The February/March international window is over for another year, and as the domestic season swings back into action for the run-in, it’s time to have a quick look back at how Cardiff’s players got on representing their countries around the World.
It’s fair to say that the Cardiff contingent in the Welsh Six Nations squad wasn’t particularly sizeable, with only Kris Dacey, Scott Andrews, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert being called up the squad.
This wasn’t particularly surprising given the poor form suffered by Cardiff in the previous few weeks, and injuries suffered by the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Ellis Jenkins, Gareth Anscombe and Tom James. Perhaps the only surprise omission was Rhys Gill, who had been excellent in the absence of Gethin.
There wasn’t any further surprises in the fact that only Sam Warburton had any real exposure to match action throughout the course of the tournament, playing every minute of every match, with only Alex Cuthbert joining him for the 80 minutes against England.
Unfortunately Cuthbert was the victim of that week’s witch hunt from the Team Wales super fans, blamed for England’s match winning try despite being left stranded by a poor Jon Davies kick, and he was subsequently discarded for the rest of the tournament. That was good news for Cardiff though as we benefitted from two excellent performances against Treviso and Edinburgh.
Sam Warburton on the other hand had a superb tournament. Out of position at blindside flanker he still topped the turnover charts for Wales with seven, was top tackler in two games and came to be a reliable lineout jumper as he won universal plaudits for his revitalised captaincy free performances.
Add to this the fact that he returns to Cardiff injury free, and it’s good news all round!
There was excellent Cardiff Blues representation throughout this season’s U20 Six Nations, with twelve players named in the initial squad, as well as two further players who would link up once Wales 7s commitments were finished.
All fourteen players got game time throughout the five games, with Ben Jones and Rhys Carre starting every match, while Dane Blacker, Corrie Tarrant, Kieron Assiratti and Aled Ward all featured in each game.
Cameron Lewis and Rhun Williams missed just one game, Jim Botham and Owen Lane were restricted by Wales 7s while Shane Lewis-Hughes, Callum Bradbury and Morgan Sieniawski were hindered by injuries, while Tom Mably made a solitary appearance off the bench but did feature for Cardiff A in the meantime.
Accumulatively there was 109 points scored by Cardiff players for the U20s through the tournament, a fantastic amount as Jason Strange’s side, also coached by Richard Hodges, fought to a third placed finish. With at least eight of the fourteen players in their first year at this level the future really is bright.
Picking out a few players for a moment, the two props, Rhys Carre and Kieron Assiratti, were rock solid throughout the tournament and seem real prospects, while the half-back partnership of Dane Blacker and Ben Jones look incredibly exciting with ball in hand and seem to have a very good understanding between them.
The task now for Danny Wilson and his coaching staff is to ensure that these players continue on the right track with their development and are able to receive and make the most of first team opportunities. We won’t ever have the most money, but if we can produce stars then we can go some way to levelling the playing field.
The Americas Rugby Championship returned for another year while the Six Nations was on, and Cardiff’s American contingent were out representing the stars and stripes as the USA Eagles romped to victory.
Blaine Scully was released to play in the opening week where he captained America to a win against Uruguay in San Antonio before returning to Pro12 action.
With Scully returning, Cameron Dolan went the other way, scoring off the bench in a hammering of Brazil before starting in the big game against Canada. He went on to start and score in the final two games, a win over Chile and a draw against Argentina, which secured the trophy.
Overall an impressive month for Cardiff’s international representatives, and with an encouraging bill of health for the returning players, hopefully they can all bring something to our push towards the end of the season, whether that be in a match environment or on the training field.
The Six Nations came to a damp squib of a conclusion for Wales in Paris on Saturday as they went down 20-18 to France and end up with a fifth place finish, confirming them as the worst team in the tournament except for wooden spoon regulars Italy.
It’s certainly been a disappointing campaign overall, with the Ireland win a solo high point. Fleeting glimpses of promise were counteracted with prolonged periods of mediocrity, that often slipped into downright dreadful play at time. One constant though has been the refusal of the Welsh coaches to change anything to do with the team.
When looking at the France game there is one big sore thumb sticking out to be analysed, but the last 20 minutes of the game is something that shouldn’t be re-visited in a hurry. Only because it became comical did it not reduce to me to tears such was the shambolic nature of the game ending.
Did Atonio require a head injury assessment? Could Wayne Barnes have handled the whole period better? Important questions for the right people to answer, but for me it didn’t make a huge difference to the game. That may seem odd to say when it decided the result, but Wales were so dreadful that the chaotic 20 minutes helped take away from their performance, if anything.
For this final analysis piece I am actually beginning a new career as a ghost writer. This is my first book being written for a certain Welsh coach, so enjoy a world exclusive of ‘How not to attack in rugby’ by Robert Howley.
First Phase Failures
Let’s be fair from the start, Wales’ attacking this Six Nations has been pretty consistent in it’s ability to be utterly woeful. Creativity, versatility and dynamism have been almost completely lacking, meaning that tries from open back play have been non-existent.
However, there has been one saviour, to an extent, as from first phase ball the attack has at times looked almost dangerous. George North and Liam Williams have both benefited from the ball being shifted wide quickly and early, through the midfield and to the danger men, but that tactic went walkabout on Saturday.
First phase ball was actually hard to come by in France as the set piece mis-fired somewhat, while Rhys Webb may have spent the week reading his own press as he took the ball on too often, but when the first receiver did get hands on the ball things did not go to plan.
