The Fall and Fall of French Test Rugby

Firstly, a warning.

This article isn’t written as a cold, objective assessment of France’s current fortunes; instead it is an outpouring of frustration and pity at the current state of the French national test team.

For those of us who were first introduced to rugby in the 1980’s, the players in the vivid blue of France represented everything that was great about the game. Players like Phillipe Sella, Serge Blanco and Franck Mesnel combined panache, entertainment, skill and flamboyance with a bubbling undercurrent of violence and intimidation.

These were rugby superstars playing rugby as it should be played.

Fast forward 3 decades and the team is a pale shadow of the great French teams of old.  In harmony with the performances on the pitch, the colour of their shirt also seems to have dimmed over time, from a glorious blue to a muddy shade of dark blue. Where has the life and colour gone in French test rugby?

Some Statistics

It’s nearly 2 years since we wrote the myth-busting article “Which French Team will Turn up?”.

 

The answer then was a very average one and things in the intervening period haven’t improved. Here are a few charts and statistics:

Number of French wins in the 6 Nations:

France - no of 6 N wins.jpg

 

Final position in the 6 Nations

final position france

 

Rugby World Cup performances

rwc results.jpg

 

Performances against major nations

New Zealand – it doesn’t seem that long ago that France used to be the All Blacks’ nemesis, but France have now lost 11 games in a row to the men from New Zealand, including the 2015 RWC quarter final humiliation, when they lost 62-13.

Australia – France have won just 2 of the last 11 games (2012, 2014).

South Africa – the Boks have been going through their own barren period and yet they have now won 6 in a row against France, including 3 tests in the Summer of 2017 when many felt that they could win the series. Their defeats in that series were also heavy – 37-14, 37-15 and 35-12.

England – France have won 3 of the last 10

Ireland – France dominated this fixture until 2011. The 2012 and 2013 6 Nations fixtures were draws and since then Ireland have won 4 of the 5 fixtures

Wales – this was another fixture that France dominated for decades but Wales had won 5 in a row (including 2 wins in Paris) before the controversial last minute try for France game them victory in the 2017 6 Nations fixture.

 

World Rugby rankings

France currently stand at number 9 in the world with Fiji breathing down their neck in 10th place. France did move up to number 3 in the world in 2011 but their steady decline since then seems terminal.

french world rankings decline

 

The fall and fall

The data suggests that somewhere around 2010 or 2011 France’s decline started. Although they reached the World Cup final in 2011 there was perhaps an element of luck in their semi-final win (Sam Warburton’s red card) and most commentators were of the opinion that this wasn’t a strong French team.

Their 6 Nations form has been very poor for a number of seasons and finishing in 4th place or lower for 5 consecutive seasons, isn’t a record a team like France should be aiming for. Indeed this could have been 6 seasons in a row if it wasn’t for the controversial France-Wales game in 2017.

French test rugby has been in the doldrums for too long. World rugby needs a strong French team to compete at the top table and provide competition to the best teams in the world. A nation of the size, wealth and rugby pedigree of France should be competing for World Cups, not looking to avoid the 6 Nations whitewash against Italy.

In the next article we will look at some reasons why we think France struggle at test level but if you have any theories please let us know.

 

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Wales v New Zealand review: – lineouts, Steff Evans & midfield defence

Anyone who has watched Wales in Autumn internationals will know that the performances and results are quite predictable. That’s why we tweeted this – slightly tongue in cheek tweet, after the Australia game:

As it turned out, it was two All Black tries in 5 minutes, with the first in the 57th minute that took the game away from Wales and helped New Zealand to a 18 – 33 victory.

For all the talk of Wales’ game evolving, it was the same issues that keep coming up time and time again, that prevented them from pulling off a huge upset. In this article we will look at 3 aspects of the game; the Welsh lineout, the contribution from Steff Evans and the Welsh midfield defence.

Wales Lineout

The last time we wrote about the problems with the Welsh lineout was during their Summer tour to New Zealand in 2016 – (article here). 18 months on and the same weaknesses are evident.

Against Australia the lineout was a relative success with Aaron Shingler providing a useful source of ball, indeed Wales won 14 of their 15 lineouts.

The officials statistics say that against New Zealand, Wales won 9 of 11 lineouts but looking though the footage this isn’t correct (or the assessors have a loose definition of a lineout “win”).

