This wasn’t supposed to happen. With the rain pouring down on the Cardiff pitch we were supposed to see a low scoring game, dominated by Ireland’s kicking and set piece and ultimately decided by a controversial penalty or two.
Instead, we saw Ireland’s key units and players wilt away in the deluge as Wales’ forwards gained dominance, with the backs contributing with accuracy from foot and hand. It was a ruthless display that gave Wales the Grand Slam and left Ireland questioning their form going in to this crucial 2019 rugby year.
So how did Wales come to dominate a game that should have been a tight affair?
Wales’ big weakness in this Championship – and indeed over the Gatland years has been their lineout and their lack of an attacking maul.
At crucial times in the past, Wales’ forwards could not be relied to provide good attacking lineout ball that would give their backs room to play off. As an example, with 6 minutes on the clock, Wales had a great attacking position against England. Here’s what happened:
In contrast, with less than a minute on the clock against Ireland – in about the same field position, Wales easily secure their own ball and even set up a strong driving maul.
What are the differences between the two examples? The first is that England competed at the lineout through George Kruis, while Ireland (who are perhaps the best test team at stealing opposition lineout ball and had stolen 9 lineouts in the tournament by the start of the Wales game), chose to stay on the floor and counter the drive.
In the England example, Wales threw the ball to the front of the lineout; traditionally the safest type of throw but one that can encourage the opposition to compete against it. It is also noticeable that the lineout in the Ireland example was much simpler, with fewer players movements and therefore less chance of a miscommunication or a mistimed run.
The accurate throw did allow Alun-Wyn Jones to safely secure the ball and to set up a pretty rare event – a really strong Welsh driving maul. Regular readers will know that we have been critical of this aspect of Wales’ players for years and years, and it’s a vital part of the game that can bring easy tries and penalties while sucking in the opposition defence.
It was a penalty award from referee Angus Gardiner at the maul, that gave Wales a “free play” and allowed Gareth Anscombe the opportunity to place a deft chip that was gathered by Hadleigh Parkes for Wales opening try. Without that maul it is highly unlikely Wales would have been in a position to make that play.
On 9 minutes, Wales again manage to set and drive a maul that leads to another penalty and a lineout in Ireland’s 22.
After 17 phases of Welsh attack on the Irish line, Tadhg Beirne wins the turnover to clear the danger.
This is unlike the Wales we know. The lineout is solid, the maul is making ground and they are putting pressure on the opposition through forward cohesion that is leading to penalties and points.
Defence, defence and more defence
This was a Grand Slam built on defence. To keep Ireland (2nd in the world) restricted to a consolation try at the very end of the game and to allow England to score just 13 points, highlights the amazing defence that Wales have developed under Shaun Edwards.
Wales may find their offensive game evolves under Wayne Pivac but it is unlikely we will see this sort of defensive strength again from Wales for some time.
Much has been written about Wales’ fitness, their linespeed, their willingness to get back in to the defensive line and their “umbrella” blitz led by Jonathan Davies at 13. In this article we will look at an aspect of Wales’ defence that is fairly unique, which is their use of their scrum half in the defensive line as the first tackler.
It perhaps hasn’t been Gareth Davies’ greatest tournament, with a very shaky opening 15 minutes in Murrayfield followed by a few bad moments in the Ireland game. What is often missed in real time though is the amount of work he does as a defender.
With 3.54 on the clock Ireland put some phases together and we pick up Davies (yellow) moving back to the openside. As the still shows below, the natural position for a 9 might be to tuck in behind the defensive line in a sweeper role.
He doesn’t do this. Instead he takes a place in the defensive line between Josh Navidi and his inside forwards.
Initially Davies pushes out on Sexton as the most advanced of the Welsh defensive line. This line speed can cause problems by opening up space on the inside, particularly if the forwards that should be filling that gap as slow getting in to position. Sexton reads this and plays an inside ball, but watch how Davies quickly then moves off Sexton and tackles the player (O’Mahony) running the inside line.
Ireland play the ball wide, set up a ruck and Murray passes to Cian Healy. Look who has again made it back in to the defensive line to provide the initial point of contact with Ireland – Gareth Davies.
Davies come flying out at Healy and even though he doesn’t make a tackle, his line speeds causes Healy to take his eyes off the ball and spill it.
Wales’ maul defence
This is the area where Wales have most improved over the last 12 months and this is in no small part to the efforts of the Ospreys’ Adam Beard.
In midweek we highlighted the success of the Irish maul and how Wales have countered this is recent games, and it proved to be a crucial part of the game.