Twice, including the first time Wales claimed any sort of serious possession, Scott Williams came in at stand-off to tee up a runner outside him in a pretty well telegraphed manner. Particularly in the first clip there was never any danger of Dan Biggar taking the ball as he showed a lack of commitment in the dummy run.
The issue is that the distance the ball travels to get to the inside centre, before being shipped onto the player outside him, means that rucking support is a good 10 metres off the ball carrier, allowing France to get over the ball and either turn it over, as goes on to happen in clip one, or so the ball down dramatically in clip two.
Occasionally there was a bit of variation, but the issue is that the players are so drilled in specific attacking patterns they are simply unable to play what is in front of them. This move worked superbly against England, but George North runs straight into a blue brick wall against France.
If he gets a shout or gets his head up he’d notice Dan Biggar on the wrap around creating an initial 4-on-2 outside him, but unfortunately the ball is up the jumper and power mode is activated. The distance between the ball carrier and the support is underlined again as North is held up and the ball turned over.
Further mixing up of the game is also ineffective as the telegraphed nature of the move does not allow for any ground to be made, the kick execution is poor and a desperate offload give up possession. Overall a bad day for Wales’ first phase attacking play.
A Deeper Shade of Poorly Attacking Red
So the first phase attacking was misfiring big time, therefore the only chance to score tries would be from further phase play. But, I mean Wales, scoring tries from open play? I know, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and playing the way they are it feels like it may never happen.
Before I start I’d like to say, as I have throughout these analysis pieces, I am cautious to blame the players for these shortcomings. It feels like they have been so brainwashed by the stale coaching setup that they are drilled to play this one-dimensional way and not what’s in front of them.
We see week-in, week-out that, particularly the backs, are very good players at their clubs. When they come to the international setup though, they are so predictable and robotic in their attacking play it’s hard to recognise them from the domestic scene. It also takes a while for them to settle back in to their normal play when away from Team Wales, just ask Lloyd Williams.
Here’s something that happened far too often on Saturday. The circled area is the breakdown where this phase started, with the ball going through just Dan Biggar’s hands to the point where Sam Warburton takes the ball. A loss of almost 15 metres from start to this point.
This offensive setup suffocates those out wide. You can see Liam Williams at the bottom of the screen actually ahead of Warburton, how is he meant to run onto the ball at speed? When he does eventually get the pass he has so little space because the distance the ball has travelled sideways and backwards means France can just close the space as a line.
Actually quite a good attacking setup in this clip, but it’s all happening too far from the gain line. Ross Moriarty’s dummy run is a good one, but the back line being subsequently so deep it means that even if the defender ahead of Moriarty can buy his run, and still be able to recover to drift across and nullify what should be a 4-on-2 situation.
There has been a lot of criticism, from myself included, that Dan Biggar does not stand near flat enough when at first receiver, but in both of these stills he’s actually in a very positive attacking position, close enough to the line to ask questions of the inside defenders.
However, the players outside him have not followed, creating a big gap between 10 and 12. This then filters down the line and even though there’s an overlap on both occasions, all it takes for France to stop the move is to have a solo blitzer fill the big space between midfield and the wing. This leaves Biggar with a decision to throw the miracle pass or take the ball into contact, either way having more cons than pros.
When Wales do finally manufacture an obvious overlap, they manage to waste it again to due to how deep the attacking line is. Biggar makes the pass that should release the outside players, but he’s already 10 metres behind the gain line and the five players in space are stood next to each other, with little chance to run onto the ball.
The speed of the attack is subsequently slowed massively and France can get two defenders across to cover. Wales still manage to make a bit of ground, but it’s a clear line break opportunity missed out on. Pretty clear why there was only two line breaks in the game from the visitors.
In the end the attacking line is so deep that when they are outnumbered by the defensive line it can blitz and catch the ball carrier deep behind the defensive line. Losing that ground is a general demoraliser, means the attack has to be built again, and makes ball retention difficult as the defensive side have the forward momentum at the breakdown and your support is a distance away.
A general example of why the attacking line did not function, to finish off. The first still has a large gap outside the initial defence, and with dummy runners offering themselves there is ample opportunity to move the ball outside those defenders at pace to hit the wider channels where the outside backs are waiting.
However the positions of the backs mean that the ball has to travel a long way between players and a distance backwards, rather than laterally, so that when Jon Davies receives the ball he is 10 metres behind the gain line and the gap that was identified has been closed up by the drifting French defenders.
Wales should have been far more effective than they were against this France sides, especially with the players they possess, but the attacking threat has literally been coached out of them. There is so much to worry about on the back of this tournament. Firstly, the fact that the coaching setup is in place until after the next World Cup.
Secondly, that none of the exciting attacking minded youngsters have been utilised throughout this tournament or appear to be offered the opportunity to impress is concerning. Finally, the fact that Rob Howley will be the Lions attack coach is petrifying. How on Earth are they going to function against New Zealand when attacking in such a predictable, one-dimensional fashion? Pray for them.
Overall it’s a Six Nations to forget for Wales. The only slight hope is that with the majority of the regular coaches away over the Summer, the Wales team taken to play Samoa and Tonga will contain the likes of Sam Davies, Owen Williams, Keelan Giles and Steff Evans. Players will real attacking prowess, and we may even see some exciting rugby played. I so hope we do.
The Friday night kick-off is not universally liked within the Welsh rugby public, however there were few complaints from fans leaving the Millennium Stadium as they headed off into Cardiff following a resounding 22-9 win for Wales over Ireland.
Although the win did not make up for the disappointments of losses against Scotland and England, it certainly averted a potential disaster for Robert Howley, his coaching staff and players as they regained some of the lost pride, while also bringing a timely boost to Wales’ world rankings ahead of the World Cup pools draw later in the year.
