Analysis: The Back Row Boys

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The Wales back row is often an area of great contention. We have an uncanny knack of producing high quality players, particularly flankers, and fitting them all in is usually a problem.

This World Cup cycle has been no different, with Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Ellis Jenkins, Aaron Shingler, Thomas Young, James Davies and Ollie Griffiths all in with a shout at some point or another.

Injuries or form have ruled one or two of those out along the route to Japan, but there was still an element of certainty among Welsh rugby supporters that Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moariarty would form the World Cup back row, as they had done during the Six Nations.

That was until the warm-up games, when a certain Aaron Wainwright made himself almost undroppable, and forced a reshuffle that saw Navidi switching to number eight and Ross Moriarty dropped to the bench.

A new back row trio probably wasn’t ideal to go into the tournament with, although they had played together fleetingly over the last year, but so far they have dominated Georgia and their powerful pack, and Australia with arguably the best flanker duo in the World in Michael Hooper and David Pocock.

Despite the seemingly pre-planned change that sees Moriarty come on for Wainwright after around 50 minutes they have so far made a combined 40 carries, making 61 metres and beating seven defenders.

It is in defence that I want to focus though, where so far they have made a combined 71 tackles, missing just four between them.

The reason they have been able to post such high tackle statistics is due to their cohesion as a unit, covering the defensive line without being too far from one another so they can cover across or hit a defensive breakdown for a jackal if required.

Starting with the kick chase, and early on against Australia they slot in well, with Josh Navidi and Aaron Wainwright forming part of the initial chase and Justin Tipuric identifying that and drifting to the openside where he makes the tackle on Koroibete who has decided to run cross-field on his return.

That spacing on the kick chase means Wainwright and Navidi are ideally placed in the defensive line for the next phase, with Wainwright able to cover the fringe and midfield, while Navidi can step inside to the midfield and cover across to the wing.

As a result, when Australia try to break between them Wainwright is there to make the tackle and Navidi is on hand to scoop up the loose ball and launch a counter attack.

In a similar fashion against Georgia they have positioned themselves well along the kick chase, with Josh Navidi on the far side on hand to shepherd the ball carrier in-field, straight into the waiting arms of Justin Tipuric.

With possession now at a breakdown in the centre of the field, the positioning on the kick chase means that Navidi and Aaron Wainwright start in ideal positions on either side of the defensive line, in touch with the fringe defence and able to cover the midfield.

As a result when Georgia opt to go right from the breakdown, Wainwright is on hand to make the tackle.

It hasn’t just been on the kick chase where that understanding between them has resulted in excellent defensive positioning though.

With Australia in possession at a breakdown on the right wing, the starting position of the back row sees Aaron Wainwright at bodyguard, Josh Navidi in midfield and Justin Tipuric out towards the centre of the pitch.

When the Wallabies opt to play off 10 the ball carrier is sent straight down the channel covered by Navidi, who stops him with the help of Dan Biggar, and the other members of the back row just shift across.

The next phase Australia play off nine, with the ball carrying coming short and straight down the channel of Wainwright, who brings him down, and although the ball is recycled quickly the positioning of the back row as a unit means Tipuric is on hand to tackle Bernard Foley when the fly-half attempts a show-and-go.

Three phases, three tackles, one for each of the Wales back row.

Alternatively, rather than making a tackle per phase, the positioning of the back row means all three can be engaged on one phase.

As Australia try to shift possession wide, Justin Tipuric guards the blindside, Aaron Wainwright does the same job on the openside and Josh Navidi is on hand in midfield to make the tackle.

Not about to go through or around the Wales back row, Australia have to go over it and kick possession away, otherwise the men in the red go on the attack.

Georgia are playing towards the right wing, and staying in shape all the while, the Wales back row is following them.

Justin Tipuric is part of the tackle, Josh Navidi forms part of the guard defence, and Aaron Wainwright blitzes from midfield.

That forces the Georgians into a handling error and any attacking impetus they had is lost.

The depth Wales have in the back row is almost scary. I’d suggest it is unrivalled in World Rugby currently, such is the quality available to Warren Gatland.

These three players are more than proving they are the right men for the starting job in Japan though, becoming a crucial function in attack and particularly defence.

If they continue to perform as they have in the first two matches then Wales can be confident of pushing on in the tournament.