Wales’ defeat at the hands of South Africa last weekend was obviously a disappointing one, with the men in red very much in the game until the final 10 minutes or so.
Despite the quality and experience of the players missing, the fact that the Springboks are reigning world champions, and the weather conditions playing into the hands of the much more physical away side on the day, Wayne Pivac’s team ran a solid lineout, retained possession well in attack and had Dan Biggar on song off the kicking tee.
In the end that lack of experience and international quality off the bench, and the sheer power of South Africa, saw them run out victors, but Wales still enjoyed a fantastic defensive performance, and I think much of that stemmed from running with the dual openside flanker threat of Ellis Jenkins and Taine Basham.
Generally, throughout his time as Wales head coach thus far, Pivac has opted to largely ignore the jackal aspect of defence, preferring instead to utilise the attack threat of Justin Tipuric at openside with a more physical option at blindside flanker. On the whole that has been either Ross Moriarty or Shane Lewis-Hughes, but even when Josh Navidi has been fit and selected he’s clearly been asked to focus on tackling over turnovers.
What we saw on Saturday though was Jenkins and Basham team up to pose a constant threat to South Africa’s breakdown and be a key part of the initial part of the defensive line, dove-tailing beautifully despite it being their first time playing with each other as far as I’m aware.
Despite this attacking set beginning with some scramble defence after a South Africa line break, Jenkins and Basham are straight back into the defensive line and setting up covering the guard area and into the midfield.
With Basham making the first tackle, Jenkins steps up in the second phase, by which time Basham has reloaded to scrag Kwagga Smith as he threatens another clean break. All-in-all they made 20 tackles between them on Saturday as they played a key part in that aspect of the defence.
It was beyond that though where the flankers made their biggest impact, being a permanent pest around the breakdown slowing the Springboks down and ultimately leading to a number of crucial turnovers.
With Jenkins tied up in the maul defence, Basham steps into the guard area on phase one and gets over the ball to slow them down, allowing his back row partner to fold around into the openside and get into position for phase two.
The natural jackal brain in Jenkins sees no opportunity to impact the next breakdown so stays on his feet and is subsequently on hand to pounce on the loose ball after the blocked kick through, with Basham finishing ready to defend the openside on the next phase, although the referee calls it back for a penalty advantage.
That rotation between the two players was a key factor in these lengthy defensive sets in our own 22, as they continued to set the tone for the rest of the team.
This is probably the perfect example of Jenkins and Basham working in tandem to lead the defence and eventually win the turnover as they go from a set piece with Jenkins involved, to Basham scanning the first breakdown and staying on his feet in order to position themselves perfectly for phase two.
From there it’s the pincer in action as Basham makes the tackle and gets over the ball on phase two before Jenkins folds around the corner and wins the turnover on phase three.
A set piece and three tackle areas with both players involved, ending with them winning a turnover to relieve some serious pressure coming on from the Springboks. Crucially, as Jenkins is jackaling he is supported by Basham, and that’s the final beauty of their partnership where they are far enough apart to cover serious ground, but close enough to each other to work as a duo.
Quite how this wasn’t rewarded I don’t know but with this sort of picture being presented to the referees on a regular basis it’ll end up in a penalty more often than not, as hopefully this partnership, or at least this style of selection, is built on.
When Pivac was in charge of the Scarlets during their successful period a few years back a staple part of their game plan was winning turnover ball and looking dangerous in the unstructured passage of play that followed. Similarly the still new Wales defence coach Gethin Jenkins had a majorly successful career as being a ferocious defender from loosehead prop with the breakdown skills of an openside flanker.
At times during the early part of this Pivac era it has felt like he has been trying to adopt tactics and team selections that don’t fully reflect his and his coaching staff’s ethos, perhaps opting instead to retain too much of a nod to the pragmatic approach we saw under the previous regime.
With Jenkins and Basham on Saturday though we saw what a dangerous defence that Wales could have heading towards the next Rugby World Cup, and how it can turn defence into attack starting with penalty wins, and hopefully graduating into true turnover ball and the counter attacking opportunities that represents.
As Thomas Young joins the dual opensides to make it a triple threat against Fiji this weekend there’s a chance that this new selection style could be sticking around.