Alex Cuthbert’s rise was fairly meteoric. He made his debut for Cardiff Blues in September 2011, turned out for Wales just 3 months later and capped it all off with a British and Irish Lions test appearance on the 2013 Australia tour.
At his peak Cuthbert used his pace and size to burst through holes and provide the finishing flourish to promising chances. His two tries in the 2013 6 Nations Championship decider against England were characteristic of the raw athletic talent he brought to the game.
Even at this stage of his career it was obvious that there were a number of technical deficiencies to his game but they were accommodated as long as he kept making distance with the ball in hand and scoring tries.
British and Irish Lions test v Australia 2013
Cuthbert’s zenith was probably in the second half of the first test where he worked himself in to midfield off his wing and used his searing pace to find a hole and burst through.
It is interesting to note that on the 2013 Lions tour Cuthbert’s weight was listed as 16st 3lb whereas his current RWC 2015 weight is 16st 10lb. Looking back at this footage from 2013 it is arguable that his acceleration is not what it used to be but this is just supposition.
Rugby World Cup 2015
The two years after the Lions tour have not been easy for Cuthbert. He has been part of a struggling Cardiff Blues team and his own form seems to have mirrored Cardiff’s demise.
He is no longer first choice wing for Wales if all players are fit and healthy but it is due to Wales’ crippling injury list in the backline that Cuthbert finds himself back in the first team and will probably line up against South Africa in the quarter finals.
He is currently being picked not because of his form but because of the dearth of other options. This article will look at the ineffectiveness of his kick chase but then highlight why his lack of form may not be all his doing.
Kick chase and challenge
Wales’ conservative game plan relies on the high kick when they have the ball in the space between the half way line and their 22. This is giving possession back to the opposition unless you can challenge and try and recover the ball, which is the role often filled by the wing.
This clip is a good example of Cuthbert’s lack of effectiveness in the air against the kick chase. For some reason he has badly misjudged the flight of the ball meaning he isn’t in a position to compete for it.
This is just one example of Cuthbert either not being in position to compete or if he in position to compete, failing to come away with the ball.
Getting the best out of Cuthbert
We have some sympathy with Alex Cuthbert. He is a winger whose strengths are getting the ball in hand in space and running hard and straight. The problem with the way this Welsh team plays under Warren Gatland is that they operate a very conservative, low risk game which doesn’t provide players like Cuthbert the opportunities to get the ball where he can be at his most dangerous.
Using the Vine below as an example we can see Cuthbert chasing Dan Biggar’s kick but getting distracted from the chase by a subtle piece of obstruction from Kuridrani. Yes, Cuthbert gets a bit of a shoulder but his petulant reaction means he is about 2 metres away from where he needed to be when the balls is taken by the Australian player.
When we look at the play in a bit more detail we see a different story. As the still shot shows Cuthbert has worked his way around from his wing to add numbers to a potential blind side attack.
If this was a New Zealand team with the ball Dan Biggar would be playing a lot flatter to the gain line and by attacking the line there would have been the potential to put Cuthbert in to the hole between Kuridrani and Giteau, or to move it wide where they may have a numerical advantage.
The default Wales play in this part of the pitch is to kick and compete, which is not playing to Cuthbert’s strengths.
In the same game nearer the Australian line we see another example of Cuthbert getting himself in to a decent position to attack, but not being given the ball in space. Once again Cuthbert has worked off his wing in what looks like a pre-planned move but instead of being given the ball in what looks like a clear channel 10 metres from the Australian line, Biggar hangs on to the ball and takes the tackle. A promising move dies.
Finally, we see Cuthbert being given the ball off a lineout in another set-piece move from Wales that makes little headway. He takes a few steps before being swallowed up by the Australian defence.
It would be wrong though to attribute the failure of this passage of play solely to Cuthbert. It may be that the timing of his run was slightly off and Gareth Davies’ pass didn’t help Cuthbert maintain his momentum but the move was doomed to fail because it was being played off front of the line ball.
Wales’ lack of confidence in their lineout may have been the contributing factor in choosing the front of the line ball to play this move off. By the time the ball has got to Cuthbert’s hands Genia and the Australian back row are just a metre or so away from the contact area. This is not the sort of ball you want a player like Cuthbert running off.
Cuthbert’s yellow card in the dying minutes of the Australia game summed up his recent performances for Wales, but as this analysis has shown not all the blame can be placed at his doorstep.
His negative body language doesn’t help his relationship with the rugby public but Wales and Cardiff need to find a way to get the best out of him. The litany of injuries in the Welsh back line mean he will be back in Welsh colours very soon.
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