Wales v Ireland: How the Grand Slam was Won

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?

 

Forward hegemony

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:

wales lose lineout

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.

wales drive v ireland.gif

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.

wales maul v ire 2.gif

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.

davies moevement 1

He doesn’t do this. Instead he takes a place in the defensive line between Josh Navidi and his inside forwards.

davies positioning clip v ire.gif

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 positioning 2.gif

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.

beard ireland.gif

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.

 

farrell bad kick 1

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.

davies chase 1.gif

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.

Davies kick follow still

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 tap.gif

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.

beard still

 

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.

sexton long and high anscombe.gif

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.

sexton penalty.gif

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.

 

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World Rugby’s “Nations Championship” – 10 Key Challenges for the Tournament

The concept of the Nations Championship has been bubbling away in the background before bursting in to life recently with a leaked article from the New Zealand Herald.  The majority of the rugby world took exception to World Rugby’s (WR’s) plans, with the primary issue raised around the ring fencing of the top division, which would prevent tier 2 nations moving up and down the leagues.

This week World Rugby met again (mostly the tier 1 nations!) to consider the negative feedback received from the leaked article and to refine the current proposal. The main changes were that the semi-final play off was going to be scrapped and that there would be relegation and promotion between the divisions.

This article will look at the main challenges that the tournament faces.

 

What is the Nations Championship?

The details can be found here  but the essence of the tournament is to use the existing test level tournaments – the 6 Nations and Rugby Championship, along with the tests in the July and November test windows to form a single global tournament that will see a single champion crowned the “Nations Champion”.

The first major change is that 2 more teams would be added to the Rugby Championship – to take that tournament up to 6 teams, that would be based on the World Rugby rankings – currently this would be Fiji and Japan.

World Rugby claim that the tournament would “secure a strong and sustainable competition and financial platform for unions and a true opportunity for emerging nations to develop and compete at the highest level”.  The cynics amongst us however, would claim the primary aim is to share the lucrative TV income from the northern hemisphere with the relatively poorer southern nations.

The player drain from south to north continues to grow, drawn by the salaries on offer in England and France. By tapping in to the revenues in the north, the southern unions hope to be able to better compete in the market for the game’s top stars.

The tournament though faces considerable challenges; here are the 10 biggest.

 

(1) It devalues the Rugby World Cup (RWC)

The world cup has been one of rugby’s successes since it was introduced in 1987, so why would World Rugby want to introduce a new tournament that would devalue it? If we are brutally honest, it will be much harder for a team to win a fully contested Nations Championship that it would the RWC.

To win a RWC a team needs to beat about 4 tier 1 nations. We do see the odd tier 2 victory over a tier 1 nation but they are very infrequent. To win the Nations Championship a team will have to beat the top 11 teams in the world – often playing away; it’s a huge challenge.

The disparity between the two tournaments will only grow if World Rugby expands the RWC to 24 teams. This will just dilute the quality of the tournament even further.

 

(2) The lack of support from French and English clubs

It seems as if World Rugby have got this far in the planning stage without formally engaging with the major clubs in France and England. A recent tersely worded joint statement from the French (LNR) and English (PRL) professional clubs, included a not-particularly -subtle threat of further action, “reserve the option to take any action to preserve their rights and competitions”.

The French and English clubs don’t want a longer test window in November and with the private equity firm CVC buying in to Premiership rugby, there will be a push for fewer international duties, rather than more.

 

(3) Promotion and relegation and the impact on the 6N/Rugby Championship

WR’s current proposal sees the 12 teams split in to two conferences – a northern conference (6 Nations teams) and a southern conference (Rugby Championship teams plus two more based on rankings). At the end of the calendar year the bottom team in each conference will play the top team in the division below in a play-off game.

For example, assuming Italy finish bottom of the northern conference at the end of the year, they will then play-off against the top team in the division below, say Georgia, for a place in the top division.

This raises one fundamental issue and a few logistical ones.

If Georgia beats Italy then Georgia will be in the top division, it naturally follows that Georgia should then replace Italy in the 6 Nations. The 6 Nations organisers have fought against the concept of relegation for some time, but that would have to be introduced for relegation and promotion to work in the Nations Championship.

Will the 6 Nations agree to this fundamental change?

Logistically, it means the play-off game will be around the start of December. With the first game of the 6 Nations only 10 weeks away is it possible to arrange and market these games in such a short timescale? Normally packages and tickets for 6 Nations games are sold months in advance, but this won’t be possible under the proposed tournament structure, given the nature of promotion and relegation.

 

(4) Will this mean more or fewer test matches?

The original concept had teams playing a semi-final and then a final, giving us a potential test season of 13 games, although most would play just 11 games. In the latest WR release, the semi-final has been scrapped so the maximum a team could play is 12 games, with a number only playing 11.

Wales have traditionally played an “extra” test outside the normal test window and in recent times other teams have picked up the baton – Scotland, England and Ireland all played 4 tests in the 2018 November test “window”.

Under the proposed tournament rules these teams would only play a guaranteed 3 games, so losing a chunk of matchday income. A 4th test would be hard to arrange given the possibility of playing the tournament final, or even a play-off decider.

So will test teams play fewer games? Can unions such as the WRU live without this extra game, or will the additional income from the Nations Championship mean the “4th” test becomes superfluous?

New Zealand are already pitching for an extra Bledisloe Cup game, so the omens point to teams making additional arrangements outside the official tournament windows.

 

(5) Player welfare

The International Players union came out with some strong words a couple of weeks ago, pouring more scorn on World Rugby’s proposals.

Part of their concern relates to the amount of rugby they will be asked to play, but there is also the issue of travel and the physical drain that puts on bodies.

Traditionally the northern hemisphere teams would play 3 tests in 1 nation in the June/July test window, as we saw with England travelling to South Africa last year, Ireland to Australia and France to New Zealand.

In the proposed tournament these 3 games will be against 3 different nations, spread across the globe. Wales could end up playing Japan one week, Argentina the next and finish off with New Zealand.

