Analysis: Dominating the skies

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One of the many mind games played in the build up to Wales v England on Saturday saw the away side demand that the Principality Stadium roof stayed open for the game.

There was a suggestion this was due to the English players being comfortable claiming high balls against the background of the sky, rather than picking the ball out from the backdrop of the retractable roof.

This was important to England after the first two rounds of the Guinness Six Nations, where they had taken advantage of some woeful French back three play, putting them to the sword by putting boot to ball, after having taken on the Irish kicking game the week before and won the aerial battle in Dublin.

As a result many expected Eddie Jones’ side to arrive in Cardiff and attempt to remove the leather off the ball, putting the Welsh back three under real pressure, however, Warren Gatland had his troops ready.

A smart piece of analysis pre-game from the Wales backroom staff noted that England were keen on flapping the ball back when chasing their own high kicks, rather than trying to pluck possession out of the sky.

The simple reason is that Jack Nowell and Jonny May aren’t actually the strongest wingers when it comes to the aerial game, so Wales simply dropped a player in behind the England chaser, Josh Navidi in this case.

He ignores where the ball is landing (the black circle) and sits ready for Nowell to flap the ball back, securing the loose ball when it arrives.

Working the forwards hard as part of the kicking game was a theme that continued as an undertone throughout the game.

In this example Liam Williams claims possession in traffic with England putting the hit in quickly, which in previous weeks they have followed up with a strong counter ruck to either force a penalty or win a turnover.

However, to prevent that Ken Owens, Cory Hill and Josh Navidi have tracked back well to get over the ball and secure possession before England can arrive to put the pressure on.

With the forwards dealing with the contested element of the kicking, the backs are then able to retain their width so that any kick that isn’t on the money can be counter-attacked with interest.

Wales did not just stop with nullifying the opposition kicking game though, we wanted to assert our own footballing tactics on the game.

Gareth Davies had a superb day box kicking from the base of the breakdown, not only getting good distance on his kicks, but crucially getting a hang time to allow the chasers to set a high defensive line.

Once again that undertone of the forwards working hard resurfaces, as there are five of them leading the chase to meet Billy Vunipola carrying the ball back for England head on.

They don’t just stop there though, as the number eight is stopped in his tracks and the Wales initial defence are able to blitz hard as a result, taking on the England carrying game which was fabled as much as their kicking game during pre-game discussions in the media.

As the game continues Wales are able to branch out on our own kicking game, Gareth Anscombe putting a perfect hanging cross-field kick over to the left wing and George North gets enough of the ball to eventually secure a scrum in the opposition half.

The pressure builds and England start to lose the accuracy of their own kicking game, and some superb ‘bomb diffusing’ by Lloyd Williams, ably supported by Josh Adams, only ramps up that pressure.

Eventually their kicking game implodes entirely and as Billy Vunipola is once again repelled by the hard working forwards, led in this aspect by Josh Navidi, they don’t even try to take on a carrying phase.

The ball goes  back to Owen Farrell who smashed possession into touch on the full, not even close to staying in the field of play, and Warren Gatland’s mission is complete.

Respect has to go to strength and conditioning lead Paul Stridgeon who has conditioned the forwards to be serious operators around the field of play, and Gatland along with Shaun Edwards for consistently devising innovative ways to stop opposition sides in their tracks.

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