Wales’ defeat at the hands of South Africa in the Rugby World Cup semi-final on Sunday was a huge disappointment for players, coaches and supporters.
At the end of 18 months hard work and success, to go out by just three points is agonising, but the truth is that on the day we just didn’t have enough to overcome the Springboks. It is difficult to argue with the outcome at 80 minutes.
On social media after the game there was a fair amount of criticism over our game plan, or perceived lack of it, as we engaged in an aerial battle with South Africa that we came out of decidedly second best.
Kicking as a tactic is not new to Wales. In the Six Nations we averaged 28.5 kicks a game, in the wins over Georgia, Australia and France we averaged 30 kicks a game, and against the Springboks we kicked 36 times. Admittedly more than average, but not a huge leap up.
Unfortunately our execution of the kicking game and the chase was poor, while our work under the high ball not as consistent as usual, leaving us on the back foot against an immensely powerful South Africa team. Decidedly not where you want to be.
However, I thought I’d have a look at whether we could have moved the ball, and subsequently the opposition pack, around a bit more in order to expand our attacking threat.
More often than not over the last 18 months some of Wales’ best attacking moments with ball in hand have come on the back of a well-functioning kicking game, as we capitalise on go-forward possession and a scrambling defence.
In both of the above examples though we fail to properly do that, either kicking the ball away or getting it out wide slowly, when a line break and even a scoring opportunity are available.
Looking at the first clip, Wales just don’t get set quickly enough, as the forwards bunch into one big carrying pod in the first phase after the kick before the option is taken to kick possession again in the second phase. Had the forwards organised into two separate pods, the numbers were there to exploit South Africa out wide.
The second clip sees the forward pod begin to form but it’s all too static. A bit of cutting edge could see the pod form quickly and the pull-back pass executed properly to give Hadleigh Parkes time to move the ball through the winds and take advantage of the overlap, but as it is the long pass takes any sting out of the move.
The other area Wales have had attacking joy over the last 18 months has been off first phase strike plays, however against South Africa we effectively gave ourselves no chance.
I understand the desire to just secure possession on our own throw, especially against a Springbok side with the number of jumping weapons as they currently possess, but the quality of our ball was so poor.
Going to the front and launching long passes to the first receiver allowed the back of the South African lineout to join the defensive line in midfield, and as a result the 10/12/13 combo could run hard straight into the heart of our attack, rather than watching their inside shoulder.
Even when we did have a positive attacking outlook we failed to properly take advantage, either too hesitant or simply taking the wrong option.
In the first clip it’s the poor organisation of the forwards outside Dan Biggar that once again costs us a promising attacking position. If they are organised coming off his shoulder for a flat pass there is a chance to carry against a defender one-on-one. Instead the wrong option is taken and the ball is thrown long to two outnumbered attackers out wide.
Then the second clip is a fine example of a team unable to play with freedom. Between them Biggar and Gareth Davies manage to completely botch a strong attacking picture with a lack of communication. The pictures speak for themselves to an extent.
The annoying thing is that there were moments when the attack functioned superbly, and we worked our way to the edge of the South African defence well through a combination of quick ball and creating depth in our own attacking shape.
Ken Owen’s carrying angle in the first clip is the key, as he targets weakened inside shoulders, and South Africa fail to get any defenders around the corner to compensate for those who have been turned inside. As a result the quick ball allows us to work to the outside and although the pass creeps forward the intent is there.
The second clip is an even better piece of attacking innovation as we work the depth ourselves by bringing Jon Davies on a short line before sliding Dan Biggar out wide, narrowing the Springboks before bringing George North off the blindside and sending him and Josh Adams free down the left wing.
When it came to discussions on social media about the attack after the game though, the biggest gripe was the quality of our pick-and-go game.
Now usually the pick-and-go aim is two-fold. Firstly, it is possible to inch forward and eventually cross the try line when camped in the red zone, but secondly and most commonly associated with the tactic, it draws the opposition defence in before the ball can be spun wide.
However, Wales weren’t keen on either of those outcomes against South Africa it appeared. I say that because, as we see in the first clip, there was no organisation to proceedings. Tomos Williams starts at nine and tries to get a carrying pod in order before Justin Tipuric appears to take over and the whole phase becomes dreadfully slow.
The second clip just underlines how slowly we attacked around the fringes, as well as the amount of players we ended up committing to each breakdown. A seven second clip during which we don’t get particularly close to getting the next phase started.
In the same attacking set we do start to move the ball a bit quicker though. In the first example Ross Moriarty is quick to pick-and-go from the base of a ruck and had he been able to keep his feet stood a good chance of driving close to the try line as the South African defence was slow to organise at the fringes.
Then the second example sees us move at a similarly high tempo between phases, and in their haste to prevent that the Springboks end up conceding a penalty. This is what I believe was Wales’ aim, it just took a long time to realise that speed was the way to achieve it.
I wrote back at the start of the summer that if and when Wales get knocked out of the Rugby World Cup it will likely have been the attack that lets us down, and so it has proved as we just could not get forward effectively against South Africa.
Even with the enforced change of attack coach on the eve of the tournament, with Stephen Jones known for his more expansive philosophy, we weren’t able to create enough try scoring opportunities to earn a spot in the Final.
Going forward there is hope that will change as Wayne Pivac comes in above Jones and will likely start to re-work our attacking focus as a whole, incorporating some personnel changes on the field in the process.
For now though it wasn’t meant to be.