These are huge distances travelled, across multiple time zones. Leaving aside the carbon emissions, it’s a big strain to put on professional athletes.

 

(6) Tier 2 southern hemisphere nations and player impacts

Let’s assume that Fiji get a slot in the expanded Rugby Championship. They will now have to play 3 tests in June/July, then fulfil their Rugby Championship commitments in August/September, before playing in 3 or 4 tests in November/early December.

This is potentially a good thing for Fijian rugby, but who will play for them in these games? The majority of Fiji’s best players currently play in the northern hemisphere (Nakarawa, Mata, Tuisova, Goneva, Radradra), so how will their club owners feel when they are told their star Fijians will be needed for test duty for most of the summer and 4 tests in the autumn?

Will they put pressure on the Fijians to not take up a place in the test team? Will there be an option for the players to move to the southern hemisphere, where the calendars are better aligned with the Rugby Championship, and still receive a salary roughly commensurate with their earnings in the north?

 

(7) Tier 2 exposure to tier 1 teams

World Rugby are selling this as a boost for tier 2 teams as it guarantees them a route to the top table. There is some truth in this statement but there are a few caveats.

Because of the conference set up, the only way Georgia could now play a tier 1 team is through being promoted to tier 1 (ignoring the one-off play-off game for a moment).  This certainly gives them the incentive to move up a division but in the mean time they will be cut-off from playing tier 1 nations, other than in RWC games

In recent years they have played Ireland and Wales, but this will end until Georgia reach the top table.

In the southern conference, those two tier 2 nations that make it to the top table will of course see a greater number of fixtures against tier 1 but those in the division below will be cut off until they achieve promotion.

This isn’t such a big change because Rugby Championship teams generally don’t play tier 2 nations, unless they have to!

 

(8) An uncompetitive Rugby Championship

There is a hard balancing act in rugby, between expanding our competitions to new teams and nations, while also ensuring that these competitions retain their integrity. A big concern for the Rugby Championship is that the addition of two tier 2 teams – Japan and Fiji for example, will result in the Rugby Championship losing its competitive nature and with it, supporters’ interest.

If Fiji find they can’t pick their best players, or find they don’t have the ability to adequately prepare for the Rugby Championship, then we could see some very one-sided results, which will damage the competition and potentially rugby in these tier 2 nations.

The likes of Fiji and Japan need to be allowed to compete on a level playing field when it comes to player selection, access to resources and time to prepare.

 

(9) The end of free to air (FTA) in the UK

The 6 Nations elevates rugby from a minority sport to one that captures headlines and forms debates across the UK. Arguably the main reason for this is that the games are currently all available on FTA TV, whether this be the BBC, ITV or S4C.

World Rugby has quoted some eye-watering broadcast revenues from the new proposed tournament – revenues which won’t be achieved without a move from FTA to a subscription channel.

There is undoubtedly more cash available by selling the rights to a subscription service, but the danger is by doing so it damages what makes the 6 Nations such a special tournament and consigns it to one for the true rugby enthusiasts.

As a rugby supporter in the UK we already have rugby spread across several subscription channels – Sky, BT, Premier Sports and a number of FTA channels – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, S4C. The last thing we need is for the 6 Nations to move to another subscription service.

(10) Sponsorship and marketing

A major challenge WR will have to face is how to market was is in effect 2 separate existing competitions, while also trying to establish a new competition.

The 6 Nations struggled to find a sponsor for their flagship tournament with Guiness eventually taking over the role, with a commercial deal worth a great deal less than 6 Nations’ chiefs had expected.

The 6 Nations main “partners” are Guiness, AWS (Amazon) and Tissot. Will these sponsors also sponsor the global Nations Championship competition or will the sponsors of the Rugby Championship have a role to play.

How will the Nations Championship branding and sponsors sit alongside the 6 Nations tournament for example?

How will the current partners of the RWC feel about this tournament coming in to existence?

 

 

Will this go ahead?

There are plenty of challenges for the tournament to even get off the ground. World Rugby have released some details around the commercial aspects of the tournament – link here, but without details it is quite hard to decipher who will financially benefit from this arrangement.

The key to determining if this will go ahead is the view and support of the clubs in England and France. Without the support of PRL and LNR the tournament will fail to get off the ground.

This proposal is all about spreading northern hemisphere TV cash to the southern hemisphere nations, so without the support of the clubs and unions in France and England it will not proceed.

These two nations will ensure that they are not financially disadvantaged by the new revenue disbursements, but the key question is will they be allocated enough of the pie to make it worth their while.

If they are, then the tournament may proceed but in our view this isn’t a good step forward for rugby.

 

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Wales v Ireland Preview: The Maul. Ireland’s Attacking Weapon Against Wales’ Defence

One of the key areas of the game on Saturday will be the maul and how each side copes with the other’s strengths.

For Ireland, the driving maul has been a potent weapon for a number of years with the national team building off the success of Munster and Leinster in perfectly such a crucial area of the game.

By contrast, Wales has never established the maul as a strong part of their armoury but their defence of the driving maul has improved considerably over the last 12 months, meaning there is not a weak aspect to their defensive game.

Let’s look at Ireland’s maul and how Wales have set up to tackle similar maul situations in previous games.

 

Ireland’s Maul

Rugby’s legislators tried to de-power the driving maul through a few law guidelines a couple of years ago, but as ever, rugby’s players and coaches are one step ahead of the game and illegal practices have crept back in to the game at the top level and made the attacking maul a great way to score easy points, through tries or penalties.

Ireland are a great exponent of the art and indeed their first try against France in this year’s 6 Nations came from a close range driving maul after just 2 minutes of play.

They established their field position due to an excellent kick from Jordan Larmour, that again showed up the lack of organisation in the French back field defence (we covered this in more detail in the analysis of the England v France game).

After turning down the 3 points, they kicked for the corner, were awarded another penalty and again opted for the lineout and an attempt at setting their driving maul.