Here are a couple examples of Wales not securing good lineout ball.

(1) 3:37 – The lineout is 30m from the New Zealand line, but the ball is thrown to Falateu in the middle. New Zealand contest and the ball ends up on the All Black side (see below)

lineout 1.jpg

(2) 10:50 – Once more Wales are in a good attacking position on the New Zealand 22m line, but again they fail to secure the ball as the New Zealand lifter gets up in front of Falateu.  It’s almost as if the All Blacks know the lineout calls.

(4) 33:48 Wales are on the New Zealand 10m line. The lineout is in disarray and Owens ends up throwing the ball in to the lineout, with no Welsh jumper even getting in the air. New Zealand steal the ball.

The first two examples in particular, were crucial to Wales not being able to convert their territory and possession advantage in to points. A solid lineout, with an attacking maul as another attacking option would bring about a material improvement in the Wales game.

 

Steff Evans

There is no doubting the attacking talent that Evans has at his disposal and this was to the fore in the Scarlets’ impressive run to the 2016/17 Pro12 title.

In his two Autumn international fixtures against Australia and New Zealand, we have seen glimmers of what he does best, which is to attack disorganised defences, usually when he strays off his wing and picks the ball up in midfield.

Against Australia, he showed strength and balance to finish off a sweeping Wales move in the 16th minute and there were a few positive runs when he had possession in space.

On the flip side the question marks over his defence at the top level have resurfaced.

We don’t often quote official statistics because they usually fail to show the full story but against Australia, Evans conceded 5 turnovers (only equalled by Faletau), made 2 tackles and missed 1.

One turnover (shown below), was a rip by Kurtley Beale which resulted in the Aussie fullback having a clear run in to the try line.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Against New Zealand he made 5 tackles and missed 7 (as a comparison, no other Welsh player missed more than 2 tackles).

The first All Blacks’ try came from a strong run from Rieko Ioane, with Steff Evans falling off the tackle (see below).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

To Evans’ credit, after missing this tackle he continued to track back to the corner flag, where he made a last gasp attempt to stop Waisake Naholo from scoring (below).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

If we look at the point of contact in the tackle and take a freeze frame, we see one of the technical errors in Evans’ tackle technique.

evans tackle naholo.jpg

As Evans’ reaches Naholo, he should be looking to get his head behind Naholo’s body and use his left shoulder to drive him towards the touchline. In reality he does the opposite – he turns his body away from the contact and doesn’t get his shoulder in to the New Zealand winger.

Later in the game, Evans finds himself defending one of the inside channels when Sonny Bill Williams runs at him. The New Zealand centre runs across Evans but we again see the Welsh winger adopt the same technique as per the Naholo tackle, namely he puts his right shoulder in front of the carrier and doesn’t use his correct shoulder (see below).

It’s as if he doesn’t want to make a conventional tackle and is relying on his body to halt the carrier.

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Although his defence has improved over the last 12 months, the game against New Zealand did bring to mind some of the poor technique that blighted his game a season or so ago, with the heavy defeat against Glasgow in 2015 being the nadir (see below for an example).

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

Wales Midfield Defence

Evans wasn’t helped in defence by some weak organisation by those inside him. Wales suffered hugely from the loss of Jonathan Davies, not just in attack, but in providing a strong outside blitz in defence.

Traditionally, Wales’ centre field defence relied on a strong push from 10, 12 and 13 to close down the opposition’s space, with the outside centre moving ahead of his inside defenders so cutting down space outside.

This still (below) is taken from the Wales – England 6 Nations fixture earlier this year. It shows the Welsh midfield trio (including Jon Davies) pushing as a single line with the outside centre creating the umbrella shape to cut off the outside channels.

fox pish 1

Let’s now go back to Rieko Ioane’s break, where we highlighted Steff Evans missed a tackle. If we freeze the footage and look at the shape of the midfield defence in the lead up to the break we see a completely different shape to the one in the England game.

nz defebce 1

This time it’s Biggar who is the most advanced of the 3, with Scott Williams about 2 metres behind him (contrast that with Jon Davies’ position in the England example). If we move the picture on another second the alignment becomes even worse (see below).

defence 2.jpg

Biggar is now directly infront of Owen Williams at 12, while all 3 players cover a lateral area of about 4 metres. Scott Williams, who is usually a 12, hasn’t pushed up and by the time he does push up the pass has been made to Ioane coming in the channel between 13 and the wing.

