Analysis: An aerial dogfight

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There were elements of Wales’ win over France in Sunday’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final that, as much as supporters may not want to admit it, are now staples of our game.

Gone are the days of playing fairly attractive rugby but falling gallantly in quarter-finals or even pool stages, replaced by a grit and determination that sees us able to grind wins out even when we are not on top form.

Hard work at the breakdown, a solid defence (we’ll not mention the first 10 minutes), maul work that belies our size and superior fitness to basically every other team in the world puts us in positions where we can win games.

While all that was present in abundance in Oita on Sunday, there was of course elements to our game that didn’t go as planned and contributed to a performance that was probably one of our worst over the last two years.

One of the areas of Wales’ game that has been staple over the same time frame has been the kicking game, which I previously looked at coupled with the kick chase after we beat Australia last November.

We invited a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially early on, with some really poor exit kicking.

The policy to keep the ball in-play isn’t a new one for Wales and is generally very effective in terms of wearing down the opposition, but there has been times it has let us down and this was one of those.

Kicking up to somewhere around halfway allowed France to either immediately return the kick through Maxime Medard who was on the whole brilliant when kicking out of hand, or run it back and set up some decent field position.

A real disappointment, even more than the kicking itself, was the chase though. It lacked the intensity and organisation that we are used to from Wales, and up against a team with outside backs like France’s we were punished on the kick return.

For much of the first half we found ourselves pinned back inside our own half, unable to exit effectively and exert any pressure on France, who deservedly led going in at the break, not only because of our poor kicking, but because of how good theirs was.

Wales’ defence has been long admired by players, pundits and supporters alike, as Shaun Edwards has ensured the red wall is arguably the best outfit without the ball in world rugby.

One of the core aspects to the defensive shape sees the wingers pushed high into the defensive line, with the full-back asked to cover a lot of ground and the fly-half dropping into the back field to assist if required.

However, even when two players are in the back field there is plenty of space to cover, and France worked the ball around them brilliantly.

France’s kicking plan and execution was spot on, putting Wales under pressure on the high ball with a perfectly placed chase, or nudging the ball into the corner and asking Wales to exit from tough positions.

Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack were both very good in this area, but for the first hour Medard was almost flawless when kicking out of hand. A masterclass that led to France winning a lot of kicking exchanges early on.

Two brilliant kicks from France that nudged Liam Williams right into the corner on both occasions, and two return kicks that didn’t put the opposition under any pressure allowed Les Bleus to carry into the Wales half, gaining at least 20 metres in the exchange.

That was symptomatic of how good France’s execution was in the first hour, and how poorly Wales dealt with it, until some minor tweaks into the last quarter of the game allowed the men in red to turn the tide.

As the game entered the crucial final 20 minutes it appeared that Wales dropped the two players in the back field, generally Dan Biggar and Liam Williams, by about 10 metres.

This allowed us some extra time to return the kick, either on foot or off the boot, in a much more effective manner, holding our own in kicking exchanges rather than ending up on the back foot.

Add in the fact that we were much more open to dropping players into the back field and launch counter attacks to put the pressure back on France, slowly we managed to grab the upper hand in the unstructured game.

Then when actually kicking ourselves, Wales showed off their fitness to chase hard. Slightly abandoning the shape of the kick chase, we sent two or three chasers up quickly to put immediate pressure on the France players receiving the ball.

Adding some extra distance to the kicks as well meant that Medard was receiving the ball within his own half and having less time to replay accurately, causing three kicks of his to drift into the dead ball area in the last 15 minutes of the game.

It took a long time but in the end Wales did manage to gain the upper hand aerially, and in the all-important final quarter of the game where the encounter was one and lost, sending the men in red into a semi-final.

Heading into the semi-final the kicking game will need to see a serious improvement, as when that and the kick chase functions well then Wales are an even more difficult team to play against.

With Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi not being the strongest under the high ball, and Willie Le Roux not at his best this tournament so far, South Africa can be pressurised by an accurate kicking game.

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