As the clip below shows, Rory Best plunged over for the try.

ireland maul try.gif

There are a few aspects of the maul that are worth pointing out, that give us a few clues as to the strength of the maul and how to combat it.

As it typical of most professional level driving mauls, by the time the catcher is on his way down, a number of his supporting players have left the lineout and formed behind the catcher (see still below), with the two lifters moving in front of the catcher to protect him.

These tactics are illegal but widely used and ignored by officials.

ire maul positioning

This means as the catcher hits the ground there are 3 other players ready to immediately drive through the catcher to quickly start the momentum. A 4th supporting player arrives to start a 3rd row of drivers and finally the hooker (Rory Best) sweeps around to take the ball.

Here are the positions of the Irish players at the 3 phases of the lineout and drive. At the formation of the lineout, Ireland only put 6 players in, with the open-side flanker van der Flier in the scrum half position.

 

ireland maul set

The ball is caught at the front by 4 (Henderson), with 8 (Stander) leaving the line and 6 (O’Mahony) moving in to lift with 1 (Healy). Even though 3 (Furlong) starts at the back of the lineout he passes 5 (Ryan) and takes his place in the 2nd line of forwards, with Ryan slotting in the back with Best.

The ball is passed from 4 to 7 and back to 2.

France don’t compete for the ball in the air, as is quite common at this level, instead they form a defensive shape which attempts to drive the Irish maul towards the touchline. We’ll come to this shape in a minute.

If we go back to the still above, it’s worth noting the slow speed with which the French defenders get in to position to counter drive, which is exacerbated by the fact Ireland have formed that 2nd line of driving players before Henderson has even hit the ground after the catch.

The view from behind shows us where the maul defence failed. Have a close look at the position and movement of France 1 (Poirot).

 

french maul defence.gif

Let’s look a bit closer at the French defence and the positions their forwards end up in as the Irish set for the drive.

france maul defence

We can see that France have gone man for man and put 3 players in the front line of defence with two more (8 and 5) providing the 2nd wave of support to force that diagonal drive.

3 and 6 don’t join the drive but try to firefight as the Irish come through. The hooker 2 (Guirado) defends the near side.

In this defensive system, the weight comes through at an angle towards the touchline. What this means is that the key person in initially holding the drive is the player at the front – 1 (Poirot). It’s his job to hold that initial drive until the power comes through from his team mates to take the maul towards the touchline.

If we look back at the clip above we can see what happens to 1; he is immediately driven sideways away from the touchline by his opposite number Healy, so removing the key stone of the French maul defence. The two players actually end up on the floor on the opposite side of the maul to where they started.

Look at the angle of Healy’s body (1) as he works hard to drive Poirot out of that crucial position.

ireland maul body position

Once Poirot is shifted, then Guirado is fighting a losing battle on his own against the 2nd wave of players, leaving Best one on one with the French scrum half.

healy maul.gif

 

In the 20th minute of the game, Ireland again turned down a penalty kick for goal and opted for the 5 metre lineout. Interestingly, they used exactly the same lineout formation as they did for the try after 2 minutes, with 6 players and van der Flier in the scrum half position.

This time they threw to the back and not the front of the lineout, winning a penalty in the process. Again, the easy 3 points were turned down and the 5m lineout option taken, which was over-thrown by Best.

Against Wales will we see this same approach or will the objective be to build the score board through penalties? If Sexton had taken the 3 points, Ireland would have had 10 points in the first 24 minutes, all of which had come from driving mauls.

 

Wales Maul Defence

What used to be an area of weakness is now an area of strength for Wales.

In the first example we will highlight the way England were kept out from an attacking lineout, just before half time in this year’s 6 Nations.

wales maul defence 1.gif

Wales actually compete for this lineout through 4 (Cory Hill) and stop the initial English drive well. As the drive comes on and the momentum starts, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty add their weight, which splits the maul and allows Alun-Wyn Jones to get to the ball carrier.

It was the Welsh captain’s movement and targeting of the ball that ultimately stopped the maul. Watch how he moves down the side of the maul (illegally, but permitted by Peyper) and is allowed to get to the ball carrier.

The other good piece of work here from Jones is that as soon as the catcher is coming down he starts to drive against England 7 (Curry) to stop him getting in front of the catcher and protecting him.

Contrast this with the French defence above, where both players supporting the catcher were allowed to move across and protect the catcher.

In our 2nd example, we find Wales successfully defending another crucial lineout as they lead France with just 2 minutes left to play.

wales maul defence 2.gif

Once again, we see Wales are happy to put up a competing jumper to try and steal or disrupt the ball, which in this example was successful. Instead of allowing France to catch the ball and Wales just concentrate on setting up the maul defence, they are confident in their maul defence to the point that they feel they can also compete in the air and effectively defend a maul.

Wales had a few crucial lineouts to defend against Scotland. In the first clip, we see Scotland take a clean catch and get in to position to drive.

wales maul defence 3.gif

We saw Ireland’s players leave the lineout after the throw to form up a 2nd wave of driving players, but Scotland take it a step further by having 4 players leave the lineout and form up to drive before the ball has even been thrown!

scotland leave lineout.jpg

The still below shows that Scotland’s forwards haven’t got in to good positions, with 2 of them facing the wrong way (see left hand side of the maul). The key player to watch is Wales’ Adam Beard with the scrum cap, who is working his way through the middle of the maul.

As Beard works his way towards the ball the maul fragments and Wales can pick off the carrier.

The final example shows both Wales’ ability to slow the driving maul and also their ability to then disrupt the carrier.

wales maul defence 5.gif

This time there is half an effort to compete for the catch, but we don’t see the out-to-in defence this France used, where the defence drove across the field towards the touchline.

Wales main threat was again Adam Beard who worked his way down the side of the maul and attacked the ball carrier. Does he break his bind and reattach illegally?

 

The Battle of the Mauls

Who will win the battle of the mauls; Ireland’s attack or Wales’ defence?

