It’s fair to say that the first four games of Wales’ Six Nations 2020 campaign didn’t exactly go to plan, with Wayne Pivac’s era getting off to an inauspicious start.
A win over a properly lacklustre Italian side was followed by a disappointing defeat away to Ireland and then narrow losses at home to France and away at England, with the interesting stat being the amount of points conceded against those three teams.
24-14 at the Aviva Stadium, 23-27 at the Principality Stadium and 33-30 at Twickenham total up to conceding an average of 28 points across the three games.
Now, I’m reticent to spend every minute of the next few years comparing Wayne Pivac and his coaching staff to their predecessors of Warren Gatland and co. but when Brad Hayward comes in and oversees a defence that concedes more total points against Ireland, France and England in 2020 than a Shaun Edwards defence did in any of his 12 Six Nations campaigns.
Only four times in those 12 years did Wales conceded an average of more than 20 points across those three games, with the average across his spell as a whole being just 17.7 points. In 2019 it was down at 13 points.
Now it’s fair to say that Wales were lacking key players defensively, with the back row going through an injury crisis to leave the squad without a lead jackal option (although options were available in the form of Thomas Young, Dan Thomas, Taine Basham and Sam Lewis), while Hadleigh Parkes and Jon Davies were injured leaving Pivac needing to form a new centre partnership.
However, there’s some basic systems that need to be put in place defensively that should survive an injury crisis or a changing of the guard, which we didn’t always see back in February and March, starting with the work rate required to get defenders on their feet, around the corner at breakdowns and set for the next phase.
Looking at Andrew Conway’s try that basically confirmed Ireland’s win over Wales in February, it starts with an Irish scrum on the left wing and five phases to the right later, Conway is free on the right wing to run in and score.
The still I’ve taken is at the start of the fourth phase, and while Ireland have worked hard around the corner, particularly in their forwards to get a carrying pod ready to go one-out again as they play off the scrum-half, Wales are bogged down with just three defenders going up against five attackers who eventually get that good, front-foot ball and move quickly to score.
To the left of the breakdown there are four Wales defenders in a five metre gap, with a further two more outside them, going up against three Irish attacker, only one of which is actually ready for possession. The others are getting off the floor and around the corner to either hit the next breakdown or act as a decoy the phase after next.
That inability to get set on the defensive line throughout the February and March window led directly to Wales’ biggest problem; being way too narrow.
With defenders one and two, Aaron Wainwright and Dillon Lewis, only getting around the corner as the ball is whipped away from the breakdown, the three defenders outside them have to stay narrow in order not to leave their inside shoulders exposed.
As a result all five Welsh defenders get off the line in the same space as just three Irish attackers, and although a drift means George North and Nick Tompkins can hold the fourth attacker, Ireland still work to the edge relatively easily and release Jacob Stockdale down field.
Wales can contain those attacks, especially with one of the best defensive full-backs in the world in Leigh Halfpenny wearing 15, but continually having to scramble and be stretched takes it’s toll and eventually a mistake will be made or a gap will naturally open up when being caught narrow time-and-time again.
Looking at the stats from the three games, Ireland made 11 line breaks with 10 coming from the outside centre or back three, France made 7 line breaks with 4 coming from those positions and England made 10 line breaks with 4 coming from the same positions.
Another key area is Wales getting over the ball at the breakdown, which was lacking from the defensive game entirely at points. A failure to slow the speed of ball down, as well as making no more than two turnovers on the floor per game, leads to a lack of ability to get set defensively and eventually a narrowing of the line.
When you then add in a worrying trend of midfield defenders spot blitzing, and not even doing that properly, you end up with such a disjointed defensive look that attacking sides can pick apart in a number of ways.
With Hadleigh Parkes flying out of the line here he gets stuck in no man’s land, not close enough to the ball carrier to put pressure on and too far out of the line to stop him taking advantage of the gap left behind. In the end it’s an easily worked line break.
The conundrum that particularly the inside player faces is that if he chooses to try and chase the spot blitzer he ends up running straight at the ball carrier at speed and is liable to either be shrugged off or stepped, or if he sits on his heels, as Nick Tompkins does, then he’s struggling to make up any ground if the ball carrier goes for one of the gaps.
A number of times back in February and March we saw these half-arse spot blitzes cause problems, and while not all led to line breaks, they did see the opposition get comfortably over the gain line which in turn set up the scenarios above where Wales did not get around the corner quick enough and end up looking very narrow.
There would have been plenty for Brad Hayward to digest over the last seven or so months, and there’s no doubt he’s a good enough coach to make the necessary changes to improve this Autumn.
The next two months will provide some serious tests, starting with a trip to Paris to avenge France this weekend, but after two good weeks of preparation you’d expect to see some significant strides forward in this area of the game to ensure Wales have a successful window.
There are concerns though, with no jackal option if Josh Navidi is injured and James Davies unlikely to be selected in many matchday 23s, while the inside centre position will likely be filled by an inexperienced player. Settling down into an effective system quickly that the players buy into will be the key.