Wales – France; a Timeline of the Controversial Prop Replacement

The 6 Nations game between France and Wales had been controversial from pretty much the first minute. The controversy was heightened late in the game as 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.

Here is the timeline of events, with the focus on the player subject to the HIA (Atonio).

77.30  France have a scrum on Welsh 10m line and win their ball.

77.51  Atonio jogs over to ruck

77.56 Atonio clears Welsh player out at ruck

78.10 Atonio picks the ball up at French ruck and attacks Welsh defence. No obvious contact made with his head in the tackle and he gets up and back in French attacking line.

78.46  Atonio hits another ruck, no contact with his head and he immediately gets up

79.01 Atonio joins another ruck to secure ball (not to clear Welsh players out) and immediately gets up. Slimani is filmed in the stand in his tracksuit.

79.23   In a break in play, 3 French medics/water carriers come on to the pitch. Several French players are briefly spoken to by the medics/water carrier as the water is handed out; this includes Maestri who then walks over to Atonio and starts a conversation with him.

France choose a scrum. Would the French captain choose a scrum knowing his tight head has suspected concussion? Or has the incident that led to the suspected concussion not yet occurred?

79.27  The scrum forms but Barnes calls for a French free kick before the ball is fed. Maestri says something to Barnes about a shoulder but it’s not clear from the audio what he is saying. France choose to have another scrum

79.37  Atonio packs down for the scrum. Scrum folds and Barnes calls for a re-set. Atonio gets straight up.

79.47  The team doctor arrives at the scene and goes straight to Atonio. It’s not clear what was said but Atonio’s gesture seems to suggest he was fine. Just as the front rows go down Barnes blows his whistle and tells them to stand up.

Looking back at the footage, just as the front rows are binding together, Barnes’ eye is caught by something on the touchline that he looks at for several seconds:

barnes distracted

If we look at the wider view immediately before this scrum we can see a French doctor crouched down and an official (the “4th official”?), who are both roughly in Barnes eye line.

We can’t tell who Barnes is looking at but the 4th official looks back to the area of the replacements bench and seems to be putting his hand to his chest as if to turn on the officials’ microphone.

Immediately after Barnes blows his whistle he turns to Atonio and says “Are you injured?”.  This is surprising given Atonio himself is packing down for the scrum. The call for the injury must have come from the touchline, and probably from the 4th official who has come down towards the scrum.

Barnes asks Atonio again “Are you injured?”. Some of the conversation is inaudible but we can hear Atonio say he has a “sore back”, Barnes then says “You are OK, then fine” and steps back to reform the scrum.

Barnes then looks back to the touchline and says “He’s not injured”. We can’t say for sure, but it seems logical that he was saying this to the 4th official on the touch line. The camera then shows Slimani on the touchline ready to come on.

Barnes can then be heard saying “He’s just telling me he’s not injured”, which again is probably directed to the 4th official. The scrum then reforms with Atonio still on the pitch.

79.50 The scrum sets with Atonio still in play. The scrum slowly folds and Barnes blows for a reset. Atonio gets up straight away and receives a few words from Barnes about his scrummaging height.

80.02  The French team doctor is now back on the pitch and approaches the scrum. Barnes can be heard saying “He said he is not injured”. The doctor can be seen gesturing to his [the doctor’s] head, indicating a head injury. Atonio starts to walk off the pitch.

Our commentary team helpfully talk over the next bit of the conversation between Barnes and the medic, but Barnes can be heard saying “You are taking him off for a head assessment?”.

The doctor then tries to explain to Barnes (in English so there may be issues with translation), that Atonio had “a shock [touches his own head]….and I see him”…he then says “You see me” and points towards the scrum, probably with the intention of saying to Barnes he has been looking at this injury for a while.

Barnes then says to the medic “Do you think he needs a head assessment?”, with the medic glancing away and then responding “yes”. The change is then made.

Atonio is then seen heading down the tunnel on his own, without any medical support or assistance.

 

This incident needs to be immediately reviewed by World Rugby, with the French Rugby Union being asked to respond to the following questions:

  • When did Atonio suffer the head injury that required the HIA?
  • Who identified the need for the HIA and what symptoms did they observe in the player that meant he required an HIA?
  • If the signs of concussion were observed before the player was finally removed why wasn’t he taken from the field when concussion was first suspected, as per WR protocols?
  • If the concussion incident occurred before the final scrum why did France continue to allow a player with suspected head injury to scrummage?
  • Why did the player say he was not injured?

The issue of the long term impacts of concussion is arguably the most serious facing the game. Any breaches or exploitation of the HIA guidelines and protocols – brought in to protect the players, should be severally punished, whether this applies to coaches, players or medical staff.

 

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Rugby’s New Global Calendar – A Damp Squib?

To much fanfare, World Rugby’s (WR) new Global Calendar was released this week – the first major initiative under the direction of WR’s Chairman Bill Beaumont. This calendar covers the period 2020-2032.

To most of us a ‘global calendar’ means a single harmonised season across both hemispheres or at the very least, a solution to the disjointed rugby season that sees us skip from test rugby, to no rugby to European rugby in the space of a few weeks. 

Unfortunately this Global Calendar fails to deliver on both counts; it’s more of a light evolution than the revolution that is required. Indeed most of the major tournaments will have little to no direct discernible changes to them.

We have pulled out the main changes to the season’s structure and looked at their potential implications.

 

(1) The June test window will move to July

What the northern hemisphere calls the end of season tour will now take place in the first 3 weeks of July, rather than the traditional June window. The reason for this is to allow the Super Rugby season to run uninterrupted. 