A major factor in answering this question will be the discipline that each side keeps and the number of penalties they concede. The majority of attacking maul positions come from kicks to the corner from penalties. Stop giving away penalties and the threat becomes much diminished.

The referee will again be crucial in deciding what he will, and won’t allow. at the maul. Most of the tactics we have highlighted above are illegal, so which ones will he allow on Saturday?

Time will tell, but the lineout and driving maul could well be a big factor in deciding the outcome of the game.

 

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Fields of Folly: Project Reset and the WRU’s North Wales Experiment

The 2018/19 season is heading towards its conclusion, with the Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup for the 2nd year in succession, the Ospreys are looking like strong contendors to win the Pro14 league title and the Dragons have just made the league play-offs for the first time.

The Welsh game is awash with money from private investors and Kieran Read, Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick confirm they will be heading to Welsh teams after the conclusion of the Rugby World Cup.

A new investor wants a piece of the pie and agrees to fund a new team. The WRU look at their existing structure and decide that north Wales would be a good spot for further expansion of the Welsh game.

This scenario would make perfect sense, if the details above were an accurate representation of the reality of Welsh rugby. But they aren’t.

Instead, we have Welsh rugby once again being plunged in to chaos and uncertainty thanks to Project Reset, and the long awaited restructure of Welsh regional rugby.

 

Project Reset

Project Reset is a fundamental look at the professional game in Wales, instigated by the WRU, that looks at both Team Wales, the regions and whether the funding and structure is fit for purpose for the future of Welsh rugby.

The project should have been delivered by the end of summer 2018, but incredibly we are hearing leaks and snippets of the radical conclusions in the final crucial weeks of the 6 Nations and at an important time for a couple of the regions in the Pro14.

The WRU couldn’t have timed the release of information – intentionaly or otherwise, at a more harmful moment for the teams they are supposed to represent.  The Welsh captain Alun-Wyn Jones spoke about the inesettling nature of the discussions in the immediate aftermath of the Wales v England 6 Nations fixture, while the Ospreys were humiliated away against Connacht, seemingly playing as if their minds were elsewhere. And who can blame them.

For Project Reset to be dragging on to this point is in itself a dereliction of the WRU’s duties, not just to the professional teams it represents and the players and staff, but to the whole of the Welsh public.

 

The Welsh game needs more cash

This was effectively the conclusion of Project Reset, which most of us could have predicted without the need for a 12 month investigation.

The WRU has got itself in a difficult predicament, by steering a middle ground between having completely union owned regions and having a model where these teams are privately owned.

This hybrid mish-mash has meant that on one hand the WRU doesn’t fund the regions to the extent that would allow them to be competitive as fully union-owned entities, while at the same time driving away any private investment that would allow a private-ownership model to succeed.

What we have ended up with is increasing levels of WRU ownership (the WRU taking over the Dragons), while new private money – to take the place of those long term benefactors that have supported the regions since professionalism, has been put off from investing.

To add to that, where the WRU has got directly involved in running the regions, such as the takeover of the Dragons, they have failed miserably against their own objectives set at the point of the takeover. The Dragons’ demise on and off the pitch has continued since the WRU takeover, which makes the large WRU investment seem like a very poor business decision.

 

A radical solution is needed 

The WRU needs to make a decision. If they want competitive teams at European level then they need to increase the budgets at probably two of the teams. To do this they have two choices. They either cut money from 2 of the existing teams and pass it to the stronger teams (there are a few mechanisms to do this) or they cut 1 or 2 teams in their entirety.

Which team should be cut in this scenario? The one that is the worst performing, on and off the pitch. The Dragons.

Has the WRU’s ownership of the Dragons and the inherent conflict of interest in that relationship, hamstrung the WRU in their options?

 

What’s being proposed?

The favoured option by the WRU seems to be to keep the Dragons and Cardiff Blues as they are, get the Ospreys and Scarlets to “merge” and then set up a new team in north Wales.

It’s a proposal that seems so mind-bogglingly bonkers that it might be true.

The WRU would keep the perenially underachieving Dragons, who are arguably the worst team in the whole Pro14 and who have provided to Team Wales a small fraction of the number of players that the other 3 teams have.

The team that is based in Wales’ 2nd city, has a top class stadium and provided the most players to Wales would be cut, or “merged” to use the popular language. Quite incredible.

To ramp up the levels of incredulity a level, the WRU would then set up a new team in north Wales.

 

Professional rugby in north Wales?

The north Wales rugby project has been a pet development for the WRU for a few years now, so if a team is set up in Colwyn Bay it won’t be a huge surprise.

Anyone who loves rugby would love to see a professional team in north Wales, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the core regions in the south and it certainly shouldn’t be at a time when the WRU should be focusing its resources on the teams that will give them best value for their buck.

North Wales has never been a rugby hotbed. Back in the old amateur days there wasn’t a single first class team that came from the north and even today there are only 33 clubs across the whole of north Wales, according to RGC’s website (RGC being the semi-professional team currently playing out of Colwyn Bay).

The diagram below is taken from the WRU’s own website, showing its member clubs.  Not all clubs may be plotted on there but you get a good picture where the clubs are spread in Wales.

wru clubs

 

There may be a million people in north Wales, but these are spread across a large geographical area, with rugby even less popular in the more densely populated areas,

Colwyn Bay itself has a nice stadium that is suitable for the semi-professional game, but it certainly isn’t of a standard fit to grace the top level of European professional rugby. It has a small capacity – about 6,000 and even smaller crowds.

There are rumours that the local council has been aprroached to help fund development of the stadium, which itself will raise more questions about the best use of public money in these times of shrinking council budgets.

On the field RGC run a semi-professional team that sits in 9th place (out of 16) in the Welsh Premiership. It’s probably accurate to say that if a professional team does appear in Colwyn Bay, virtually none of these current RGC players will be of a high enough standard to be in the starting team. A few younger prospects may get wider squad places.

This brings us on to the big question of who will play in a new north Wales team?

 

Who will play for north Wales?