It’s important not to get carried away after Friday’s win, there are areas that still need to be worked on, and against a better side than Ireland on the night we may have struggled, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and there was certainly a job done on our Celtic neighbours.
In terms of analysis there’s been plenty written on the quality of the defence, which was excellently organised by Shaun Edwards and executed by the players, while the attacking game took baby steps towards the flat, fast and expansive style that fans and pundits alike have long been calling out for.
A pleasant change to my analysis this week, as there’s a positive feeling throughout and no having to defend the scapegoat of the week! Here’s a few things I noticed when watching the game back, thoughts welcome as always…
Set Piece is key
Wales’ scrum and lineout work on Friday night was of the highest order. After some concerns pre-game surrounding how they would fare against the Irish pack, the tight five really stepped up with their scrimmaging, slightly edging the battle despite giving up around 10kgs in weight to the opposition.
Rob Evans makes a mess of Tadhg Furlong here, and the loose five do an excellent job in turning the scrum around to the left so that Rhys Webb has got an easier pass out to the backs congregated on that side, and they don’t have to worry about any of the Irish back row breaking off early and helping their defence out on first phase ball which ends up with Wales in Ireland’s 22.
The Welsh pack turning the screw here means CJ Stander on the blindside has to keep his head down, and cannot look up to see Liam Williams streaking down the wing. With the scrum again turning to the left it takes number eight Jamie Heaslip out of the game and gives the winger a clean run at Keith Earls to make plenty of metres.
Couple the scrum with lineout superiority and there’s an excellent base to play from. Ken Owens was definitely in with a shout of making the Lions tour squad this summer, but Friday’s performance was so impressive that he’s likely nailed on for at least a spot in the test side should he stay fit.
The lineout calling was simple, but effective, from Alun Wyn Jones thanks to the execution by Owens. Tipuric was used a lot at the front to secure the ball, with the throwing matching the incredible speed that the flanker can get off the ground with.
Using that option a lot also meant that on this crucial defensive five metre lineout could go to the back and coming off the top quickly gives Ross Moriarty that slight advantage when carrying to setup the exit.
This was the best throw of the day, hitting Sam Warburton right at the top of his jump so the ball could be secured over the much taller Devin Toner, and the Irish competing for the ball meant they were sucked in to the dummy maul setup before the backs were unleashed for George North’s first try of the evening.
11 out of 11 lineouts won for Ken Owens, and in comparison to his opposite number and potential Lions rival, he was magnificent.
Ireland’s captain was 10 from 13 in his lineout throws, with both Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris stealing ball for Wales above, despite not jumping as high as their opponents in both cases. Set pieces such as these are crucial at the best of times in a Six Nations match, let alone in a Lions test, which leads me on to…
Big players make big plays
This for me was the biggest aspect of Friday’s win, certain players really stepping up to the plate, showing a desire to prove critics wrong and even going above and beyond what’s expected of them in their respective positions.
Nobody fits the bill of proving the doubters wrong than George North on Friday night. In his very first run he puts Rob Kearney flat on his backside, setting the tone for a performance signalling a return to his best. The reward was two tries, and you can see exactly what the first of those meant to him. A classic North finish from close range, carrying defenders over with him. Spot on!
He even secured a turnover in midfield! These tone setting moments can be huge for the team and they really seemed to benefit from a number of those early in the game, allowing them to quickly build confidence.
The first clip may seem inconsequential, but at a time when Ireland were trying to exert some pressure that Liam Williams clearout to secure the ball for Wales was massively welcome. It also takes the pressure off the forwards having to pile back and counter-ruck against a forward driving Ireland. Sure he got a few pats on the back for that one.
Clip two speaks for itself though. Effort, desire and aggression from Sam Warburton, and the start of the road to roughing up Johnny Sexton which, along with Conor Murray’s injury, really took the wind out of Ireland’s sails.
Murray picked up the knock while putting in a tackle on George North, which unfortunately denied us spectators a chance to see him take on Rhys Webb in a Lions showdown. Webb did himself no favours though, not just with his scrum-half play, which was excellent, but how he did stand up in defence and put the hits in successfully.
Two great tackles, on a charging Rob Kearney, and even more impressively a hit and drive sideways on Ireland captain and hooker Rory Best. When even the smallest member of your team is having a defensive stormer you know it’s going to be a good day for Shaun Edwards.
Webb also had to step up in terms of creativity, with Dan Biggar struggling in his new flat position at first receiver. His setting up of both North tries was superb, but this was by far my favourite play in the game.
Footballing skills that Jonny Wilkinson would be proud of as he puts the ball on a sixpence for Liam Williams, and as the attack goes on to cause Johnny Sexton to receive a yellow card, it was a crucial attacking moment. With Ireland down to 14, Wales went on to score 10 points and took a real hold of the game.
Although Dan Biggar wasn’t the main creator in the side as perhaps you’d expect a fly-half to be, it by no means meant he had a poor game overall. In fact he produced some of the key moments.
The defensive covering and return kick are world class. To take the team from tight on the touchline inside their own 22, to a lineout on Ireland’s 10 metre line is a massive psychological boost to the forwards and a real pressure reliever. I applauded that in my living room, immense.
Clip two I certainly didn’t applaud at the time, in fact I was looking for new underpants, but watching it back now I can appreciate the cool head and large testicles, as well as the awareness, required from Biggar to watch the ball over the line and save a five metre attacking lineout.
