Analysis: Closing the space

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Wales U20 produced a superb defensive performance to overcome a strong Argentina U20 side in Rosario on Tuesday to get their World Rugby U20 Championship campaign off to a flyer.

It transpires that it was a system put in place by prospective Wales senior defence coach Byron Hayward, who left Scarlets at the end of the season, but a lot of credit has to go to the analyst who no doubt identified how Los Pumitas tried to impose their carrying game on the opposition.

Having seen Argentina dominate both Georgia U20 and South Africa U20, two teams noted for the power of their pack both at age grade and senior level, just a few weeks ago, there was a danger that Wales could arrive in South America and be bullied up front.

Early on the host nation had a lot of gainline success, but as the Welsh settled into the game we slowly prevented the blue and white wave as they continued to operate in a large pod off the first receiver.

The defensive line was generally set up in a fashion that held it’s width, but the clever aspect was how, more often than not, the four men in the midfield closed the space down around that carrying pod to restrict their options.

In this first example the other players in the pod come to latch on to the ball carrier, but the Welsh defence is tight enough that two tacklers can bring him down quickly and without making any metres.

Where the tactic to close the space around the carrying pod was most effective though, was as Argentina tried to mix up their attacking game off the obvious call carrier.

By bringing four players up quickly opposite the pod, it allows one player to go to the player in possession, leaving both the inside and outside defender an extra second to make a decision on whether they bite or step out.

When, as in both examples, the prospective ball carrier ops for the pop pass before contact, the outside defender is able to make the tackle and because of that, any slight inaccuracy in the pass can cause a knock on.

Closing the space also put an end to a pre-called play that Argentina utilised to devastating effect during those games against Georgia and South Africa, bringing the blindside flanker off the first receiver.

By coming up quickly and in a tight formation even when a defender bites on the first receiver, the gap to the next defender is so tight they just have to shift their shoulder and there’s no opening left for the winger to break through.

This tactic worked a treat for Wales after the first 20 minutes, preventing Argentina’s attack from getting a permanent foothold in the game and laying down a marker that we were going to stand up to Los Pumitas physically.

However, Byron Hayward and the analysts can’t rest on their laurels, as France U20 will provide a different challenge when we come up against them on Saturday, and may well exploit an area of weakness we showed in the first game.

A much more expansive team, France were keen to spin the ball wide and used the kick-pass to great effect against Fiji, meaning Wales can’t afford to get caught as narrow as we did against Argentina at times.

Too often we were defending with 14-men high in the defensive line, and had the Argentinian half-backs been able to recognise this as the French will, then there was plenty of space to play into, with full-back Ioan Davies having to cover a lot of grass in the back field.

The big challenges keep on coming for the young Welshmen, but challenge one was passed with merit.

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