In this last example, we look again at the alignment of the Welsh midfield as Ioane strolls in for a soft try. As the ball is played out to the New Zealand backs we have the following defensive shape.

dfence 3

As we move the play on we see Biggar and Roberts form a pretty strong 10-12 wall (the benefits of playing together so often), but look at Owen Williams position (now playing in the 13 channel).

defence 4.jpg

He is about 2 metres short of his midfield colleagues and about 4 metres short of where he should be. If Williams had been in a Jon Davies position for this play, Ioane would not have had the clear run through the 13-wing channel (again).

 

An Evolving Approach from Wales?

On one hand we have identified the same forward weaknesses that have blighted Wales’ game for years, which don’t seem to improve. You would think that a maul and a lineout are two areas that could be coached to a decent standard, but this is an area Wales have regressed in.

Wales have tried to implement a more creative approach and changed personnel as a result, which will obviously bring with it a period of bedding in as players get used to different team mates. This could be the explanation for the positional lapses we saw in the New Zealand game.

Steff Evans deserves his shot at the Wales jersey given his domestic form, but the problem he needs to urgently address is his defence. A suspect defence seems to be a common trait with Wales back three players over recent years with Cuthbert, North, Amos, Liam Williams and Halfpenny all having moments of weakness (Halfpenny’s more for the safety of his tackles rather than the effectiveness!).

 

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Wales v Georgia – a replacement controversy

The 2017 6 Nations saw arguably one of the most controversial incidents in professional rugby’s history, when France met Cardiff.

Late in the game, as the French were attacking the Welsh tryline, the French prop Atonio was replaced by the starting prop (Slimani), who had earlier been substituted in the game. The change was made under the Head Impact Assessment (HIA) protocols; brought in to protect players in the event of suspected head traumas, and not as a means to bring stronger players back on to the field at crucial moments of the game.

At the time it seemed pretty clear what had gone on, and we tweeted:

The timeline of the controversial prop replacement was covered in a popular blog article at the time.

Someone who also felt the French had done something wrong was Rob Howley, who said this at the time:

howley slimani quote.jpg

Pretty strong words and an unequivocal stance.  Fast forward 8 months and we now find Wales embroiled in similar controversy, but this time the accusing fingers are pointing at Wales.

 

What happened?

Let’s look at the key developments in the controversy:

55 mins: Wales replace their loose head prop (Nicky Smith) and their tight head prop (Leon Brown), who had endured a difficult game in the scrum on his test debut. Tomos Francis replaces Brown.  Both replaced players seem to walk and jog off the pitch without any evidence of injury.

81.23 Georgia, trailing 13-6,  attack the Welsh line, just metres out, when the referee (Reynal) penalises the Welsh tight head Tomos Francis and issues him with a yellow card. Wales should ordinarily bring back on their starting tight head, assuming he is not injured.

81.27 The camera cuts to the Welsh coaching box. Rob Howley is inside the room while the other coaches are looking at the screen or the pitch. There is no discussion at this point.

81.52 We see both Welsh props standing on the touchline with their kit off, alongside Wales’ Performance Manager Paul Stridgeon with the ear piece.

As the footage shows, Stridgeon suddenly turns around and seems to look up towards the coaches box. His right hand then goes to his microphone as if he is going to communicate and he then walks in front of Brown but continues to look up towards the coach’s box. Brown then looks at Stridgeon as he talks in to his microphone.

Frustratingly the producer cuts away from that picture and shows us the Francis infringement again. Even more frustratingly, we can hear the odd word from the referee but Jonathan Davies talks over the top of him.

81.52  The camera shows the Welsh box again, but this time there seems to be a couple of conversations going on. Howley seems to be the only one of the management team with an ear piece, we assume to communicate with the bench.

The referee calls a scrum. Incidentally, the Georgian starting tight head prop returns to the field. How has this happened? Has the reserve prop been injured? He seems to limp off but have Georgia also tried to manipulate the rules by bringing back on their first choice tight head?

Again we see the Welsh box and Sean Edwards talking in an animated fashion to Howley. Robin McBryde has now put his head set on as well.

The referee tries to form the scrum but realises that Wales are still a prop down. He then starts to look back towards the touchline. He must receive some information from the 4th official because we can hear him say, “so it’s uncontested scrum”.