Big plays didn’t stop with the starting XV either, as the advantages of having Taulupe Faletau and Jamie Roberts on the bench were plain to see in a situation such as Friday night.
Great desire from Faletau to reach the tired Sexton’s kick, and then if there’s one man you want to power the ball in from 10 metres it Jamie Roberts. I may not agree with his continued inclusion on the bench, but there was no better man to lead the defence and a power based attack late in the game on Friday. Good on you Doc!
Hardest to the back of the row
Friday was not a massive amount about the team cohesion on show. A lot of good individual performances secured the win, as well as a solid defensive line, with the team sharing the common goal of win at all costs. However, in one specific area there was teamwork aplenty.
At the start of the tournament there was almost pitch battles over the Sam Warburton v Justin Tipuric debate. It was GM v Ford-esque. However, now we have peace in our time (where’s Roger when you need him?). There is universal agreement that Sam AND Tips is the way forward. They’re basically the new Ant and Dec.
The relationship has flourished since the Italian curtain raiser, and Friday was the evidence of that as really they should have won a joint man-of-the-match award.
Third minute of the game and it’s a welcoming committee for Ireland’s in form ball carrier CJ Stander who runs straight into the Wales wall of flankers. They pocketed the Munster man throughout the game, nullifying the big opposition threat and stopping them getting a forward platform.
After that they went to work at the breakdown. Some official stats I saw said no turnovers, but there was certainly very close attempts.
Warburton in clip two certainly makes a turnover but is thwarted by the referee playing an earlier advantage, while I don’t see why Tipuric in the first clip isn’t awarded a turnover.
Turnovers aren’t the be all and end all though, and on Friday the most important work didn’t come from whether any penalties were won or ball secured on the floor, but the slowing down of Ireland’s attack.
Five examples off good jackals that, although they don’t win the ball, slow Ireland’s recycling of the ball sufficiently to allow Wales’ defensive line to reform and be as effective as it was throughout the 80 minutes. It really was a superb performance by the two of them, and the whispers they both may start for the Lions in New Zealand certainly grew louder over the weekend, and why not?
Overall, definite positives to take forward from Friday, and if another performance like that can be churned out in Paris to round off the tournament then not all hope will be lost going forward.
In terms of team selection I wouldn’t particularly bother changing anything for the France game. Yes I’m still in favour of the likes of Sam Davies, Owen Williams and Steff Evans getting game time, but is there any point in throwing them in for one game at the Stade de France? Better off keeping them for the summer tour in my opinion.
Friday did get me somewhat excited in Team Wales and their Six Nations campaign, it was a terrific test match and at times the attacking game was almost entertaining from Howley’s men. This final weekend won’t be quite as easy watching, not because England stand a chance of winning the Grand Slam, but because we’ve come so far without a Warburton injury. Stay safe Sam!!
Well, what a disappointment that was two weeks ago! Wales’ Six Nations hopes crashed and burned in an abject second half performance. Despite a 9-13 half-time lead there were no points scored by Rob Howley’s men in the last 40 minutes and they were deservedly beaten.
There of course was a few reasons behind it, individual defensive errors and the big talking point was around a decision of whether to kick at goal or not at one point, but the big issue for me was a total and utter lack of any sort of effective attack.
It’s not something that’s happened overnight, despite Rob Howley’s insistence, it’s been coming for a while, and now that the players have been so indoctrinated in the Team Wales style of play they are completely telegraphed and far too predictable for opposition defences to figure out. Turn up against the Welsh with an outside blitzer and a strong midfield and you’ll be laughing all the way to a win.
Has there been any of the ‘evolution, which we were told was needed rather than revolution, that was promised? In my eyes, no. Far too often we see one-up runners, just trucking the ball up to little or no avail, and if the ball does go wide at all it gets quickly bogged down in the centres. Same old, same old.
The classic Akon song seems apt for the Wales attack at points, as Rob Howley and puppet attack coach Alex King seem to have never heard of the phrase ‘attacking pods’. Back play is effectively non-existent, with the only tactic seeming to be surrounding Scott Williams, and on occasion Jon Davies, running a direct line straight into their opposite numbers.
It’s fair to say that Jonathan Davies isn’t the biggest culprit of this, many believe he’s been one of few positives of the campaign thus far and he’s certainly looked our biggest danger in attack aside from Liam Williams. However, the game plan sucks him up on occasion and he goes alone here, Scotland wrap him up and soon, although Foxy has the power to get over the gainline, any hope of quick ball is lost.
You can see here Dan Biggar with his hands up ready for the ball here, and there’s a very tempting move with George North out the back door and Liam Williams on the far side, but no, we ignore the fly-half, the man supposedly running the game, go one-up runner and George North has to fight to free the ball. Quick ball lost, Scotland re-organise.
The very next phase Scotland can blitz, and it’s not hard to guess where to aim at, as the ball goes straight to Luke Charteris who knocks on. Not only is quick ball lost, now it’s possession.
For One Phase Only
What’s especially disappointing about the use of Scott Williams in the solo runner tactic is the amount of times we go to him from first phase ball off a set piece. Not even via Dan Biggar standing flat and having Scott run onto the ball, but with the inside centre at first receiver.
Twice we use this as shown above, and it happened on two more occasions where the ball was retained but with a long ruck time and little support for Williams. The pass is so long off the top of the lineout is blatantly obvious where the ball is going to go, and if the quality of said pass isn’t great, as per the first clip, it’s asking for serious trouble.