With 24 minutes on the clock, Ireland had an attacking lineout a few metres out from Wales’ try line. Against France, Ireland’s driving maul brought them an easy try from a similar position but with Adam Beard in Wales’ lineout they have a great ability to disrupt the opposition’s maul.
Here’s what happened.
Adam Beard half challenges for the ball in the air, but as he hits the ground he immediately starts to drive right through the middle of the maul and manages to get his hands on the ball.
The referee awarded Wales the scrum and this moment seemed to signal that it was going to be Wales’ day.
The emergence of Adam Beard as a physical lock who can almost single handedly disrupt a driving maul, has been a huge filip for Wales over the last 10 months.
This was an area that Ireland were expected to dominate and be a source of points. Wales’ maul defence came out on top.
Covering the space behind the ball
It didn’t take a great deal of analysis of the Ireland v England game to see that England were picking up all the loose balls that came after a high kick, which gave them gains in territory and possession against unstructured defences.
Wales had also spotted this (or perhaps Warren Gatland reads theblitzdefence!) and they set out to fill the gap behind the ball to pick up possession or make an early tackle.
We covered this in detail here, but here’s an example from that game. Watch the movement of Josh Navidi, as he ignores the ball and puts himself on England’s side in order to pick up any loose taps or passes. Clever play.
The same tactic was visible in the Ireland game. From a fee kick Wales kick high and long and it’s Gareth Davies’ job to chase and fill the gap behind the ball. Note how he doesn’t contest the ball, his role is to get behind the catcher.
At the point when Keith Earls takes the ball, look where Davies has positioned himself. This isn’t luck or chance, this is top level coaching with an eye for small, but very important detail. Each player knows his roles and where he should be on the pitch for each play.
The next example of taking the space, comes from Wales’ rapidly improving 2nd row Adam Beard.
Ireland attack and Garry Ringrose runs a good line but is well tackled by Jon Davies. Beard reads the situation really well. He can see that Davies has taken Ringrose quite low and Ringrose has his hands free to make an off load. Watch Beard’s line in the clip.
Beard’s natural angle in this play is to head back to the Welsh side of the tackle and start to form a defensive line or even attack the ball (see the yellow arrow below). Instead, he reads the situation and steps back on to the Irish side of the ball (red line) to fill that space. His positioning pays off as he taps the ball back and Wales counter from deep.
It’s an example of excellent decision making under pressure, while remembering what the coaches have asked players to do – fill that space.
Beating Ireland at their own pressure game
Ireland’s success has come from what we term their “pressure game”.
The details are covered here, but in essence their strategy is to apply pressure to the opposition through kicking, close carrying, at the breakdown and through their defence. They don’t have to create anything per se, but they apply pressure to the opposition and capitalise on the opportunities that inevitable come.
What happens though when the opposition don’t make any mistakes?
In the 15th minute we saw a trademark Johnny Sexton high, cross-field kick. This tactic has been fruitful under Schmidt, with Ireland usually winning a penalty, a lineout, the ball or putting huge pressure on the opposition defence.
Anscombe takes the ball well, Jon Davies and Josh Adams are back to secure the ruck and Wales are comfortable moving the ball away and trying to clear.
Just one phase later, Wales try the same tactic, with Dan Biggar putting up a high, cross-field kick that lands on Jacob Stockdale just as Liam Williams is in a position to make the tackle.
Referee Gardener gives Wales a penalty for sealing off by Sexton and Wales kick the 3 point penalty.
That one minute of play captures well the pattern of the game, with Ireland finding their normal tactics are being nullified by Wales, while Wales apply accurate kicking and pressure of their own which results in 3 points.
Instead of a 7-3 game, we end up at 10-0 and Ireland are already playing catchup.
Keeping the best for last
This 6 Nations hasn’t been the most straight forward for Wales, with a huge half time deficit against France that had to be overcome, a scrappy away win in Italy with a weakened team and a 2nd half played against Scotland with hardly any ball.
All that is irrelevant though when you have a team with such a well organised defence and such a palpable confidence in their own ability to win a game of rugby.
In the two big home games we saw Wales step up a level, with their aggressive defence and excellent decision making giving them the edge over 2 of the best teams in the world.
There are areas to work on. The lineout and attacking maul needs to be more consistent, they could still benefit from keeping the ball in certain situations to add more pressure to the opposition and the return of Rhys Webb at 9 would add a new dimension to their game.
They travel to the Rugby World Cup as genuine contenders to reach the final stages.
To follow theblitzdefence on Facebook like us here.
To follow theblitzdefence on Twitter go here.