Wales – Groundhog day versus the Southern Hemisphere

In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day Bill Murray finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again. Watching Wales against the Southern Hemisphere giants has the same feeling.

After battering the Australian line for 10 minutes against 13 players last week it was now the time for South Africa to come from behind to deliver the killer blow to Wales. Regular watchers of Wales will recognise the pattern, the question is how do they break the Groundhog Day cycle?

This is a good Wales team

Before we delve in to what Wales needs to do to improve it is firstly worth stating that this is a good Wales team. In the last 12 months they have beaten South Africa, England at Twickenham in the Rugby World Cup and come a whisker away from the 6 Nations Championship.

Gatland and Sean Edwards have turned Wales in to a powerful defensive force who are very difficult to break down and score tries against. The much lauded Australian attack couldn’t cross the Welsh whitewash last week and today it took a great pass from Duane Vermeulen to give South Africa a solitary try as we entered the final stages of the quarter final.

This is a Welsh team that is no longer physically bullied at the breakdown; a team that can win the breakdown collisions against the big boys and use it as an area of strength.

It is also a Welsh team that has great character and fortitude. The strength of belief to withstand a torrid first half against England but then come back to take the game in the last 10 minutes was a sight to behold.

So what’s the problem?

Wales have shown for some time that they are the equal to the best in the northern Hemisphere but it is their poor record against the Southern Hemisphere teams that needs looking at. When the same approach continually yields the same result it is time to look at the approach.

Not only has the outcome been the same – usually a defeat, but the manner of the defeat has also followed a similar pattern. It is obvious that the current Welsh approach needs to be adapted. Here we look at a couple of these areas that need addressing.

Strategy and style of play

The Gatland approach is simple and often effective but few would call it pretty. It is characterised by:

  • the dominance of power and strength over creativity and guile
  • a highly structured approach to rugby with standard plays in each sector of the pitch
  • low risk options as standard

Wales are a team that looks far more comfortable without the ball than with it. This is a direct result of the way Gatland has set the team up to play and the personnel he has relied on to take him through his period as coach.

If we look at the back row for example there is no real ball carrier there. Warburton is the jackal, Lydiate the tackler and Falateu a hybrid 8/6 who can use his footwork and pace to make yards but is also comfortable competing on the floor. As a triumvirate they work well together but their primary strengths are in a defensive mode rather than offensive.

In the midfield we get a similar story. Dan Biggar has had a great World Cup but he is not the creative, attacking 10 that some teams employ. Outside him Jamie Roberts knows one way – straight. He doesn’t run at space, he doesn’t have a particularly good pass but he will make hard yards by running straight.

These players are chosen because they are good at putting in to practise the game plan devised by Gatland. The plan is to apply pressure to the opposition and squeeze points out through capitalising on their mistakes. Often this is through the kick and chase where the back row attempt to be first to the breakdown to secure the ball or ideally the penalty.

The kick and press

One obvious tactic that Wales have employed under Gatland is the kick clearance from their own 22m that stays in play. The clearing player keeps the ball in play deliberately with the defensive line pressing hard and flat to pressure the ball carrier in to a mistake.

It is difficult to know why Wales use this tactic. It could be because of their concern over the weakness of their lineout or perhaps as a tactic to increase the ball in play time and make the game more aerobic, which should benefit them later in the game if it comes down to a fitness battle.

What usually happens though is it invites the opposition back 3 to attack and keep the pressure on the Welsh defence. In the South Africa game the second half developed the pattern of Wales trying to relive pressure through a kick kept in play, the South Africans then attacking in the resulting open play and Wales then being back where they started.

South Africa as a result often played 4 at the back in open play knowing Wales will kick the ball to them in open play.

There were a few examples in today’s game. On 47 minutes after a period of pressure on the Welsh line Dan Biggar kicked the ball to le Roux on the half way line rather than kick it out for a lineout on the Welsh 10 metre line. 5 phases later South Africa were on the Welsh 22m line and 17 phases later they were on the Welsh line.

On 63 minutes Anscombe cleared from defence straight to Duane Vermulen and again they ended up  defending 25 metres out from their line. In a game where the referee is penalising the breakdown at will why play the game in your own half?

It is hard to believe that allowing the opposition back 3 a clear run back with the ball is a benefit to Wales over the 80 minutes.

Lineout

A perennial Welsh weakness that hasn’t been fixed. In a tight game securing good ball not only gives the team an attacking platform, it prevents the opposition from attacking their line!

There were a few crucial lineout errors in the South Africa game. On the South African 10m line Baldwin overthrew the ball which was a waste of a great attacking opportunity on 22 minutes.

On 67 minutes Wales won a lineout on halfway but with front ball.  This doesn’t give Jamie Roberts good ball to attack off but bizarrely it was Falateu who was in the number 9 position giving a poor pass to Roberts, while Gareth Davies was standing on his own 8 metres behind the play. It was a very odd set lineout but symptomatic of Wales continual weakness in the lineout.

Lack of creativity and playing what is in front of you

Wales play a very structured game plan. At times this means the players are not thinking for themselves and making decisions based on what is going on around them. This is partly due to the personnel chosen but also because of the Gatland approach.

Off first phase ball Wales over very little in the backs, while off phase play they look uncomfortable with the ball, save for the odd bit of individual skill from the likes of Scott Williams or Liam Williams. The mindset is to play low risk rugby as per the structured plan.

Here are two screen shots of Wales in possession later in the game. Yes, Wales are in the lead and there is an argument that they should take a conservative approach but these are 2 great opportunities to attack South Africa.

In the first shot Anscombe has a fairly open field to his left with Cuthebrt on his shoulder, North 10m to his right and Biggar is a decent position to contribute to the attack. Instead the ball was kicked to South Africa to attack back at Wales.

wales attack 1

In this second frame Dan Biggar plays the standard option for Wales in that part of the pitch which is to kick the ball away. If he had glanced up he would have seen a 15 metre gap between the South African forwards.

wales attack 2

In tight games against the top teams Wales will have to take more risks and take the game to the opposition rather than sit back and wait for them to make mistakes. They have to create chances and sometimes this means taking risks and doing the unexpected.

Will there be another Groundhog Day?

Unless some fundamental decisions are made then yes – we will see the same again when the next Southern Hemisphere team comes to town.

This may mean Gatland disposes of his forwards and backs coaches and injects some new ideas in to the coaching set up. It may mean that the players are given more of a licence to express themselves and deviate from the plan. It may be that some new players are introduced that would bring a fresh approach and bring an edge of creativity.

Time will tell if Bill Murray will be making another appearance.

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