If we assume the WRU will want 2 strong teams – the Scarlets/Ospreys amalgamation being one and Cardiff Blues the other, then the Dragons and north Wales will be the two “development” teams.

Again the WRU has a couple of options. They can either take the players not needed from the Scarlets/Ospreys merger and ask them to move north en masse, or they also cherry pick fringe players from other teams such as the Dragons and encourage them to head to Colwyn Bay.

We may see one or two Welsh players return from England but you’d have to expect that a number will be heading the other way, if the only option is Colwyn Bay or nothing.

Either way, we will probably end up with a team that is about the Dragons standard and perhaps weaker.

This has implications for the Pro14, in that Wales will arguably end up with two very weak teams rather than 3 teams that are pushing for playoff spots in this current season.

 

Grand folly

If the leaked sstructure does come to pass, this will just hasten the demise of rugby in Wales and disenfranchise another group of supporters from the domestic game.

Let’s take a step back. If we are the WRU, what would we look for in a location for a professional team?

Firstly, we need it to be in a place that would give us the best chance of being finally sustainable and secondly we want it to be in a location which will provide a stream of high quality players.

If the WRU can’t put in place a sustainable rugby team in Wales’ 2nd city, it certainly won’t do so in a town in north Wales. Swansea is a large population centre that should be a great opportunity to exploit.  Can you imagine the RFU facilitating the closure of Leicester Tigers to set up a new team in Cumbria? Or B&Q closing down a Cardiff branch to make sure they had one in Machen? It’s economic folly.

On the field, the Ospreys have shown to be a great centre for developing talent for Wales, with most of the greatest Welsh players of the last 15 years coming through the age grades. Why ditch this for a region that only has 33 teams in total and no history of large scale talent production? More folly.

Whether we look at this from a rugby or economic perspective we get the same answer; professional rugby teams should be based in Llanelli, Swansea and Cardiff. If a team has to be cut then the Dragons should go, based on their poor record of developing talent, their on-field performances and the fact that the WRU had to step in to support them.

Nobody likes to see a team fold, but the Dragons are the logical option.

Rugby decisions in Wales should be based on financial and rugby reasons only; not on some arbitary desire to have teams matching the 4 points of a compass. The symmetry looks nice but it’s not the best outcome for the game.

Once again, the WRU are leading Welsh rugby to a slow and painful decline.

 

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Wales v England Review: Wales Nullify England’s Options But Is There More To Come?

The script seemed set for this encounter, with England’s emphatic victories against Ireland and France seemingly setting them up to win in Cardiff and virtually guarantee themselves another Eddie Jones’ inspired Grand Slam.

Regular watchers of this fixture will know however, that this game is invariably a tight one, and that’s again how it turned out.

Under Eddie Jones we have picked out two aspects of England’s game that have brought success. The first is the use of their forward carriers to make good yardage over the gainline which gives their backs space  and the second is the accurate kicking game that puts pressure on opponents to make mistakes.

Yesterday saw both what happens when both of these threats largely are nullified, which resulted in Wales being in a position to take control of the game and ultimately the victory.

 

Stopping England’s Carriers

England’s outside backs rely on pace and intelligence, rather than pure power so it’s important that they are given the space through their forward pack making inroads in to the opposition defence.

England may have been missing the carrying presence of Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje yesterday, but their greatest ball carrying asset, Billy Vunipola, was on the pitch and took the ball on a number of times – only to meet the stubborn resistance of Wales’ defensive line.

In the first 60 seconds we saw two examples of the pattern for most of the game, with Billy Vunipola and then Ben Moon brought straight to ground and failing to get over the Welsh gainline.

billy carry 1.gif

Ben Moon is not only tackled well but the ball is dislodged. These opening phases are often key in setting the tone for the rest of the game, and the fact that England failed to breach the Welsh defence was a precursor to the next 60 minutes of rugby. The pattern was set.

moon drop.gif

 

England’s Kicking Game

England’s kicking game was the undoing of France, through a combination of accuracy on behalf of England and a lack of organisation and interest from the French.

In Cardiff we saw the opposite happen; Farrell’s accuracy with boot was awry, while Wales’ back 3 – and Liam Williams in particular, were imperious in defence.

Again, the scene was set in the opening minutes, with Owen Farrell’s high kick (which has been so accurate in this tournament to date), falling well short of its intended target.

farrell bad kick 1.gif

The kick was about 10 metres short of where it should have been (watch Henry Slade have to readjust his line when he saw the trajectory) and gave Wales a chance to recover the ball.

The other aspect to watch is the movement of Josh Navidi who doesn’t follow the ball but moves on to England’s side of the ball, to block any tap pass back or pick up the loose ball.

A couple of minutes later and it’s Ben Youngs’ turn to put up a high box kick, and once again not only does it fall short of its target (Liam Williams coming in from full back can’t get near the ball), Wales pick up the possession and start to attack.

Note again how Wales (through Tipuric) position themselves on the England side to pick up the loose ball.

youngs bad kick 1.gif

This next clips nicely encapsulates the pattern for the first 60 minutes. Billy Vunipola is again stopped on the gain line, he fumbles the ball, Farrell is forced to kick and Wales again position themselves on England’s side of the kick to pick up the loose ball.

billy hit 2.gif

 

We criticised the lack of organisation and urgency in the French defence – let’s look at Wales’ in contrast. The still below shows England kicking long to relieve pressure. Look at the back field for Wales, where they already have 3 players in position and a 4th working hard to get back to join them.

wales positioning

With 3 players defending the backfield, there should be opportunities for England to attack from deep, but they either weren’t spotted or weren’t looked for. When the kicking game wasn’t gaining traction, England should have looked at a different approach – this was an area they failed to exploit.

Wales in Attack

This is a strange Wales team to watch. Their strength is in their defensive organisation and ability to stop teams playing. Keeping England to just 13 points, South Africa to 11 and Australia to 6 points over the last few months gives us an idea of how strong Wales are in this area of their game.