This time we can’t hear the referee’s important words because Eddie Butler talks over the top of him. Reynal seems to suggest that Wales will play with 13 (perhaps he is thinking of the French league where if a prop can’t be replaced, they forfeit that player).

The Welsh coaching team are now looking impassively at the pitch. The referee informs the Wales’ captain Lydiate that they don’t have enough props, and that the game will move to uncontested scrums, although he still wants Wales to move to 13 players.

Wales’ replacement hooker Dacey seems ready to come on and there is again chat in the Welsh coaching box, but this seems linked to the issue about the referee wanting Wales to go down to 13 players, rather than the replacement of Francis.

It’s pretty incredible that an elite referee doesn’t know the test match rules around replacements but that’s another issue.

 

Post-match comments

Warren Gatland told us after the match that Leon Brown had been taken off as a tactical change and not as an injury replacement, but he added that “…we knew he was cramping up a little bit”.

Gatland also stated that: “I can promise you there wasn’t anything from our point of view in terms of trying to manipulate the laws or anything like that. If Leon had have been fit, he definitely would have gone back on the field.”

Gatland attended today’s presser where he added a few more details about the incident:

“…from the box we said Leon is to go back on, and the message came that he couldn’t go back on, he’s been cramping up..”. Gatland also said that there were a number of occasions in the game where they could see Brown cramping and stretching, but it wasn’t an injury replacement because:

“we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there. They just said, look he hasn’t recovered from that”.

 

Did Brown have cramp?

If we look back at the footage we can see that in the 54th minute of the game Brown comes together with a Georgian player and he seems to be in some discomfort as a result. With around 53.49 on the clock, Brown seems to be hobbling alongside the referee.

Here he is holding his foot in a manner consistent with calf cramp.

brown cramp

 

Questions to ask

If Brown did have cramp, why wasn’t he taken off as an injured player, rather than a tactical switch?

If Brown did have cramp at the point when Francis went off (nearly 30 minutes later), why did he stand on the touchline seemingly ready to play?

What did Gatland mean by this – “we were hoping that if he does…if he is cramping, and he’s got time to recover he can get out there.” ?  Get out there, when? As another impact player late in the game?

Who made the call to tell the box that Brown had cramp? The player himself as he stood on the touchline?

How did Georgia’s starting tight head also come back on to the pitch?

What was the sequence and content of the discussions between the box and Stridgeon? The limited camera views seemed to suggest that the box first made contact with Stridgeon as he was with Brown, but Stridgeon replied without speaking to Brown. Had Brown already said to Stridgeon he was suffering from cramp?

 

The rugby authorities needs to look in to this incident and with more urgency and application than it did with the French farce. The game’s integrity is rapidly eroding at the professional level and we need to do what we can to retain it.

 

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My mate was right – rugby ethics really are no better than football’s

Ten years ago, I always looked forward to Monday’s chat at the water cooler in the office with my colleague Mike. It was a chance to talk about the weekend’s football action; the players diving to get a penalty, the crowd verbally abusing the opposition player, the forward who stayed on the floor to milk a free kick and the manager who would berate the officials to mask his own failures.

Mike was a Spurs fan and I was an ardent rugby supporter. I felt a sense of superiority that my game had some intrinsic moral superiority to his game, because of the unwritten rugby rules around fair play, integrity and treating the opposition and officials alike with respect.

I would scoff at any suggestion that rugby players would feign an injury to con a fellow professional. I would baulk at his proposal that money would harm rugby’s values and I would laugh in his face when he said rugby will end up with the same problems of integrity that faced football.

Ten years on, I think I was wrong and he was right.

 

What’s happened to our game?

At the grassroots level of rugby we haven’t yet seen the same deterioration in values that we are seeing in the professional game – but this may come. What we do know, is that at the top level of the game we are seeing an increasing change in the way the game is played and how coaches and supporters approach the sport.

What used to be a bit of fun has now turned in to a commercial industry which supports people’s livelihoods (players and coaches) and sucks hard-earned cash from others (supporters).

Theblitzdefence has covered some of these changes in rugby in our “footballisation of rugby” mini-series, which covered abusing officialsplayacting, Nico Matawalu and Pat Lam.