It’s massively frustrating to watch as, on the whole, that first phase from a lineout or scrum is the best attacking chance a team can have. Look at the opposition in this game, Scotland show exactly how dangerous it can be by getting consistently over the gainline and maintaining that quick ball. Do Wales have significantly less able players than the Scots? I’d argue no when they’re picked, and coached correctly.
STOP FORCING MIRACLES
I can’t even think of a witty sub-headline for this section, I’m still too annoyed at the never ending amount of unnecessary errors made by Welsh players when they did manage to make any sort of forward momentum or line break. Just take a look…
With the exception of the second clip, the offloads are not necessary, and even then it’s often the case in situations where a half-break occurs that going to ground and taking quick ball is better than trying to create a try scoring offload.
When you’ve come off the back of a disappointing performance against England, and you’re up against Scotland who you know are probably the most efficient attacking side in the tournament, to give possession up easily when the game plan should always have been to dominate territory and time with ball in hand is bizarre.
I think the most frustrating aspect to the whole situation is that when the backs play fast and simple rugby, they look quite good!
It’s not rocket science! These backs aren’t bad players, I’m convinced of that, but they are either too easily dictated by what Howley & co are passing on, or totally unable to read what’s in front of them.
Liam Williams is our best attacker without a doubt, Halfpenny still looks dangerous when he hits the line in a bit of space, and we saw what North can do against Italy. Move the ball through the midfield, let Scott and Foxy play like they do for Scarlets, and get the ball out wide in a bit of space.
Rugby isn’t a difficult game at it’s heart, and when you try and make it harder for yourselves at a time when confidence is low and other teams are playing better stuff than you, it’s suicidal.
The Irish Challenge
Against Ireland on Friday there’ll be two key things in attack, which sound contradictory, but I will explain.
A pacey yet simple attack will be key, but an ability to mix things up will be the clincher. I’m not talking about any complicated set piece moves or offensive patterns, I’m talking moving between someone taking the ball direct up the middle of the Irish defence, then on the next occasion it goes wide.
The telegraphed nature of the Welsh attack is it’s biggest downfall at the moment, and if it can be switched between directness, width and challenging the Irish back three under the high ball then it’s probably the only chance Wales have.
Personally, I’d like to have seen a few changes to the backline for the visit of Ireland, I’d have looked at a 10/12 combination of Sam Davies and Owen Williams, with one of Scott Williams and Jon Davies to sit out, while I definitely would have swapped Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams, with the possibility of Steff Evans starting on the wing.
We are where we are though, and Wales can win on Friday, however I’m not confident. Rob Howley is fast showing his incompetence and if we aren’t careful we will lose not just the game on Friday and the Six Nations, but a whole generation of international rugby players.
It’s almost become a joke now, the way Howley is running the ship, which is extremely sad, but I live in hope that something will click in someone’s head and the players will awaken to realise their full potential again. It really is the hope that kills you.
I’ve held off getting to grips with the 16-21 defeat that Wales suffered at the hands of England in the last round of the Six Nations for two reasons; firstly, I have only just been able to bring myself to watch it, and secondly, because it feels like the game was largely down to death in the post-mortem week that followed.
Particularly in Wales the focus was on where the game was lost, as the home side dominated large parts of the first half and the beginning of the second half, but were never able to get more than five points ahead, before England turned the screw with the help of their ‘finishers’.
Rob Howley took blame for some poor substitutions, Scott Baldwin’s shocking lineout throw was mentioned, as was Jonathan Davies’ kick failing to find touch and Alex Cuthbert’s attempted tackle on Elliot Daly all contributors to Wales’ downfall.
For me though the massive issue was that failure to capitalise on that territory and possession experienced in those crucial periods either side of half-time. Take the points on offer and convert even one of the try opportunities and it would have provided a buffer in the scoreline to build on, as it was we allowed England back into the game.
Why so slow?
From 20 minutes before half-time until 20 minutes after Wales went through attacking sets of 10 phases twice, 11 phases, 16 phases and a whopping 23 phases. The combined result in terms of points? Just six.
In the same period we also saw two eminently kickable penalties turned down for attempts at a try, both of which faltered, as the English white wall held strong against a Welsh attack lacking creativity, and crucially, any pace at all.
When the initial phase structure breaks down in Wales’ attacking sets the game relies on a power-based one-up runner system which will hopefully create some space eventually for a centre break, if running from far out, or just wear down the defensive in a battle of attrition from close range.
It’s never been pretty, but it’s been effective with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard suiting that abrasive and physical setup. Now though times are changing. Midfield creativity is a huge part of the modern game, and the space required for that needs to be secured via quick ball.
That’s not to say the big carrying game is dead though, it can play a part on securing that quick ball. New Zealand, the kings of modern rugby, use their forwards in a 2-4-2 formation partially to allow carrying pods to pop up across the pitch, go through a quick phase to secure front foot ball and move quickly to the backs from there.
Wales’ issue on Saturday came in two links to the forwards carrying though. Firstly, they made very, very little ground. Looking at the starting ball carriers of Rob Evans, Ken Owens, both second rows, Sam Warburton and Ross Moriarty they made just 57 metres from 55 carries. This leads on to the second problem, which is trucking the ball up 55 times is too many.
Far too often one-up runners were knocked back by a well organised English defence that almost religiously stuck to double rucking in defence, meaning they had players at the breakdown to slow the ball down while still being able to maintain a strong defensive line.
Biggar the not so great?
There was much written about a return to form for Wales’ fly-half on Saturday, which in parts was true. A leading defensive performance, including 14 tackles and a crucial interception, was eye catching, as well as some clever kicking and a clean break in the first half that set up the pre-half-time attacking pressure.