Wales still look unsure when they have the ball though.

Their lineout was again a great worry, as the example below shows. This was with 6 minutes on the clock and a great opportunity for Wales to put pressure on England.

wales lose lineout.gif

With 35 minutes gone, Wales again have a good position to attack off the lineout but once again a critical lineout fails to deliver ball to attack from.

wales bad linoeut 2.gif

Wales lineout has been a problem for years – here we covered it in the autumn internationals in 2017.

Another perennial issue is the lack of an attacking maul – infact, it was from a Welsh maul that England scored their try in the game.

When Wales did keep the ball, the tactic seemed to be to pass the ball to isolated forwards who were often hit back over the gain line. Wales retained possession but couldn’t make any inroads.

With about 15 minutes to go the game changed in nature, with Wales’ forwards suddenly making inroads, the backs finding some space and all of a sudden England were under pressure.

This is a pattern we often see with Wales. A poor first half is followed by a 2nd half where they gradually open up the game and become more offensive. Is this tactical? Is it forced on Wales because they are often trailing or under pressure at this point? Is this Wales’ reported superior fitness telling? Answers on a postcard.

What we do know is that when Wales do have possession and territory they have the players to create tries. Imagine how good they would be if they did this for 80 minutes.

 

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England’s kicking game, France’s abysmal defence and what Wales need to do to counter the English threat

It doesn’t seem that long ago that the knives were out for Eddie Jones as his England team fell to another chastening defeat. Sport is a fickle business though, and just 2 games in to this 6 Nations, England are sweeping all before them and seemingly on an unstoppable route to a Grand Slam.

One prominent feature of their attacking game is their use of kicks behind the opposition’s defensive line – particularly to the corners, to force mistakes and find open space for their wingers to attack.

In England’s 2 games to date, they have scored half their tries (5 of 10) directly from kicks. If you add in another try in the France game that came one phase after a great probing kick in to space and the penalty try that also came from a kick, we can say that 70% of their tries were from accurate and effective kicking.

This article will look at what England are doing, how poor France were in containing the kicking threat and what Wales can do to counter the tactic.

1 minute: May try 

It took just 1 minute for England to notch up their first try in the game against France.

may france 1 try.gif

It’s good play from England. After the turnover, they immediately transfer the ball to one of their creative players (Eliott Daly) who makes good ground through the middle, before kicking over the French defence and allowing May to win the sprint.

Let’s now focus on the French defence and specifically how they defend the space behind their defensive line. This was 1 minute in to the game but we can already see the gaping weaknesses in the French defence that blighted the rest of their performance.

France have the ball. As they lose it in contact, watch the movement of the French players, in particular 9 (Parra), 15 (Huget) and the two wings (11 and 14).

may try still 1

parra huget movement.gif

The clip shows that Parra immediately retires to defend the space at the back on the right and Huget points to their left flank to take up a deep position there. At the top of the screen 14 (Penaud) pushes up, while 11 (Fickou) starts to slowly walk backwards.

This tells us that France defend with two at the back, the scrum half and the full back. So far, there are no big problems but as Daly makes more ground Parra (defending on the right) has a choice to make – does he keep retreating to cover the space behind him, or does he come forward to meet the Daly threat?

parra pushes up.gif

As the clip shows, he ends up being caught between the two decisions. He doesn’t quite trust the players in front of him to deal with the Daly running threat, so he stands his ground and prepares to close in for a tackle. By standing his ground he then opens up the space behind him, and Daly places a clever kick right in to this undefended zone.

parra space still

Parra doesn’t have the pace to turn and keep up with May and once the balls stays in play a try was a certainty.

Parra’s decision to hold his ground is understandable given the ground Daly had made and the fact France only had forwards trying to make a tackle on Daly. The main issue is the space behind Parra, and this should have been covered by Huget, who was also supposed to be defending the space at the back.

Huget is primarily a wing, so perhaps his poor positining and anticipation stems from his lack of game time in the full back role, but as the attack went down France’s right hand flank, he should have been moving across to support Parra, with Fickou on the near-side Wing filling in Huget’s old position in the back-left slot.

The camera angle doesn’t give us a great view of Huget’s movement as the move develops, so we can just pick him up as Daly chips the ball on the right. From the moment Daly picked the ball up, England attacked down the centre and the French right hand flank and yet Huget has still to make it to half way across the pitch.

At the top of the still we can see Penaud (14) is tracking his wing back (May) but get’s badly done for pace (or general interest!) and easily loses the race back to the ball. Fickou has barely moved from his wing.

huget positining still

 

21 minutes: kick that eventually leads to May’s 2nd try

This is very hard to defend against. England have a scrum about 40 metres out from the French line towards the far touchline.

We don’t get a great view of the French setup in its entirety, but the still below shows where the French backs eventually align to defend the scrum. Huget is very wide and deep, while 10 (Lopez) and 14 defend the short side against two English attackers. Effectively they line up 1 to 1.

21 mins set up.jpg

Watch the movement of Youngs (England 9) and Parra around the scrum as the move develops.

21 mins kick.gif

When we talk about details being important at test level, this is the sort of thing that we mean. England had the put-in to this scrum, so Parra would normally be defending on the far side, which would give him easy access to attack Daly when he took the ball.

Instead, Youngs moves around to the open side and Parra follows him. Not only does Parra follow him, but he takes up a position in the defensive line and then has to track back to support Penaud. The fact Parra follows Youngs means that when Daly gets the ball he has plenty of time to pick his spot and execute a perfect kick, again hitting that space behind the winger.

As Daly gets the ball, let’s look at the French positioning.  Lopez (10) has gone to meet Daly, Penaud (14) has dropped back already to scramble back and Parra (9) is tracking the ball. Huget (15) is out of the game because he is defending so wide.

chip back still

The kick was executed perfectly, staying just infield and forcing France to clear from their own try line.

What could France have done better? Parra could have stayed on the far side of the scrum and taken Daly, so allowing Penaud to sit deeper or alternatively he could have retreated behind the scrum and covered the area behind the wing.