These aren’t isolated incidents though. In the last few weeks we have seen more examples of the sorts of behaviours that were common in football but considered taboo in rugby. Here are a few of the main trends.

 

Abusing officials

Rugby has always been a sport where you have been allowed to voice your opinion and say if you don’t agree with an officials decision; as it should be. Coaches should have the right to say “I don’t think it was a red card, because XYZ”, but what they are now doing is calling officials’ independence and integrity in to question.

A serial offender is the Sale coach Steve Diamond who has recently been given another ban for comments about officials. This time he accused a referee of making up offences.

“Well, he [Maxwell-Keys] was making it up, wasn’t he?” Diamond said.

“The ref was making the decision up. There were 40 or 50 rucks that should have been penalised if that’s a penalty.

“We found out in Europe the refereeing is abysmal, and we found out tonight [against Exeter] that if referees want to come up here and make it up, then they can do.”

In the recent England – Australia test, it was reported that the Australian coach Michael Cheika was caught on camera appearing to accuse New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe of “f****** cheating” from the coaches box.

He then followed this up with a fractious interview with a journalist. Alex Ferguson or Mourinho anyone?

 

Cheating the system

We are not just talking about bending on-field rugby laws – which is so widespread in the professional game that it’s barely worth commenting on, but exploiting rules brought in to help player welfare to improve a team’s chances of winning.

A year or so ago, rugby’s very own Jeremy Clarkson, Austin Healy, suggested faking a head injury to give a player time to recover. This seemed far fetched, but last season’s 6 Nations game between France and Wales ended in controversy, after the French prop was removed for a head impact assessment to be replaced by a strong scrummaging replacement.

The 6 Nations review in to the incident reprimanded France but stated there was “no clear evidence” that they deliberately bent the rules. An incredible conclusion.

In the recent Autumn international between Wales and Georgia we saw a similar incident. Wales had a prop sent to the sin bin in the last minute of the game, but their reserve prop developed cramp and couldn’t return to the field. This meant the game reverted to uncontested scrum, rendering the 5m Georgian scrum impotent.

There should be an investigation in to this incident and the full facts determined, but the sad aspect of this tale is that most of us don’t believe what the Welsh camp are telling us. Our trust in what we are seeing has been eroded to the point that there is little integrity left at the elite level.

 

“Professionalism”

Remember when we used to laugh at football players collapsing to the ground to milk free kicks and cards? How it was frustrating to see footballers constantly appealing to officials, instead of getting on with the game? Well, these “professional” acts are live and well in rugby.

It’s common now to see players kick the ball ahead, then look for contact with a defender before falling to the ground, arms flailing. Cue all the player’s teammates in the immediate vicinity also raise their arms in horror.

When a player is touched or tackled in the air, we see the same orchestrated appeal from those around him. There is also the sense that players now stay on the ground having treatment for longer than in necessary, in order to make the offence seem worse than it is.

Every scrum half at the elite level, must spend hours in training slapping players on the thighs in order to practise the ubiquitous “ruck slap”, which very helpfully informs referees that an opposition player is on their side of the ruck. No so long ago the scrum half would have just played the ball, now they feel they need to spend most of the time pointing out offences.

 

What happened to rugby values?

The problem with the loss of values and respect on the rugby field, is that rugby is not a game that can live without them. There are so many physical collisions and hits on the field, that if every one is now going to be turned in to an opportunity to get the opposition penalised or sent off, the game becomes unplayable.

The complexity of the game will always mean that it is difficult to officiate and referees will make mistakes. When the game was amateur these errors were overlooked, but given these results now have knock on impacts to people’s livelihoods their importance has been magnified. With this additional scrutiny has come a trend to more abusive and derogatory statements against officials by those whose livelihoods are at stake.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the influence of money on rugby would have a corrupting influence, but we can say with some certainty that the greater the money in the game, the more rugby’s values and conduct will begin to look like football.

Mike was right. For a lot of us that isn’t something to aspire to.

 

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Wales’ Autumn Woes against the Southern Hemisphere Giants

There are some things that you read or hear, that are so unbelievable you need to check them again to make sure they are true. The fact Mrs Brown’s Boys is on primetime TV or that Boris Johnson is the UK’s Foreign Secretary (as at the time of writing), are just two examples that spring to mind.

