those runners were swiftly shunted back from whence they came, Warren Gatland’s men fell back to the kicking option to either clear their lines or try and gain some field position. Overall they made 39 kicks from open play, not a bad tactic in itself, except when executed poorly.
To analyse the kicking game I’ve split the types of kick into three categories; clearance kick, box kick and tactical kick.
Now, as Cardiff Blues fans, the phrase ‘box kick’ has been enough to make us visibly shudder over the last few years. Indeed, it was Team Wales-itis that seemed to be the major contributing factor to Lloyd Williams becoming addicted to the box kick at during the second half of last season. Thankfully he has now made a full recovery.
Under increasing pressure from a dominant England pack on the weekend, Gareth Davies, and replacement Aled, reverted to the box kick a number of times, both as part of an exit strategy, and when attacks bogged down in midfield.
On both occasions, from a kick on halfway and in our own 22, the right winger has the opportunity to compete for the ball, or wait for the opposition player to land and put a hit in on them.
Although the English are able to retain possession on both occasions, there is little chance to counter attack and put Wales immediately back under the pressure. The visitors can then set up their defensive line in England’s half, and try to switch the pressure with our own strong defensive setup.
Unfortunately, the level of box kicking was not consistent throughout the game, particularly in the first half.
The first clip is particularly frustrating as it comes from Wales receiving the kick-off at the beginning of the second half.
With the kick not finding touch and being 5-10 metres too long to compete, Mike Brown can comfortably take the high ball unopposed and make enough yards on the carry for England to set up their attack on Wales’ 10 metre line. Straight back under the cosh for us.
The second clip has a similar issue, neither gaining ground nor going for touch, but the third clip is slightly different by the fact the kick itself is not too bad.
However, choosing to go for the kick when the players to his left are lining up for the next phase of attack, and kicking to a player in Mike Brown who is generally solid under the high ball, doesn’t pay off for Davies as the England full-back comfortably takes the kick under little pressure and carries back to where the kick came from in the first place.
That offers an easy segway into the issue of tactical kicking as a whole. Largely lead by Rhys Patchell, the kicking out of hand was quite often ill-advised, neither gaining territory, or offering a realistic chance of a team-mate competing.
There are elements of poor decision making and poor execution in all three kicks, as possession is given up in the first clip. The kick is far too long, and offers Brown the chance to decide between counter-attacking and putting a kick back in. In short, we gain nothing from that kick.
Worse still, for the second and third clips we actually lose out on possession in crucial positions. After more time spent defending deep in our own 22, a chip and chase was ill-advised from Steff Evans. The Scarlet philosophy of attack from anywhere is an admirable one, but has to be reigned in against the best international sides with the firepower to punish you.
Similarly, the kick-pass is becoming a major weapon in rugby, Beauden Barrett a particularly enthusiastic patron. On this occasion though, England run their dogleg defensive line, Anthony Watson reads Patchell like a book, and first phase attacking ball in midfield is wasted.
In terms of tactical kicking we received a real lesson from England at Twickenham.
Kicking into space, turning defenders, offering attackers the chance to chase the kick. Everything you want from an open play kick, and it kept Wales under pressure despite a good defensive performance keeping the England attack largely at bay.
England also lead the way in terms of their exit kicking, clearing their lines effectively, and not giving the likes of Patchell, Anscombe, Adams and Evans the chance to counter attack.
The first clip is just a very good tactical kick, pitching and getting the bounce into touch. Even if it doesn’t get the bounce though, by finding turf it would take longer for Adams to gather the ball, by which time Jonathan Joseph would be on top of him.
In the second clip though, it doesn’t seem like a particularly special kick, but it’s a perfect clearance. From deep in the 22 and in the middle of the field, Ford finds touch on close to the 10 metre line, offering no opportunity for Wales to counter-attack.
Compare that with some of the Welsh clearance kicks…
The second clip is disappointing, as Adams has more than enough time to find touch, but instead decides to keep the ball in-field. The kick goes straight down Mike Brown’s throat, and as soon as the ball is clear, England are back on the Welsh 10 metre line and on the attack again.
The first and third clips are examples of poor pieces of play though. When analysing Cardiff Blues kicking previously I have stated that putting a clearance into touch on the 22, is better than kicking in-field to the 10 metre line. You’d have hoped Wales would have learnt this lesson after losing last year’s game against England due to this exact mistake.
However, here are Patchell and Evans producing weak clearance kicks and inviting serious pressure back on to Wales as England return the kick to the edge of the 22. Brilliant attacking position again for them, more energy sapping defensive phases for us.
I think it’s important to stress that this tactic of kicking in-field appears to almost certainly come from the coaching team. We used a similar approach against Scotland last week, which fortunately didn’t come back to haunt us due to a higher energy kick chase, and an under-par Scotland performance.
Against Ireland, with the likes of Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings, and the ever solid Rob Kearney under the high ball at full-back, the kicking game is going to have to drastically improve. Time to do yourselves a favour Wales, stick the ball in the stand!