 

28 minutes: chaos from a kick leads to May’s 3rd try

England have had multiple phases on the French 22m line without really making much headway, when a stray Youngs’ pass from the base of the ruck results in Slade putting up a high kick. As the kick is made here’s the French positioning in the back field.

28 mins kick still

We now see the familiar sight of Parra (9) in the sweeping role, but this time he is the only player defending the space at the back; Fickou on this side is still stuck on his wing, while Huget (15) – perhaps thinks he is back on the wing, hugs the far touchline behind Penaud (14).

The kick isn’t particularly good but the combination of Parra failing to catch it and the defensive disorganisation results in a fairly simple try for May (after another chip through in to space).

28 mins try.gif

This is truly shambolic stuff. Leaving aside Parra’s poor attempt at catching the ball, it’s the lack of communication and organisation between Parra and Huget that is France’s downfall in this move.

Huget’s initial positioning is wrong, but as he sees Parra come forward to take the ball he should have one thing on his mind, which is to go back and fill the space Parra vacated. Instead Huget follows the ball and gets sucked even further forward.  A clever kick then identifies the space that Huget should be filling and it’s a simple try.

Not even a casual, accusatory glance inside from Huget can disguise this was very poor defending from an experienced test player.

This try came from a combination of a high kick – where the full back (or sweeping player) comes forward to take the ball, followed by a grubber kick through in to the space vacated by the sweeper. Let’s call it England’s 1-2 sucker punch. Hold that thought.

 

38 minutes: More defensive apathy and disorganisation leads to Slade’s try

It gets worse for France. As we head towards half time, France kick the ball away and Owen Farrell puts up a high kick in midfield. France fail to deal with the kick and from the resulting grubber through the defence, England move the ball wide for Slade to score.

38 mins shambles.gif

This try sums up France’s lack of organisation, decision making under pressure and general apathy towards defence.

As Farrell’s kick goes up, France have 3 players defending the back field, with Parra just out of picture, Picamoles at the top of the screen and Huget walking back nearest the camera.

38 mins try still.jpg

If we look at what happens when the ball comes down, we can see the root of France’s problem for this try.

picamoles drop.gif

Picamoles makes a hash of catching the ball (France barely took one catch from a high kick all afternoon), but who is this that appears at the breakdown as Lawes takes the ball on….it’s Parra!

So France did have 3 players covering the back – Picamoles has come forward in an attempt to take the catch, Parra for some reason has followed him in and decided to stay at the breakdown, rather than retreat to sweep again…..that must mean Huget (or perhaps one of the wings) has filled the space at the back? Let’s look.

38 mins chip still

After setting up the ruck, England – through a nice kick from Ben Youngs identified the space behind the French defensive line and Farrell and a few others flood the gap. Huget is nowhere to be seen and we can just catch Fickou making some attempt to scramble back.

It’s good awareness from Youngs but where is Huget?

Here he comes, slowly retreating to fill the space he should have filled a lot earlier.

huget slow 1.gif

Hang on. The clip above shows him coming in to shot with 39.07 on the clock, and he’s just crossed the 15m line.  If we go back up a few stills we see him at 38.55 walking back after Farrell’s high kick. In 12 seconds he has barely covered 20 metres. So what happened to him?

The answer comes from re-winding back to 38.14 when France had possession 30 metres out from their line and Lopez passed the ball to Huget. Huget ignores his wing in acres of space and smashes in to the English defenders. He may have been slightly injured in that tackle (or more likely fatigue), but to buy himself some time to recover he flops on to the next ruck!

huget slow 2.gif

Later, when Farrell puts up the high kick, Huget is virtually in the same spot at that breakdown, and we see him slowly walking back. It seems like he didn’t have the fitness or desire to get back in to the 15 position where he could have prevented the try.

If we step back and look at this try, we see it’s the England 1-2 sucker punch tactic again!

A high ball isn’t caught by the opposition and the grubber kick through hits the space that the player who attempted to catch the ball vacated. It’s that same pattern again; bring the sweeper in for the high kick, then chip in to the space left behind. Simple but effective.

 

What this means for Wales

This 1-2 sucker punch tactic has caught Wales out in recent times. In last year’s 6 Nations England v Wales fixture, Wales failed to catch a high kick, the ball then fell to Owen Farrell who put through a grubber kick for Jonny May to run on to. Exactly the same approach as we saw in the France game.

gif may try

Wales’ weaknesses for this try were also a carbon copy of Frances; a catcher fails to take the ball and the supporting back field player gets drawn towards the ball and fails to defend the space he has been assigned.

There are two areas for concern for Wales in relation to this kick tactic. The first is that Leigh Halfpenny, arguably the best defensive full back in world rugby, still isn’t available to play following concussion related problems stemming from the autumn internationals.

His likely replacement, Liam Williams, offers a more offensive threat but doesn’t have the same postional sense or discipline to make the right defensive decisions at the right times.

The second issue is that although Wales generally has an excellent defence, if there is a weakness it’s around the decision making of the back 3. This article looked at some of the poor decision making over the last season or two, and in game week 1 of this 6 Nations we saw George North again fail to make te right decision in defence, which led to a simple French try.

Wales will however have much better organisation and desire to win than France.  They also usually defend with 2 players at the back – usually the full back and the outside half. If the outside half pushes up – for example Biggar kicks high and long, then it’s usually the job of the scrum half to drop back in to Biggar’s vacated position.

Wales impressive back line blitz also reduces the chances of the ball going wide, which allows the full back to stand more centrally and sweep behind the defensive line. We often saw Huget standing 5-10 metres from the touchline when defending deep. This opens up the field in the centre of the pitch to the chip kick.

Wales can also look at some of the tactics used by England and adopt them for their own use. The kick from the scrum in behind the winger was particularly effective and very difficult to counter, if the kick is accurate and the right length.