Another – more rugby related fact, is that Wales have not won their opening game of an Autumn test series since 2002, when they beat Romania. This doesn’t include World Cup games which are scheduled in the northen hemisphere Autumn, but it is still an impressive 12 games without a solitary win.

Two things jump out from this list. Firstly, that Wales should play Romania more often as the first game of the series and secondly that Wales can’t be accused of shying away from confronting the big boys from the south.

This is a pretty tough fixture list, particularly given Wales’ players are making a swift transition from domestic rugby, while the likes of Australia and New Zealand have often been together in the proceeding months playing friendlies or the Rugby Championship.

Although there are obvious hindrances to Wales’ ability to compete – given the rugby timetable in Europe, these same issues also apply to England, Ireland and Scotland, so how do they get on in their first game of the Autumn campaign?

 

A comparison with England, Ireland and Scotland

If we look at the results from the first Autumn window fixture for all 4 “Home” nations teams, we get an interesting picture as the table below shows. Green is a victory, red a defeat and grey a draw.

autumn 1st game results.jpg

Wales certainly has the toughest fixture list of the 4 teams, but if we look at the total number of victories against the tier 1 nations (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), it makes pretty sobering reading if you are a Welsh supporter.

The obvious explanation is that Wales haven’t been as good as the other “Home” nations teams over the period to 2002 but the following table dispels that. This shows the number of victories in 6 Nations and World Cup games since 2002 between Wales and the other “Home” nations’ teams.

wales wins

Over the period to 2002, Wales have dominated Scotland and still registered a sizeable number of victories over Ireland and England, so why is it that they seem unable to win the first game of the Autumn series when other teams of roughly their level, with the same calendar constraints, can register multiple wins?

 

It’s not just the first game where Wales struggles

We know Wales struggle in the first game of the series. Not only do the results show this in stark terms but the performances themselves also highlight that it is an issue for the team.

In 2016 they kicked off with a chastening 8 – 32 defeat to Australia, in 2012 they were convincingly beaten by Argentina 12 – 26, while New Zealand ran riot 3 – 41 in Cardiff in 2005. By the end of each Autumn series, performances are noticeably better, but does this improved performance translate in to victories against the tier 1 nations?

The table below shows Wales win/loss ratio for Autumn internationals against the tier 1 nations since 2002 (excluding World Cup games) and also for all games against each opposition.

wales wins v sh

Across all Autumn international games since 2002, Wales have only won 7 games against the big 4 from the southern hemisphere and in all games (including tours, friendlies, World Cup games etc) the total is only 10. How does this compare to the other “home” nations?

 

Home nations results against “Big 4” since 2002

The following table shows the results of all games between the teams from the start of calendar year 2002.

all results v sh

A few interesting bits of data stand out:

  • There is a wide range in the total number of games played against the big 4 – England (68), Wales (63), Ireland (51) and Scotland (43)
  • Wales has the fewest number of victories; by comparison Scotland has chalked up 11 wins over the period, which is one in which Wales has been considerably stronger than Scotland
  • Both England and Ireland have managed to secure materially more wins against Australia and South Africa, compared to Wales

 

Why do Wales struggle against the southern hemisphere?

This article has shown that not only do Wales perform badly in the first game of the Autumn series, but this trend is carried across all games where they face the big 4 from the south.

To add to this, we know that since 2002, Wales have dominated games against Scotland and have decent records against England and Ireland, and yet their record against the big 4 is inferior to all the other “home” nations. The question is why is this the case?

There is no definitive answer but here are a few ideas that have been suggested:

  • There is a suggestion that Wales, under Warren Gatland, are given intense physical sessions in camp before the first test of the series. Do these “beastings” mean players are below optimal physical condition for the first game?
  • Do Welsh players have some sort of mental weakness when it comes to playing teams that they regularly lose to? Does the fact they have little interaction with these southern hemisphere nations and their players mean they hold them in some revered light?
  • Wales don’t target beating the southern hemisphere teams enough, and are happy with winning the 6 Nations?
  • They struggle with the faster pace and intensity that the big 4 bring and don’t have the ability to impress their own game plan on the match?

If you have any other theories or comments on these ideas, please let us know.

In the mean time with Wales hosting Australia this weekend, is the result a foregone conclusion……?

 

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The must-have offence in Autumn – sticking a hand out to block a pass

Everybody’s doing it. It seems to be the rugby offence of the season so far; if you look like conceding a try out wide, stick your hand in the way and block the pass, and pray that the referee takes a lenient view.

