On this summer’s Wales tour of North and South America there was plenty to be keep an eye on, as Warren Gatland gave the majority of his British and Irish Lions contingent a rest and offered opportunities to some fringe players.
During the test win over South Africa, and the series win over Argentina, the positives were far and wide for the Wales coach and his assistants, with the World Cup in Japan just over a year away now.
In playing terms, the Shaun Edwards drilled defence was as effective and organised as ever, especially against Los Pumas, but it was in other areas that Wales were noticeably very good.
The set piece functioned better than it has in a long time, with the scrum going toe-to-toe with a strong Argentinian pack and the lineout securing attacking ball off the back rather than safe throwing to the front all too predictably.
It was in attack that the most positives were seen though. We weren’t afraid to play expansively off the fly-half, get the dangermen in the back three on the ball, and show off some handling skills that have felt almost suppressed at times during the Gatland era.
Individually it was pleasing to see a number of new combinations work out. A largely changed front row stood up well, Adam Beard was a discovery in the second row, Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe proved to be options with Dan Biggar left at home, and there is now a real selection headache in the back three.
Perhaps the most interesting experiment came on Saturday in the second test against Argentina though when Wales lined up with two out-and-out opensides in James Davies and Ellis Jenkins, and that is the focus of this analysis.
Now, I’m going to stick my colours to the mast early on and describe it as a success. It wasn’t without it’s faults, and there are definitely areas to improve if Wales opt for two opensides again, but it worked against Argentina and becomes a real option for Gatland over the next 12-15 months.
Before focusing directly on Davies and Jenkins, it’s important to acknowledge the work down by their colleagues in the pack that allows them to press on with their openside partnership.
By picking two 7s, you naturally lose out on an out-and-out blindside flanker, and while Ellis Jenkins is capable of wearing the six jersey at international level, he is not a lineout jumper or maul operator in the same way that an Aaron Shingler or a Seb Davies is.
Therefore, others have to step up their workload to ensure there is no shortfall in these areas.
Between Adam Beard, Cory Hill and Ross Moriarty, the two flankers had team-mates who allowed them to play the game that they wanted to, and not have to think about what they should be doing at set pieces or in parts of open play. They just play in a way that comes naturally to them.
Beard and Hill were imperious at the set piece, winning good lineout ball and once again doing everything in their power to disrupt the Argentina driving maul, while Moriarty made nine carries and 15 tackles in another all-action performance.
Then, with the platform laid on for them, it’s down to Davies and Jenkins to take advantage.
It was evident early on that Davies and Jenkins had figured out how to work in tandem during the week leading up to the game, not just at the breakdown, but in transitional areas such as the kick chase.
Both are all-action players, with huge engines and good turns of pace for big men, and week-in, week-out we see them charging around every blade of grass for their clubs.
However, they worked it cleverly between them on Saturday to share the workload, going after roughly every other kick, while the other player forms up in the defensive line ready to take advantage of any Argentine inaccuracies on their first attacking phase.
It goes without saying that Jenkins and Davies are two of the best players over the ball in the northern hemisphere, let alone the Pro14 or Wales, and they each showed off their individual capabilities to good effect on Saturday.
However, it’s how they were able to hunt as a two that really caused Argentina problems.
The two of them effectively switched between three setups during the game, with the aim to get one or both involved in every phase or every breakdown.
They either took up the position of guard and bodyguard, had one at guard or bodyguard and the other wider in the line, or they split in more central defensive positions where there is no clear openside or blindside.
Having the threat of both Davies and Jenkins at as many breakdowns as possible served to ramp up the pressure on Argentina, who were only too aware of how they had failed to deal with the Welsh jackal ability last week when only one openside was on the pitch, let alone two.
On both occasions above you have one of the two flankers interested either in the tackle or the breakdown at two successive phases, and both result in a turnover as Argentina either knocked on or threw a forward pass.
That was nothing in comparison to when both players got stuck in over the ball in tandem though.
In the first clip you have James Davies who, in all probability, secures a fair turnover there as the Argentinian player is clearly holding on to the ball, but when that doesn’t get given Ellis Jenkins has slotted into the guard position and is on hand to win the penalty at the next phase.
The pressure built up by Los Pumas continually having to play from slow ball killed the home side, and when you have hunters working in tandem, they were even more dangerous.
When they were able to stand in the defensive line together, generally between guard and fourth man, Argentina found it very difficult to escape the attention of one or both of the flanker.
On both occasions above, either Davies or Jenkins makes the tackle, with the other on hand to get over the ball and either slow it down or effect a turnover.
This only comes from the awareness of the other player’s position, and despite having never played together before, they took quickly to slotting into good defensive positions to compliment the other player. Two players who read the game very well are hard for the opposition to deal with.
That positional quality not only led to them working in tandem at every other breakdown, but meant that they could work directly alongside each other to effect turnovers.
As James Davies wins the turnover in the first clip, Ellis Jenkins slotting in at guard means he is on hand to assist in securing possession with Cubby isolated in the new breakdown.
In the second clip they are at guard and bodyguard, so when Argentina go to a one-out runner, the flankers are ideally placed to hold the ball carrier up and eventually win he turnover.
Throughout the game there are examples where one or both players are on hand to win or assist in a turnover, either individually or as a joint effort between them, and they played a huge part in restricting Argentina to just 10 points in the time they were both on the field, a terrific effort.
Did it all go exactly to plan? No it didn’t. Both players were penalised for putting their hands on the floor, and there were phases when Davies and Jenkins were stuck on the blindside and completely out of the game.
On the whole though, it worked superbly, and with more time to gel, two opensides could be a real option for Wales at the World Cup. Having seen how well it’s worked at Cardiff Blues over the last two years, and with Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi and Thomas Young all capable of slotting into a two-openside system, Gatland would be foolish not to seriously consider it.
If they’re all fit and available in November and beyond there are some seriously tough selection decisions to be made, but we now know that the two openside system is not one to be dismissed.