However, his play from first receiver was lacklustre at best against England. Over thirty passes he threw and none put any of the players outside him cleanly through a gap. That lack of a platform at fly-half really stunted the Welsh attack.
His sole threat with ball in hand at 10 is the midfield miss pass to the player in the outside centre spot to get outside a blitz defence, which does often result in front foot ball, is fine. A refusal to take the ball to the line and throw an inside pass, or a no-look to the outside shoulder, is not.
Coming back to Rob Howley and his poorly used substitutions, the conservatism shown not to throw Sam Davies into the game with around 10-15 minutes to go was disappointing. The match was already slipping away from us at that point, Dan Biggar did not seem the man to inspire a counter-attack, so what was there to lose?
Webb’s X Factor
The one saving grace of the Welsh attack came in the shape of our scrum-half Rhys Webb, in my opinion. After a number of weeks out of Ospreys action in the build up to the Six Nations, Wales’ number nine seems to be quickly returning to his best, and for me is a real contender for that coveted British and Irish Lions starting berth in New Zealand.
The majority of Welsh attacking highlights against England came when the game was shortened up and we played off nine, instead of ten or whichever forward was stood at first receiver.
When Webb took control of our attacking we actually looked momentarily dangerous. His ability to take the ball to the line and bring in those outside him is excellent. He has options here, with Tipuric running the switch line and Warburton hitting the gap created by England’s fringe defence being more interested in the scrum-half.
Despite not making it through the gap, Warburton is able to secure front foot ball thanks to Webb, and crucially can present the ball quickly for the scrum-half to spin wide. Unfortunately Biggar’s fear of the gain line stunts the attack on this occasion.
This time it does result in big yards though as playing off Webb means that the first three English defenders in the line are pre-occupied with him, dragging the outside defenders narrower and eventually giving Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny the space to attack in the wide areas and carry the ball into England’s 22.
It doesn’t even require a wide openside to play into, as long as the fringe defenders are taken out of the game via a lateral movement that doesn’t mean missing out on any of Wales’ attackers.
It’s Coutney Lawes and Joe Marler circled here who are sucked in by Rhys Webb’s sniping before he slips the ball out to Dan Biggar who has Liam Williams on his outside to get over the gainline.
What this then results in is an opportunity for Webb to become unpredictable, having the option to bring in a runner outside him or mix things up in attack…
One choice is to go it alone. The English defenders fear of exposing their outside shoulders mean a turning of their shoulders away from Webb, allowing the much lighter scrum-half to make yards against the forwards, before quick ball is capitalised on by the next carrier who can take advantage of a scrambling defence.
The second choice is to slide the ball out the back door. The defenders don’t know whether it will be Webb himself, the crash ball runner or the blindside runner trying to make the break, leaving them unable to line up any hit properly and liable to be taken backwards, creating fast, front foot ball.
Of course this eventually leads to Liam Williams wandering through a large gap created by Wales playing the short game off Rhys Webb and taking the ball to the line. A wonderful move, but one that only serves as a frustration in the sense that it proves how we can attack, but choose not to.
Rob Howley will stick with a very similar team for the trip to Scotland this week, however with Webb now having extra time to train and getting further match minutes under his belt, hopefully he can continue to step up as the focal point of this Welsh attack, especially with George North now an added weapon.
Just one thing for Howley to do then, don’t taken him off for bloody Gareth Cawdor!!
Wales opened their 2017 Six Nations campaign with a 7-33 win over Italy at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday. Despite the convincing scoreline though, there was a distinctly underwhelming feel to the whole performance from a Wales point of view.
There’s been plenty of cliches handed out following the final whistle, ‘slow start’, ‘plenty to work on’ and ‘a win’s a win’ were amongst them, but ‘a game of two halves’ was the clear winner. For me though, it was a ‘game of a yellow card’, as the result turned on the 60th minute sin binning of Andrea Lovotti.
With Wales just 7-12 up at the time it allowed a Sam Davies inspired backline to take the game away from the Italians, but had the prop not been yellow carded it could have been a whole different story as a lacklustre away side slogged through the first hour with unimaginative attacking undoing some half decent defensive organisation.
What we were left with come Sunday evening was more discussion points than positive aspects, with written and social media full of opinion over what needs to happen before England come to Cardiff next Saturday.
Props, injured players returning and options off the bench have all been looked at. Rob Evans and Tomos Francis seemingly performed better off the bench than starters Nicky Smith and Samson Lee, while Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau may be in line to make a comeback at the Millennium Stadium and England’s replacements were so strong against France there is a worry amongst the Welsh rugby population.
My focus is on two of the bigger debates of the week, starting with the fly-half battle…
The Biggar the better?
In offices, pubs and rugby clubs around the country there will be one big question on everyone’s lips this week, are you Sam or Dan? The decision over who starts at 10 against England could well be one talked about for many months to come, so what will Rob Howley be looking at when he makes his decision?
Well the first thing will be whether Dan Biggar is fit to face the old enemy, after coming off at half-time in Rome with suspected bruised ribs. It just adds another dimension to the fly-half battle, with young Sam Davies perhaps seen as less of a gamble against the experience but not fully fit Biggar.
Assuming Biggar is fit though, and going forwards beyond the England game if not, let’s see what he brings. First things first with the 52-cap man is those safe pair of hands;
It’s a simple piece of play, but it’s massively effective game management. Off the weak foot, head up and pin Italy back inside their 22. If there’s one thing you want to do against an Italian side playing in Rome early in the Six Nations it’s to dominate territory and turn them round.
