I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life comparing every future Wales head coach with Warren Gatland, and I don’t even think he was the messiah that some make him out to be, but there was some areas of the team’s play under him that was so impressive.
One of those was the kicking game and in particular the kick chase which would often turn defensive exits into counter attacking opportunities due to the ferocity of the chase putting pressure on the receiving player and forcing handling errors or effecting turnovers. In the blink of an eye a box kick in Wales’ own 22 was turned into a lineout in the opposition 22.
Whether this was Gatland himself, or whether Shaun Edwards dealt with transition, it’s not known, but it was a weapon that Wales were able to use repeatedly to great effect, and is an area of the game that we have struggled with over the Autumn and into last weekend’s win over Ireland.
The issue, as far as I can see, stems from how Wales are setting up to box kick clear. The use of the forwards in creating the platform to do that and who is left on their feet to then go chasing.
So the option to set up the exit kick sees Taulupe Faletau go into contact, but with Josh Navidi following him into the breakdown to secure the ball, while Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Beard also staff the ruck in order to form the contentious caterpillar.
Meanwhile Ken Owens and Wyn Jones are left on their feet as Tomos Williams goes to kick clear, leading to this kick chase…
The kick doesn’t quite reach the halfway line, but the front row forwards at the heart of the kick chase are of course unable to get up with Louis Rees-Zammit and Justin Tipuric who led the chase, leading to the formation of a dog-leg in the defence which James Lowe can carry into.
That means the likes of Tipuric have to circle back around to compete at the breakdown or get into the defensive line, while Ireland are able to play quicker from the front foot before Wales are properly set, giving them an organisational advantage to go with their positional advantage.
At crucial times of the game when Ireland are down to 14 men, particularly in the last 20 minutes of the first half, the inability to clear our lines and allow the away side to return to our territory time after time just ramped up the pressure and ended up seeing Wales go in behind at the break, and potentially finish behind at full-time. That hasn’t been an isolated incident over the last few months either…
In this example we see Aaron Wainwright and Justin Tipuric go into the contact as the ball carrier and the latch, with Cory Hill forming part of the caterpillar, leaving Ryan Elias and Dillon Lewis at the heart of the kick chase. The chase has that dog-leg again and France can set up in the Wales half with front foot ball.
Even with a mobile prop like Lewis it would be much more beneficial to the men in red if Elias and Lewis were staffing the breakdown rather than Tipuric and Hill, leaving them on their feet to chase with Josh Adams and Taulupe Faletau, putting pressure on France and maybe having a go at the ball on the floor.
There’s also an issue with overstaffing the breakdown and kicking before a kick chase is even in place, let alone with the wrong people on their feet.
With just Justin Tipuric and Liam Williams getting after the box kick it’s a fairly simple claim for James Lowe who can then break a tackle and steal five metres for Ireland. They then have a much better platform to play from just inside the Wales half.
The other thing to note from that final clip from the Ireland game in the Autumn though, as well as how poor the Welsh kick chase is, is how many Irish players are back protecting their receiving team-mate as he claims the ball. This is something that Wales need to improve on considerably.
Now, if we’re being technical then yes there is an element of obstruction to this, but rugby union is, to a degree, about seeing who can bend the rules the most to get an advantage, and being clever in your running lines in this situation can be an enormous benefit.
If, in this situation, George North and Taulupe Faletau work to close the gap between them then it’s less likely that Keith Earls is able to properly challenge Leigh Halfpenny giving the Wales full-back the chance to secure possession comfortably.
Too many times over the last few months we have seen Welsh players unable to cleanly claim the ball out of the sky, inviting pressure on ourselves and leaving us unable to play with the transition ball that Wayne Pivac’s sides enjoy so much.
Looking at the second clip in particular and Liam Williams chooses to go beyond Leigh Halfpenny and cover the back field should the ball bounce down, but it just allows who I believe is Chris Farrell in the Ireland midfield the chance to go up and compete.
If Williams tucks in with Jon Davies it protects Halfpenny and gives him a much better chance of winning the ball in the air, with Dan Biggar then coming across to cover the back field should the worst happen and the ball bounces free.
That perhaps stems from the mindset of where the team is currently, immediately thinking the worst than trying to play positively, and maybe points to a lack of edge about this team. An area where we might have pushed the rules during the Gatland era is now an area where we play safe and try to contain the opposition rather than impose our will on a game.
Unfortunately it’s often the case that the hardest and nastiest teams tend to win in rugby union at the moment, the team that is prepared to test the refereeing and see what they can get away with. This needn’t necessarily be the aim for Wales as such, but certainly being tougher to play against should be.