Over the first two games of the Autumn campaign, it’s fair to say that Wales have played some of the worst rugby we’ve seen over the last 15 years.
Yes it’s still early in the era of Wayne Pivac, and the coronavirus has prevented him having the full Six Nations together with his squad and caused the cancellation of the summer tour, but an international side should not look as poorly coached as Wales have against France and Scotland.
Defensively it’s been poor, and Byron Hayward has paid the price for that, but it doesn’t take attention away from the Pivac and Stephen Jones organised attack that has failed to fire over the last two weeks, and struggled against Ireland, France and Scotland back in February and March.
WalesOnline’s Ben James has already put together a good piece on the issue of the attacking breakdown against Scotland, looking at the poor ruck cleans and how the disorganised implementation of the forward structure has led to numerous turnovers and a misfiring attack that has struggled to manufacture many line breaks with tries mostly coming from strike plays or close range pick-and-gos, all of which was also evident against France.
The stats are all in Ben’s piece, but cleaning rucks like that is simply not good enough at the international level. It’s not a problem for Wales players at club level, so the question has to be asked what Jonathan Humphreys is doing in training to regress their skill levels to such an extent?
Beyond that there has been an issue with the forward structure, as Ben covers. In the clip above against France, Wales end up with Nick Tompkins, Dillon Lewis and Cory Hill stuck in no-man’s land either rushing to get into position, or in the case of Lewis he’s almost dropped into the pocket Jonny Wilkinson style.
What Pivac and Jones are trying to introduce is a formation of 3-2-2-1, or a variation of those numbers depending where the ball is on the field. It should look like this;
Some of the problems start with the use of that first carrying pod, the three-man pod, and the image above is actually an illustration of this with Rhys Patchell standing between man one and man two in that pod, creating separation.
The idea is presumably to ask a question of the breakdown defence of the opposition, almost like a decoy runner between nine and ten for Wales, or perhaps to open up an inside option for the fly-half, but the shape of this three-man pod too often doesn’t ask any questions of that defence and simply results in support for the ball carrier being slow to arrive if that three-man pod are asked to take the ball up.
In this instance Scotland get over the ball easily as the third man of Wales is too far away from the contact area, and what should be a simple two second ruck becomes a five second ruck. Scotland get set in defence and Wales have no speed to their attack. Back to step one.
The big problems lie outside that three-man pod though, as on the whole Wales have used that first up carry to give ourselves a decent base to play from, getting over the gain line and offering some fast and front-foot ball to use.
This next clip comes from the last quarter of the France game, and although there’s a good enough starter play as the three-man pod serves up some quick ball, the loose shape of the smaller carrying pods in midfield end up getting in the way of the backs.
Rhys Patchell dissects the first pod, as we looked at above with the ball being taken by the fly-half outside a forward from the three-man pod, rendering Seb Davies useless in the attack, and then Sam Parry’s decoy line takes him straight into the space which Jon Davies is looking to attack as Baptiste Serin (21) steps out of the defensive line.
A solution for Wales could be to tighten up the forwards structure into a simpler 1-3-3-1. This would but a dampener on the Pivac and Jones intention to see the attacking game widen and become more dynamic, but after 12 years of Warren Gatland’s direct style of play it may well need to be a case of walk before you can run.
There are ways of inserting some more creative aspects to the attacking game within that, but it may allow the backs some more space outside of a forward structure that can hold the opposition defence narrower than the current situation we have where they can simply drift and cut down space.
With Dan Biggar moving between the two-man pod in midfield again, Gael Fickou in the silver boots on the outside has the easiest defensive read in international rugby to simply open his shoulders up and drift to towards the touchline, ready to assist with a tackle on Nick Tompkins if he carries into contact or, as it turns out, put the tackle in on Justin Tipuric when the ball is passed.
Move Tipuric inside to form a second three-man pod in midfield and Fickou has to stay narrow, or alternatively there’s a huge gap for the flanker to break through if Biggar can spot the opportunity. If Fickou does turn in then Tompkins can get the ball quickly out to Faletau and him and the ever dangerous Josh Adams have a two-on-one opportunity.
The question for Pivac and Jones is whether they revert to a simpler way of attacking, especially with Ireland and England to face over the next few weeks, or if persevering with the new shape is worth a few more weeks of tough results and under-par performances, as there are signs the new shape can be successful with more time on the training paddock and in games.
The three-man pod gives Wales a good starter play and as the ball is moved out to the right, if the pass from Owen Watkin to Josh Adams is a touch cleaner then the winger has the opportunity to set up a two-on-one for Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams outside him.
Jon Davies on his inside shoulder and Taulupe Faletau outside him can hold the defence narrow, but unfortunately the ball juggle just gives the defence time to step up and prevent play getting to the edge.
We could well be in for a few more weeks of pain as Wales supporters, and the jury is still very much out on whether the coaches and players can grow into this attacking game at international level. Even if it is possible the pressure increasing from loss-to-loss will make that task all the more difficult.