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.
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)
(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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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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