Here are 4 examples from the last few weeks’ rugby action.

 

(1) Castres v Munster (Simon Zebo, Champions Cup – October 2017)

Our first example shows a Castres attack down their right hand side, which results in a 2 on 2 situation, with Earls and Zebo in the defensive line for Munster.

For some reason Zebo doesn’t think Earls will make the tackle, so he steps inside to cover the attack. As the image below shows, Earls was comfortably able to make the tackle.

zebo 1

Zebo realises he is caught in no man’s land as the offload is made, so sticks his arm out to make the block.

The tweet below shows that the outside Castres player had a clear run in to the line.

Alan Quinlan gets himself in all sorts of knots in the commentary, after saying “It’s probably just a penalty”, he then agrees that if the winger had received the ball it was a try.

Bizarrely, the referee Matthew Carley just gives a penalty – no yellow card and no penalty try.  Referees have a very tough job at the top level, but this sort of decision is pretty is easy to make. It’s very poor officiating.

It is probably worth mentioning that a few minutes before this incident, Carley had sin binned Conor Murray. This shouldn’t have had an impact on the Zebo incident, but it in all likelihood it probably did influence his thought process.

This poor decision was a deciding factor in a game that ended 17-17.

 

(2) Leinster v Montpellier (Adam Byrne, Champions Cup – October 2017)

As Montpellier shift the ball to their left, the Leinster wing Adam Byrne steps in to block the pass.

Thanks to @smallclone for the gif.

At the point the ball is released and Byrne intercepts, the Montpellier player seems to have a clear run to the line, although Joey Carberry is just off screen to the left.

Leinster 1

Although Barnes asks the TMO for the wide angle, he only gets to see the same angle at the gif above shows, which means he can’t really judge where Carberry is in relation to the player who would have received the pass.

Even after the ball has bounced behind the Montpellier player, Carberry is still not in shot (see image below).

It was a strange call from Barnes to say there were defenders able to stop a try, and in the context of the game, a crucial decision.

leinster 2.jpg

 

(3) Saracens v Ospreys (Dan Evans,  Champions Cup – October 2017)

Saracens move the ball wide off phase play leaving 3 against 3, but Dan Evans is ball watching (or perhaps he doesn’t trust Fonotia inside him to make the tackle) and tries to step in, leaving his man unmarked on the wing.

In the still below we see Fonotia is a little flat footed, but he should still be in a position to make a tackle on the ball carrier. Evans then steps in.

dan evans comes in

It was always going to be difficult to claim the ball hit his arm in the tackle, when it is in the position we see in the image below.

Dan Evans hand out

Was Evans the last man and denied a try scoring opportunity? The still below shows this would probably have been the case. The referee, Marius Mitrea gave a penalty try and yellow card.

Dan evans defenders near

 

(4) Toulon v Brive (T14 – October 2017)

The Brive winger doesn’t trust his inside defence and steps in to take the ball carrier, leaving his opposite wing unmarked. He then realises he will be beaten by the pass and instinctively sticks his hand out to block the pass.  After consulting the TMO a penalty try was awarded and a yellow card.

 

Why are there so many of these incidents?

Perhaps this type of offence isn’t more common than in recent years, but it does seem that way.

In the examples shown it is usually the fault of the outside man not trusting, or communicating properly, with his inside defender. This element of doubt leads to him abandoning the player he should be marking to rush in to attack the ball carrier.

We know that professional rugby players often employ a wrap type tackle, when they know they are the last man, so this may explain why they step in so often. In the Dan Evans example we see him claim to the referee that he was just trying to make a tackle, even though he just stuck a hand out.

These examples also show referees sometimes get it right, but often get it wrong. With the advent of the TMO, these sorts of calls should be bread and butter for a top official, but in 2 of the examples shown here the referee made the wrong call.

Officials need to be brave in issuing both a yellow card and a penalty try, where the try would have been scored.

 

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Not for the squeamish – Halfpenny’s tackling technique

Since theblitzdefence came in to being, there have been a few phrases in our live match tweets that seem to keep re-occurring.   “Oh, no…. Cuthbert” is one favourite but another common comment is “that’s shocking tackling technique” from Halfpenny.

