Analysis: Kick them to death

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We are now two weeks into the Autumn Internationals and Wales are on course to win all four tests with records being broken along the way.

The first November test has been won for the first time since 2002, when Scotland were dispatched, while we have beaten Australia for the first time since 2008 as the Wallabies were defeated 9-6 at the Principality Stadium.

With the World Cup in Japan just 10 months away, Warren Gatland has been able to continue building strength in his squad, as the week one win was secured without the English-based players, while regular starting XV members Rob Evans, Cory Hill, Dan Biggar and Liam Williams were not needed from the start in week two.

However there has been a slight shift away from the more open style of rugby we saw Wales move to last season, which was probably done too late to properly be embedded before Japan.

If you look at last Saturday’s game against Australia we only made 119 passes as a team, 63 less than the Wallabies despite possession being close at 47%-53%. When you take away the passes made by Gareth Davies, Gareth Anscombe and Tomos Williams, there is only 47 to share around the remaining 20 players in the squad.

Instead we have been kicking the ball more, which has attracted criticism in some areas for not holding onto possession and going through more phases. Particular notice has been taken of how many kicks are kept in-field, with it being suggested this should be avoided against Australia with Israel Folau in their ranks, amongst others.

However, after looking at both games and disregarding kicks that were made as part of the attacking game plan, there were only three kicks made to touch against Australia, along the same lines as the two made against Scotland.

So with the majority of tactical or clearance kicks staying in field, how did they play such a positive part of securing two wins?

Wales kick analysis 28Wales kick analysis 7

Firstly our kick to compete game was on the whole very good, especially keeping the ball away from the higher quality players in the opposition back three and giving our dangerous players in the air, like George North and Liam Williams, the chance to put pressure on.

This should be a staple part of any team’s game plan to fall back on, but Wales used it particularly well in both games from the area of the field between our own 22 and the halfway line.

As a result either field position was gained or attacking opportunity created, but more importantly it reduces the risk of playing from inside your own half against teams with strong presence over the ball.

However, this isn’t the most impressive aspect of our kicking game.

Wales kick analysis 8 1Wales kick analysis 8

There is always a lot written about the physical conditioning that Warren Gatland’s strength and conditioning staff put his players through, resulting in the Wales squad being one of the fittest in international rugby.

This shows in clips like that above as Scotland nudge the ball towards the corner and Leigh Halfpenny has the ball in his own 22. Most teams would then put the ball into touch and the Scots gain 20 metres or so and can play from first phase ball in the Wales half.

What the Wales kicking tactic of keeping the ball in-field does is not only prevent that, but it tests the fitness and organisation of the opposition in an unstructured period of play.

Wales are so good at forming up quickly on the kick chase that they not only save giving away attacking ball, they actually put the opposition on the back foot as Blair Kinghorn faces a red wall inside his own half in the clip above, and this came after a lung busting game of kick tennis early in the game.

Wales kick analysis 1 1Wales kick analysis 1

The time on the clock shows just how early this exchange took place, and the first clip sees Wales opt to make the first kick from inside our own 22, keeping the ball in-field and chasing well to form up inside the Scotland half.

Wales kick analysis 4 1Wales kick analysis 4

Two kicks later from each team and Leigh Halfpenny is able to find turf inside the Scotland 22, and the fitness and organisation of the Wales team is able to continue to form the red wall, this time beyond the Scottish 10 metre line.

Wales kick analysis end of kick sequence 1 v Scotland

As a result Gareth Anscombe is able to play forwards at his own 10 metre line, a gain of some 20 metres from Gareth Davies’ original box kick, with the option to put in an up-and-under, chip and chase over the Scottish line or look for a gap to break through, knowing that if he needs to take contact there is decent field position to attack from.

This is a small victory in the wider arena of an international test match, but what is more significant is when the kicking game results in a serious gain of ground or penalty inside the opposition half.

Wales kick analysis 23Wales kick analysis 23 follow upWales kick analysis 23 follow up 1

As Jonathan Davies opts to keep the ball in play rather than clear for touch it forces Australia to chase back and recover possession inside their own half as the game approaches the last quarter.

Wales’ superior fitness and ability to keep moving forward as the Wallabies are without momentum, means we are defensively formed up while three key Australian forwards are still returning to their positions.

With those three either not able to get involved in the contact area at the phase immediately after the kick, or arriving late, Wales find it much easier to hold up the ball carrier and secure an attacking scrum in the opposition half.

In the end the kicking game, particularly on Saturday, suffocated Australia as Wales were able to play in their territory more at the end of the game, winning the two penalties that would eventually secure victory.

It may not be pretty, or an attractive brand of rugby, but there’s no doubt that when executed correctly Warren Gatland’s kicking game plan, alongside the physical condition of the squad, is effective in putting Wales on top at key times in test matches.

So next time you groan when the ball is kicked, just see how it plays out. More often than not it ends with Wales coming out on top.

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