A lot of focus over the last week in the Welsh media, particularly in the aftermath of the win over Fiji, has been on the topic of missed tackles.
Statistics are an interesting thing in rugby union. I like them on the whole, as they provide an insight into certain areas of the game; possession, territory, kicks from hand, line breaks, offloads, and individually, tackles made, metres carried. They all tell a story.
Crucially though, they rarely tell the full story.
In the case of Wales’ missed tackles this is certainly true. Looking at the statistics in isolation a reader might be horrified to see the men in red missing a total of 78 tackles in the games against Georgia, Australia and Fiji, not getting above an 86% tackle success rate.
However, there have only been a total of 25 line breaks from the opposition those games, with Wales conceding nine tries and one of those being a pushover penalty try. To put it simply, we do not have a leaky defence.
Looking at the stats carefully and, particularly against Southern Hemisphere opponents, missed tackles are not uncommon for Wales. It was a trend I noticed last November, when we beat South Africa at the Principality Stadium with only an 83% tackle success rate, missing 29 tackles.
The reason for the missed tackles is simply due to how Wales operate defensively, particularly when faced with slower ball that is only likely to see the opposition play off nine or ten.
In the example above Ross Moriarty is the key man, operating as the solo inside blitzer targeting the receiver. He misses the tackle, but it isn’t an issue as the regular defensive line sets behind him and completes the tackle.
It’s a similar picture here, but this particularly highlights why the tactic of using solo inside blitzers works well whether they make the tackle or not.
The general consensus is that blitzing is a risky strategy as it leaves a big gap in the defence if the blitzer doesn’t make the tackle. However, as we’ve seen in the first clip the defensive line sets behind the blitzer, meaning there’s no risk of a line break behind them.
Then once they’re out of the line, the blitzer just has to put pressure on the ball carrier. Making the tackle is not especially critical, as the defensive line is coming up behind them. All Gareth Davies has to do in this clip is not allow the carrier to set his feet and build up speed. The defensive line then bring him down behind the gain line.
The other advantage the system has is that, if the solo blitzer does manage to bring down the ball carrier, even if not fully completing the tackle as in the clip above, if offers a great chance for a turnover.
There is plenty of strength over the ball throughout the Wales team, and with the back row particularly effective with their defensive positioning, there is invariably someone on hand to go for a turnover or at least slow the ball down, increasing the pressure on the opposition’s attack.
Of course sometimes there will be line breaks, but a great strength of Wales’ is just how good the scramble defence is.
As the Fijian players breaks there are six players closer to him than his nearest teammate in support, a nod to the hard work of the Welsh defence in closing down the breaking player, and also getting into a defensive line ready for the next phase.
Fiji are then unable to capitalise on their line break, and from the next phase end up throwing the ball into touch as they try and play too quickly with Wales already set in defence.
All-in-all what we’re seeing is a Welsh side comfortable with how they’re defending, and opposition attacks unable to work out exactly how to extinguish the threat posed by that inside solo blitzer.
Shaun Edwards has spoken out publicly about the amount of missed tackles, but in truth he probably won’t be too concerned. He won’t be coming out to defend it and reveal secrets of his defensive system though.
As the competition wears on and opponents get tougher, expect that defensive pressure to ramp up. Missed tackles may well still be prevalent, but turnovers will increase and line breaks will diminish.
This is what the Wales team have been preparing for.