There is the obvious issue about how much he kicks though. It’s long been a criticism of Biggar, and quite rightly in my opinion, as he does often send possession away in good positions;
It’s not a great pass, there’s no getting away from that. However, if Biggar is more open to play though, then he needs to be closer to the line and it would open up channels for Leigh Halfpenny, Ross Moriarty and George North outside him, while a flatter position could see Alun Wyn Jones used as a decoy runner.
The key point of this analysis though, is who’s fault is this? For me the blame lies at the door of Rob Howley, and not with the player who many unfairly apportion it to. There’s a clear game plan that comes down from the normal attacking coach, and current head coach, and it seems indoctrinated in the more senior players.
What’s annoying is that you can see these men really just want to play rugby, and Dan Biggar more than has the ability to do that;
The very first front foot possession of the afternoon and the fly-half is flat, takes the ball to the line and in doing so draws the initial Italian blitz, before releasing Jonathan Davies for the half-break. This wasn’t an isolated incident either;
Both occasions we see Biggar in a good first receiver position drawing the initial blitz before going wide to Halfpenny for a half-break in the first clip, before finding Scott Williams on the switch crash ball in clip two.
So we know he can play that flat first receiver role, but why does it not get us anywhere? There were no clean breaks as a result of Dan Biggar creativity on Sunday, but again I revert back to the game plan, it’s just not set up for that. The simplicity of it always sees straight up runners going up against the defensive line and having to break tackles to make any ground, and there was a prime example in the first half;
Really early on in the game and Dan Biggar (circled) has taken the ball to the line, with Sam Warburton having run the decoy line and taken out a defender just above him. Wales are now in the situation where Scott Williams has a three-on-two overlap outside him, including two players from the back three.
What does he do? He puts the ball up his jumper and trucks it forward himself, ignoring the real possibility of a serious attack outside him. Again, indoctrinated players only seeing the narrow power game of Howley.
The stats show Scott Williams and centre partner Jon Davies made 23 carries and only 11 passes between them. The back three made just five more carries, in a game where there was a lot of kicking and opportunities to run the ball back, it’s not great. The ball was getting stuck in midfield a lot.
Yet the second half sees Sam Davies enter the fray, a young man playing with freedom and not yet pulled into the Team Wales way of limited rugby. He has the peripheral vision still, the ability to play what’s in front of him;
Incredibly this is a notable clip from Sunday’s game. Sam Davies takes the ball to the line and throws an inside pass. One of just three occasions that the first receiver didn’t pass straight to the man outside him, take it on themselves, kick it away or use the pyramid formation brought in by Matt Sherratt that was partially successful against Italy.
Such a simple play, but it keeps the defenders on their toes. On this occasion, a defence that had worked us out down to a tee, as you can see from the organisation in their ranks. A reasonable fringe blitz supplemented by a lone blitzer wider keeping the attack confined to Wales’ midfield.
This willingness to play from Davies was the catalyst for the try of the afternoon;
I’m sure I wasn’t the only Wales fan expecting a kick from the young man on the cover, but he stays calm, makes a half-break and releases George North for the try. Made by the player in the black scrum cap, no question.
How does all this impact on our general phase play though? Well there was one big change in our attacking when Sam Davies was introduced, and it came in the sole form of Scott Williams. Gone was the Howley’d centre of ignoring overlaps, and back was the Scarlets centre looking dangerous himself, and distributing to those outside him;
Gone is the one track mind to carry at a defender. He momentarily straightens the line, keeping the defender on his left shoulder interested to stop the drift defence, and making the defender on his right shoulder take an extra step backwards which Halfpenny can run at and break the tackle. There’s enough cover defence on this occasion, but;
Obviously the first clip includes some beautiful hands from Sam Davies, but Scott Williams has the awareness. He sees that if he keeps putting the ball through the hands it would put pressure on the wide men as the drift defence comes across, so he straightens the line, checks two defenders, as well as the man under the posts, and allows Jon Davies the simple run in with two attackers to spare.
The second clip is the real quality piece of play, and as such deserves a closer look;
Scott Williams straightens the line to draw the attention of the second-to-last defender, as a consequence the outside man has to turn his shoulders in, but it’s easy for Jon Davies to put his hands through the tackle and find Liam Williams. Simple as you like.
The long and short of it is this. Rob Howley, I beg you, let the players play what’s in front of them. It doesn’t matter who starts at 10, Dan Biggar can do it if you let him, Sam Davies will do it anyway, these players are more than good enough. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Sam or Dan, it matters that everyone is on team rugby.
We have a bloody talented set of backs, and when they’re on form they’re unstoppable. The question has to be, why is our own head coach holding them back?
When two become one
The Spice Girls had a massive hit with their third single, which became Christmas number one in 1996, which was about the developing special relationship between Geri Halliwell and writer Matt Rowe. Where’s the relevance to Wales? I hear you ask. Well, on Sunday in Rome we saw another relationship take another step.
Plenty was written about the make-up of Wales’ back row coming into the tournament, as Justin Tipuric was in the form of his life, Taulupe Faletau was in the highest bracket of world number eights, while Ross Moriarty had an excellent autumn international series.
So where would former captain, and national team stalwart, Sam Warburton fit in? Tipuric was undroppable, but Faletau’s injury left a gap at blindside flanker, and didn’t the Cardiff Blues man just take it with both hands. The most impressive thing though, the work with his Ospreys counterpart.
