Saturday’s first test against Argentina was an interesting one from a Wales point-of-view with opinions varying quite considerably on whether a draw was a good result or not at full-time.
On one hand there’s certainly no shame in a 20-20 scoreline against what was effectively a full-strength Los Pumas side who beat New Zealand in Auckland just eight months ago and have some of the best players in the world among their ranks.
Wales, meanwhile, were of course without star names who have been selected for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, and even beyond that Wayne Pivac had put faith in some new faces when more experience was at hand with some combinations having only had the previous weekend’s relatively simple challenge of Canada to test themselves against.
That’s the way I would lean when looking at the game in a wider context, but when looking at the 80 minutes there were certainly opportunities for the home side to put more than 20 points on the board, even before Argentina went down to 14 men. What will make Saturday’s draw a better result is if improvement during this week results in a win in the second test.
The starting point of this improvement should be work at the attacking breakdown, where Wales were soundly out-played by the visitors throughout the contest, conceding 12 turnovers and not only allowing our opponents off the hook but putting ourselves regularly on the back foot.
Wales lost the ball on the floor eight times on Saturday as Argentina comfortably won the battle of the breakdown with a significant reason being the quality of our work at the attacking breakdown and the suitable staffing of them, with too often a desire to run support lines to tackled players rather than assist with the contact area.
That’s not necessarily a negative aspect of the performance, but it becomes so when we only produce four offloads during the 80 minutes, and two come in the same phase. If the defence can discount the support runners because they know there is unlikely to be an offload coming they can focus on the breakdown, as we see in the second clip.
There’s a knock-on effect of our disappointing attacking breakdown work which is that when we do hold on to possession it is creating scrappy ball and giving Argentina the opportunity to get off the line and close the space on our attack before we’ve even got the ball into the hands of the danger men.
While there are technique issues with a small structure/tactical problem there for Wales, where we can seriously help ourselves is looking to adapt our pre-called plays to suit the pace and fitness of our selected team better.
That isn’t to say that the players are slow or unfit, but with many of the usual squad on tour with the Lions or injured, including the likes of Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau who proved so integral to the Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones style of play during the latter part of the Autumn and into the Six Nations, there are a number in the current 23 who have little-to-no recent international action under their belt.
Without those regular spells with the national team their conditioning isn’t quite up to the speed that Pivac and Jones want to play at when in possession, and especially against a full-strength Argentina we too often come off second best during pre-called plays that rely on the forwards to play an active role with ball-in-hand.
The call here sees Jon Davies and Willis Halaholo come short, and Callum Sheedy offer the pull-back option from Kieran Hardy, with Davies taking on the carry. The idea from that should see the defence pulled narrow with both centres taken into the 12 channel and then space opening up for the forwards to carry into on second phase.
Of course with Davies and Halaholo both in the contact area it has to be forwards folding from the initial set piece who make that carry, but being just short of that pace and fitness sees Will Rowlands, Ben Carter and Leon Brown struggling to get into position to capitalise on the space created as three Argentinian defenders beat them there.
What transpires is another too slow fold on phase three which results in Hardy taking the ball into contact, so that he’s slow to the breakdown at the each of phase four. Sheedy begins to step in as scrum-half but then ends up in no-man’s land and the Argentinian defence soak up the carry from Hallam Amos who loses the ball in contact.
This isn’t a criticism of individual players, more the tactics the coaches sent them out with under the apparent impression that this squad could simply pick-up the baton of the usual squad, but credit where it’s due there was a noticeable change in tactic at half-time to simplify the pre-called plays.
It allowed the forwards to concentrate on ball security and the backs to stay out of the contact area and get their hands on the ball in dangerous areas, as Wales got Jonah Holmes and Owen Lane on the ball an accumulative 13 times in the second half, rather than an accumulative three times in the first period.
While there was a sense that the introduction of Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans changed the game, the tactical tweak was in evidence with Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy still on the field.
With Jon Davies carrying off the shoulder of Sheedy into contact, and James Botham and Josh Turnbull racing for the breakdown rather than having to fold around the breakdown for the second phase, there’s a much better base to launch phase two from.
Starting in the centre of the field, allowing Hardy to take the attack either way, the Argentina defence can’t properly number up. Sending two forwards straight to the breakdown creates quick ball and with Willis Halaholo staying out of contact and Jonah Holmes creating an extra man off his right wing, a three-on-two overlap is created and suddenly Wales have gone from a lineout on halfway to attacking in the opposition 22.
What Williams and Evans did when they came off the bench was, particularly through Evans’ slightly wider and flatter positioning at first receiver, get more out of this tactic and put us in some really dangerous attacking shapes.
Even though Davies is held up slightly in contact which slows the speed of ball down and allows Argentinian defenders to fold around the breakdown and prevent any obvious overlap forming, by sliding out to face down the opposition outside centre, Evans can manufacture a two-on-one which sees Jonah Holmes make metres towards the red zone.
Looking at the position Wales are in where Evans gets his hands on the ball it’s not difficult to imagine him with a bit more confidence at international level, which can be generated from starting this weekend’s second test, stepping back inside the outside centre and making a break himself or getting his hands through any contact to get an offload away.
Although I still believe a draw is a good result for this Wales squad against a full strength Argentina, there is a sense of opportunity missed thanks to our first half attack last weekend.
If we go with the second half tactical approach from last weekend from the start on Saturday then there’s a great chance to achieve something. Giving Tomos and Jarrod the ability to increase the speed of the attack as they see fit, rather than play at one hundred miles an hour from the get-go is an approach that could well produce some very exciting results.