Sunday’s Toulon – Scarlets game was another opportunity to dust off the well used phrase, as Halfpenny launched his head at the knees of Toulon’s rampaging wing Josua Tuiosva (see video footage below and accompanying still) in a classic example of his deficient tackle technique.

Bad tacklers are often those who don’t want to make the tackle, but Halfpenny is one of the bravest players in rugby and that accusation can’t be levelled against him. What we can say however, is that his poor technique has (and is) putting him in danger of serious long term injury, if this hasn’t occurred already.

We thought we would look back through the archives at some of his worst tackles and see if there is a pattern to the incidents, or a possible explanation for his technique.

Here are 7 examples in chronological order, starting with last weekend’s European game.

 

 

(1) October 2017 (Toulon v Scarlets)

Halfpenny went off for a Head Injury Assessment (HIA) but returned to the field.

 

(2) March 2015 (Italy v Wales)

In attempting to tackle Italy’s Samuela Vunisa he was left dazed and was removed from the field for an HIA.

 

(3) November 2014 (Wales v South Africa)

A last ditch tackle on South African Etzebeth.

 

(4) March 2014 (England v Wales)

Halfpenny dislocated his right shoulder in this tackle and was out for about 4 months with the injury.

Halfpenny tackle v england.jpg

 

(5) October 2013 (Cardiff Blues v Toulon)

In this example he pulls out of the tackle but we can see the body shape and positioning.

 

(6) February 2013 (Wales v Ireland)

This is more of a head-on tackle and although the technique isn’t text book (he fails to clamp the legs and doesn’t get his shoulder in to O’Brien’s body), he does at least get his head on the right side of the attacker.

 

(7) December 2012 (Wales v Australia)

This incident resulted in Halfpenny having lengthy treatment on the field and taken to hospital for neck scans.

 

What’s he doing wrong?

The main issue with his technique is that he tackles with the wrong shoulder, which causes his head to come across the attacker’s body, rather than be tucked away behind his backside – out of the way of knees and other hard bits of the body.

This misalignment can sometimes happen if the ball carrier makes a sudden movement and the tackler doesn’t have time to adjust, but this doesn’t apply to Halfpenny in these examples, as there is little movement from the attacking player.  He seems to be deliberately lining up the tackle with the wrong shoulder.

 

Why is he doing this?

This is the tricky question. One theory is that he is protecting a damaged shoulder by tacking the contact at the tackle on the opposite shoulder (the “wrong one”).

In all but one of the examples above, it is his left shoulder that should be taking the contact, with the right shoulder free behind the carrier’s hips (clip 6 being the exception). What we see though is Halfpenny initiating contact with the right shoulder.

He has had a history of shoulder injuries, with a dislocation caused by the Burrell incident (clip 4), while in April 2015 he suffered a partial dislocation of the shoulder in Toulon’s game against Grenoble. This was also his right shoulder.

This means the “shoulder protection” theory doesn’t hold much water because even after a dislocation, he is still favouring that injured shoulder in contact. Shoulder dislocations are notoriously difficult to heal, which makes the decision to favour that side even more baffling. Does he have an older injury to the left shoulder that causes him even more problems than the dislocated side?

The other factor to consider in this theory is that some of these tackles pre-dated his dislocated shoulder against England. Again, is that related to a pre-existing injury which means he favours the right shoulder?

 

Any more theories?

Two more. One proposition is that by using a scrum cap he gives himself a false feeling of safety, which causes him to take more risks in the tackle ie put his head where he shouldn’t!

We know that scrum caps don’t protect against blows to the head when it comes to brain injury, indeed there are studies that show it may accentuate the risks.  Does the cap give Halfpenny some psychological boost that he can’t be injured in the head area, which means he puts his head where he wouldn’t without the cap?

The final theory is that he isn’t protecting his shoulder, he just favours the right shoulder as is natural with right handed players, but hasn’t developed his technique to overcome this deficiency.

To test this, try making a friendly rugby tackle against a family member and you will see your head automatically moves to the left and your right shoulder comes forward for contact (the opposite should be the natural position for someone who is left handed).

Most amateur or junior players will have this bias but they still know how to position their head and body, when tackling on their weak shoulder. For some reason Halfpenny doesn’t seem to have developed this technique and as a result he is putting his welfare at risk.

Anyone have any thoughts on this article or your own theories please let us know.

 

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