For me this was the highlight of Sunday, and here’s why;
Two cracking pieces of link-up play, gaining dangerous front foot ball each time. There’s clearly an understanding between the two, and with the clips being almost 75 minutes apart it brings me onto my second point;
Both clips within the last two minutes of the game, and we see Justin Tipuric chasing down a long kick far beyond his team mates, while Sam Warburton is right up on George North’s shoulder as he runs in for the last try. Magnificent work rates and they definitely push each other along.
What of where flankers earn their bread though, in defence? Well there’s a little bit of work to be done;
Both Warburton and Tipuric end up lurking around the same breakdown, get in each other’s way and end up in positions that should be occupied by a tight five forward around the immediate fringes of the ruck. Only Ross Moriarty is really maintaining the correct position, somewhere around the third man out.
This lack of awareness of the other’s position eventually leads to both flankers standing in each other’s pockets as Italy drive straight past them and over the line. Not great at all.
However, it’s early days as they rediscover the partnership, and when it works, it works very effectively;
A better setup sees Warburton guarding the blindside while Tipuric waits to compete at any openside rucks, this leads to the perfect ‘every other’ technique that is the lynchpin of playing two 7s;
Justin Tipuric is in the first ruck competing with the outside centre and slowing the ball down, before Sam Warburton hits the second breakdown after the tackle and getting his own hands involved.
Then, after 40 minutes of practice, they get it spot on;
Now quite rightly Sam Warburton took plenty of plaudits for this turnover, in a classic piece of openside play he’s made the hit, got back to his feet and is over the ball before the support has even bound to the ruck.
However, and this is something I missed when viewing it live, there’s a crucial assist from Justin Tipuric who clears out the first Italian support before drawing the attention of the second man, leaving Warburton free to complete the turnover.
If they continue with the work rate, the attacking dynamism, and most importantly the co-ordinated defence and breakdown work, then Wales are onto a real winner. Australia have flourished with Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the side, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say we could talk about Warburton and Tipruric in the same breath.
With Taulupe Faletau still to come back and complete the back row, we could be looking at a match winning trio. There will be some mistakes in the matches to come as they take on the bigger teams, but I 100% believe that this flanker partnership is the future for Wales, so let’s get behind the boys.
It’s a bold statement from any Northern Hemisphere rugby fan, and maybe it’s not strictly true, ‘really dislike’ would be a better way of describing my feelings towards the Six Nations, but February/March isn’t exactly a time circled in red on my rugby calendar.
It’s not even the Six Nations as a competition, I actually quite enjoy the festival of international rugby for what it is, it’s the time of the year it’s on right in the middle of the club rugby season. Basically I really dislike the organisers of the Six Nations, but that’s not a clickbait article title!
For two months every February and March, fans of professional club rugby collectively groan as all of our top European internationals are snatched away for the international window and second rate teams, or even third rate teams in the case of some Pro12 sides, are put out to compete the domestic leagues.
Obviously this massively devalues the competition in the sense of the decreased quality of the players and rugby on show, as well as giving an unfair advantage to teams with fewer internationals or more overseas players, which happens to be Cardiff this season!
What goes to piss off us club rugby fans further is that people across Wales are suddenly massive rugby fans. The four professional clubs average around 26,000 fans between them at a rough estimate for home games, yet Wales get 75,000 at the Milennium Stadium plus countless more in pubs and houses around the country who’d all love to be there.
They all read the never ending live updates and lists that Wales Online pump out in the eight weeks of Six Nations, from what boots Dan Biggar is wearing, to what Ken Owens has for breakfast. If either the fans or media were as interested in club rugby we’d be in a lot better state.
Now it’s not that I don’t like the Six Nations in a way that I won’t watch it, as a general rugby fan I’ll watch any and all rugby, but I do struggle to enjoy it as a proper fan though as I’ve never been affected by the clamour for ‘Team Wales’.
The plastic fans, the fact it gets in the way of club rugby, a permanent worry that Cardiff players will get injured and just how long it lasts makes it difficult to enjoy, for me.
In my ideal rugby world there would be no club rugby carrying on through this tournament. Either the Autumn or Summer Internationals would be scrapped as a money making farce, and the rest of the season will be slightly re-jigged.
We could play club games from the start of September right through to the start of January, getting a good number of league games in alongside the European pool stages completed. Then from mid-January to the end of February, at the latest, it’d be the Six Nations, before back to the club season. Bit of international tour action in June, before a summer holiday.
Or, the club season could begin in September through to October, have November for internationals, return to finish the domestic season between December and early May before a later Six Nations as a season finale.
The club game is growing almost everywhere. Super Rugby is now massive, spanning five countries. The French Top14 has money and stars galore, while the English Premiership is fantastically competitive. The Pro12 is being largely left behind though and are stunted by the Autumn Internationals and Six Nations interruptions more than their Northern Hemisphere rivals.
The time has come for a calendar change as the professional era properly finds it’s feet. National teams can work with clubs properly, avoiding disputes between clubs in different leagues having opposing rules on international player releases. The club game will grow which will lead to better quality international players produced, and ultimately more competitiveness at that level.
Hopefully fans would be more attracted to the Welsh professional club game as they could seriously challenge in the league, Europe and the transfer market. Will it happen? Well, when I originally wrote this blog the answer was a solid no. As things stand though it does seem more likely, with World Rugby taking preliminary steps towards a global rugby calendar.
I have decided that I will make a concerted effort to actively support and get excited by Team Wales over the next few weeks, although how long that will last is yet to be seen, especially with Rob Howley leading the team as Warren Gatland takes a paid for holiday with the Lions. For the time being at least it’s come on Wales!