It was an impressive set of results for Wales over the Autumn with convincing wins against Scotland, Australia, Tonga and South Africa.
As ever, Wales defence was excellent and there were flashes of some of their weaker parts of their game evolving, with a couple of top class set piece tries and improvements in the maul defence and lineout.
One area that still needs addressing to take their game to another level is their kicking game – specifically kicking in the defensive half of the field.
We have seen recently how Ireland use the kicking game to apply pressure to the opposition and this is something Wales can learn from; you don’t need to force the play to create opportunities – sometimes these opportunities come from applying pressure to the opposition.
There are 5 main kick types that we will focus on, which are characteristic of Wales’ strategy under Gatland.
(1) Clearing kick from their own 22m
This is a Gatland favourite – the Welsh clearing kick is aimed to stay in field, rather than find touch. The tactic has been a mainstay of Wales under Gatland but it is a tactic that we find very difficult to understand.
There seem to be 3 reasons Wales do it. Firstly, by not kicking to touch they take the lineout and the associated lineout drive, out of the armoury of the opposition. Secondly, if the opposition run the ball back, there is an opportunity to tackle and jackal the ball and thirdly it increases the ball in play time, which Wales thinks suits their fitness levels.
Our view is that in most cases Wales end up losing about 50% of the territory gained from the kick, through the initial carry from the opposition catcher and are usually forced back on the defensive again, with often an unorganised defensive line. It doesn’t relieve pressure, it invites is back on Wales.
Here are two examples from the South Africa game.
In the first, Gareth Davies clears fairly long but Le Roux has an easy catch and South Africa can start to attack again.
In the second example Tomos Williams finds very good distance and with a strong Welsh defensive line they tackle Louw in his own half of the field.
Our verdict: From deep in their half and when they are under pressure, Wales should kick to find touch, so allowing their defence to reform and perhaps even to steal or pressurise the lineout.
Where they can put good distance on the ball (find grass in the opposition half), then the kick to keep the ball in play is a good tactic.
(2) Box kick by scrum half in own half
Wales lost momentum in the 2nd half by too easily conceding possession and territory to the Springboks. Every team uses the box kick tactic but there are 4 possible outcomes that depend on the quality of the kick and the chase:
(1) The kick is re-taken by a Welsh player competing for the ball (it’s usually a winger)
(2) The receiver catches the ball near the touchline and is bundled in to touch
(3) The receiver catches the ball and is immediately tackled
(4) The receiver has time to catch the ball and set up a counter-attack
The objective is option 1, with a sliding scale of desirability down to option 4.
Here are a few examples from the South Africa game of this type of kick.
In the first Davies’ box kick about 20 metres, North flaps a hand at it but it’s South Africa who pick up possession and start to attack.
In example 2 (below), Davies kicks long, there is a poor defensive press and Kolbe makes a dangerous break.
The final example shows Davies’ kick travel barely 10 metres, North again fails to catch the ball and South Africa secure it about 5 metres in front of Davies’ kicking position.
Our verdict: Every team has to have this kick as a weapon in their arsenal. Wales’ problem is that the execution of the kick is often not accurate enough, whether this is because of poor kicking or having wingers who can’t compete in the air for the ball.
Aerial prowess has never been a strength of North’s and this weakness makes the box kick to compete, a difficult tactic for Wales to effectively employ. North and Adams on the other wing, would be better standing off the ball and tackling the catcher, rather than over running the ball or slapping it to who knows who.
(3) Midfield high kick to compete
Between Wales 22m line and the halfway line Wales will often put up a high kick in the centre of the field, with the intention to try and compete to win the ball back. This is one of Dan Biggar’s trademarks and when he came on against South Africa he executed the kick on a couple of occasions.
South Africa make a huge mess of the kick in the first clip and Wales win a scrum for a knock on.
There’s not as much depth on the kick in the 2nd example but again the Springboks struggle to deal with it, gifting Wales a scrum.
Our verdict: This is a very good option, when executed to perfection by Dan Biggar. In both these examples Wales relieve pressure, gain territory and the ball and put the onus back on South Africa to defend.
If executed badly, the kick can either gift cheap ball to the opposition or potentially put the whole team offside.
(4) Shallow cross field kick with the aim to compete for the ball/kick pass
Here is Gareth Anscombe attempting this type of kick in the first half.
On the face of it, it looks like a successful kick but it is a very high risk/low success rate tactic. Firstly, the kick needs to be very accurate, secondly the catcher then has to take the pass (usually in the air) and try and find a supporting runner and thirdly, if the ball spills lose the opposition could have a clear run to the Welsh try line.
Wales ended up conceding possession too cheaply in this example, using a move that has a low chance of success.
Our verdict: The shallow kick/kick pass should only be used in 2 circumstances; around the half way line when the catcher has a clear opportunity to catch the ball and isn’t going to be under pressure, and near the opposition line where a tap down could lead to a try, but there is plenty of space to be able to defend a break if the ball bobbles free.
(5) High cross field kick towards the touchline to apply pressure
This type of kick is becoming more and more common, with Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell being two good proponents of the approach. It is usually kicked around the half way line to the 10 metre line, with the target to isolate the wingers or back 3 of the opposition, near the touchline.
The aim isn’t necessarily to compete for the ball in the air, but to gain territory and try and win the lineout or jackal.
Here are a couple of examples of Wales employing the tactic.
This is an inch perfect kick from Anscombe who puts enough height on the kick to allow North to be under the ball, while still landing the ball just 2 metres from the touchline.
Unfortunately, we get the North flappy arm again, whereas he would have been better just standing off and either taking Le Roux in to touch or picking up any slapped ball from the Springbok full back.
In the 2nd clip it’s Biggar who attempts the kick but it goes too far and South Africa can comfortably take the ball.
Our verdict: Done well, this is an excellent kick option that puts the pressure on the opposition but also gives Wales a chance to make large territorial gains and potentially even recover possession if the catcher can be put in touch.
Wales need to use this tactic more often.
Improvements for the 6 Nations?
There are certainly elements of Wales kicking strategy and execution that Wales can improve on for the 6 Nations.
Gatland is not going to stop keeping the ball in field off defensive clearances so Wales need to focus on finding more depths on their kicks. Davies needs to improve his box kick accuracy and the wingers need to either learn how to compete in the air or just stand off and be ready to make a positive hit when the catcher touches the grass.
In general, Wales could learn from Ireland’s approach of kicking to apply pressure to the opposition, rather than always trying to use low success rate options that often just concede the ball to the opposition.
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