Expect more of the same offensive kicking from England in Cardiff in 2 weeks’ time, but Wales can’t complain they haven’t been warned. It’s now down to Wales to work on the organisation around defending these types of kicks in order to nullify England’s attack.

 

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Ireland v England Review: England win the kicking dual and Manu Tuilagi – worth a gamble?

England’s Kicking Game

The first few minutes of the game were a precursor for how the rest of the contest panned out. England’s forwards and inside backs were aggressive and dominant on the gain line and their half backs won the kicking contest.

After the early English try, Ireland kicked a long restart. England caught the ball and played one pass in field to open up the kicking angle. Ben Youngs then plays two exquisite kicks which took England from the own 22m line to inside Ireland’s 22m.

This is the sort of accurate kicking that has been a hall mark of Ireland’s pressure game over the last few years.

youngs kick 1.gif

England’s 3rd accurate kick comes after just 5 minutes as Owen Farrell puts up the high, angled cross-field kick to land on the winger’s head, that is becoming a real trademark of both Farrell and Jonny Sexton.

If the kick was too short then England would have been under pressure as Ireland would be coming on to the ball; too long and it’s a comfortable catch and Ireland would kick long back down the field. The accuracy of the kick should be applauded.

farrell high angled kick

The next passage of play is interesting. The initial kick from Farrell isn’t a great one, but Henshaw kicks long and infield, meaning he has to chase the ball to get his team onside. When England run the ball back and set up a ruck in midfield, we can see Henshaw trying desperately to get back in to the full back position, while Earls vacates the deeper wing slot he took up after Henshaw chased the ball.

As Slade grubbers through the gap Henshaw gets to the ball late and is forced on to his left foot, where he slices the ball.

henshaw slice GIF.gif

What should have happened is Earls (on Ireland’s right wing), should have moved in to the full back position when Henshaw kicked forward and stayed there, allowing Henshaw to defend in Earls wing position.

This would have given Henshaw time to recover from his sprinting and allowed Earls to take up a position further infield and better cover the Slade kick.

A couple of minutes later and England’s kicking game give them a try.

daly try poor ireland defence.gif

Henshaw is again taking up a very strange position, very close to the far touchline, meaning there is no cover in the back centre field for Ireland.

Regardless, the kick is so good, with the end over end tactic causing the ball to stand up just as Stockdale tries to play it, we should put this down to an excellent kicking attack. It looks easy but this is a difficult skill to execute well.

It’s that man Ben Youngs again in our next clip, with an inch perfect 40 metre box kick right near the touch line that gives England a huge territorial gain and also the throw to the lineout. This is exactly the sort of pressure game that Ireland have perfected over the last few years.

youngs great kick.gif

 

Manu Tuilagi

Tuilagi burst on to the rugby scene with a bang in 2011, with his powerful frame ripping huge holes in the opposition defence. Against New Zealand in 2012, in what was arguably England’s greatest ever performance in modern day rugby, Tuilagi was a bundle of explosive energy that the All Blacks couldn’t handle.

Fast forward 6 years to last weekend’s Ireland v England fixture and the Leicester star made just his first England start in 5 years; quite incredible for a player who is still only 27 years old and has such undoubted natural talent.

The intervening years haven’t been kind to Tuilagi, with a serious of hamstring and knee injuries severely limiting his game time. Some of his absences were more of his own making as he received a 5 week suspension (reduced from 10 weeks) for punching Chris Ashton in the face, while away from the pitch he was arrested by police for jumping in to Auckland harbour from a ferry after the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Tuilagi hasn’t been far from the headlines and in 2015 he was found guilty of two counts of assaulting a police officer. In 2017 Tuilagi and Denny Solomona were sent home from an England camp after allegedly returning to the team hotel drunk in the early hours of the morning.

For all the controversy that has followed him, Tuilagi’s talent hasn’t been questioned and in last weekend’s Ireland fixture we saw what England – and rugby, has been missing on the pitch – along with the odd reminder of what a combustible character he can be.

After just 40 seconds of the game England played a relatively quick lineout over the top to Tuilagi on the charge. He was well tackled but the approach set down an early marker that England were going to be direct and physical.

tuilagi charge.gif

In the second example, we see Tuilagi and Slade have switched centre positions, allowing Tuialgi to come from the 13 channel against the grain. Murray misses a tackle on him, but it’s again his ability to stay on his feet in the tackle that creates the momentum.

tuilagi scrum run.gif

For all Tuilagi’s offensive strengths, there has always been a question mark over his defence. Like a number of players with a Pacific Island background, Tuilagi loves looking for the single big tackle that dominates the carrier, but can sometimes struggle with sticking to more structured defensive alignments and making tackles that aren’t big, head on hits.

In the first example, we see Robbie Henshaw running the ball back at the English defensive line. Henshaw has little support and a strong tackle could well see him isolated and the ball turned over. Instead some decent footwork from the Irish full back sees him easily step around Tuilagi and release the pressure.

tuilagi missed tackle.gif

The second clip shows exactly the sort of situation that Tuilagi loves. He reads the long pass is on and anticipates well the flight of the ball, putting in a big hit on Bundee Aki.

tuilagi big tackle aki.gif

 

Tuilagi does have a tendency to lose his discipline and give away silly penalties.

In this first clip, an innocuous chip from Ireland turned in to a penalty advantage after Tuilagi stepped across to block the chasing players.

tuialgi penalty.gif

The second example, shows Tuilagi identifying the prone ribs of Jacob Stockdale and driving his shoulder in to them with force. It doesn’t look like there was head contact but the TMO should really have reviewed this and as a minimum it was a yellow card against Tuilagi and a penalty.

 

It will be interesting to watch Tuilagi’s development during this 6 Nations. Can he remain injury free, fit and out of trouble off the pitch?

If he can, do his on field exploits with the ball outweigh some of his defensive frailties and moments of poor discipline.  In a World Cup semi-final he could be the sort of player to give you a winning edge….or perhaps be the person to give away a penalty that loses England the game. Would you risk him?

 

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