Implications? This is a good move for those in the south but it has potentially big implications for the north.

In 2016 England, Ireland and Wales all played their first tests in the southern hemisphere on the 11th June. Given the domestic league finals were on the 28th May (Pro 12 – Wales/Ireland and Aviva – England) this gave them  14 days’ preparation.

If we say the first game of the test window will now be on the 1st of July, there will be a whopping 33 days between the domestic league final and the first test match – with those players who aren’t in the final having another week or two added to this total.

This won’t work, so what is likely to happen is the opening game of the domestic leagues (Pro12, Aviva etc) will be pushed back by approximately 3 weeks. Instead of the first fixture being around the 2-5th September we could see this being moved to the end of September or even the start of October.

With European competitions starting in mid-October any movement in the start date of the domestic leagues will lead to disruption to these tournaments. We may see this as an opportunity for more radical changes to the calendar in the northern hemisphere to better align domestic, European and test rugby.

 

(2) The November test window will move forward one week 

The Autumn international test window will now comprise the first 3 weeks of November

Implications? In itself this doesn’t seem like a major change but it will potentially cause some problems in the schedule for domestic and European rugby in the north. 

 

(3) Tier 2 nations to have greater exposure to tier 1 during July and November test windows

Some of the specific initiatives that will contribute to this desire to increase the number of fixtures between tier 1 and tier 2 include:

  • A minimum of 110 tier one v tier two matches over the period (a 39 per cent increase on the previous schedule)
  • SANZAAR Unions committed to hosting tier two nations in July window
  • France and England to tour the Pacific Islands while USA, Canada and Japan will also host tours
  • Georgia and Romania to host matches against Six Nations unions within the July window
  • Six Nations unions to collectively host a guaranteed minimum of six tier two fixtures in each November window
  • Tours to SANZAAR nations immediately after a Rugby World Cup year will be reduced to two matches

Implications? On a positive note, any increase in the exposure tier 2 nations get to tier 1 teams has to be a good thing. Having commitments from the major nations to not just play the tier 2 nations but to take them on in their own back yard, in a step in the right direction.

Caveats apply though. WR has no real authority to mandate that the 6 Nations provide a route for the tier 2 nations to the top European table, and as a result of this, these reported changes still don’t give a clear direction for the tier 2 nations in Europe. The door is still closed.

Although we have greater commitments from the major nations, what we don’t know is what sort of strength team they will send. We may end up with “A” teams in all but name being sent to Bucharest and Tbilisi to satisfy the WR requirement. This is better than the status quo so perhaps it should still be applauded as a move in the right direction.

 

Final Thoughts

The changes do not deal with the fundamental structural problems that blight rugby in both hemispheres, primarily because WR doesn’t have the mandate to force change on the likes of the 6 Nations or European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), the custodians of elite European “club” rugby. 

Instead we have some relatively minor changes to the schedule which could cause major issues for the way northern hemisphere rugby is structured across the season. This may force both the domestic European leagues and the European competitions to revamp their schedule, which ultimately may lead to a change to the dates of the 6 Nations.

More change is on the way.

 

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The Sexton Loop

Ireland started the game with some positive attacking plays and importantly they brought huge variety to their offensive ploys.

We saw the likes of Zebo coming off his wing in to midfield, inside balls trying to catch out lazy defence from the Welsh front 5, a strong maul and the likes of O’Brien carrying well.

After just 1 minute we saw a trademark Sexton loop, which to this day still catches out opposition defences.

Wales have plenty of numbers in defence but Sexton still manages to create space by passing to Stander and then receiving the ball back.

If we freeze the play we can see Scott Williams is defending Henshaw (top arrow) and Tipuric in the blue cap is marking Stander (shorter, bottom arrow), who is about to receive the ball.

As Stander takes the ball back in on the angle towards the Welsh midfield defence Tipuric follows him in. This seems logical as Tipuric is keeping an eye on his man and tracking him, but he is unaware that Sexton is going to run around the back of Stander and receive the ball.

sexton loop

Tipuric tackles Stander and Sexton then has a free run to release Zebo in space.

sexton loop 2.jpg

 

Later in the game, with Ireland pressing the Welsh line Sexton tries it again…and again it works!

 

Before every match against Ireland, opposition coaches will point out this move of his but it’s success rate shows how difficult it is to stop. The surprise is that more outside halves don’t use it.

 

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Biggar, Webb and Flat Back Play

The Welsh coaching team has rightly had its critics over the last few years (including us), but they should be given credit for the way Wales beat Ireland in this weekend’s opening 6 Nations fixture in Cardiff.

Most of us were expecting Wales to suffer defeat against an Ireland team brimming with confidence after some big wins against the southern hemisphere over the last 12 months.

What we did see were the first positive signs of an evolving Welsh approach to the game; a couple of strong driving mauls, a willingness to run from deep if the pass was on and the second high quality try from a set piece this 6 Nations.

This article will focus on another area of the game Wales have been criticised for – their lack of creativity at outside half.

 

Biggar and flat play

Dan Biggar’s strengths are around his game management, his defence and his kick chase and collect, but his ability with the ball in hand is one of the reasons why the Welsh team struggles to create opportunities against the best teams.

Biggar traditionally receives the ball quite deep, which gives him time to get his kick in but makes it easier to defend against. The opposition know he rarely attacks with the ball and by passing to his team mates behind the gain line, he allows the opposition to line up the tackle.

His Ospreys’ colleague Sam Davies excels in playing flat to the opposition line and using his sharp hands and footwork and excellent “footballing” brain to put runners through holes and in to space.

The first half of the Wales – Ireland game was interesting in that Dan Biggar seemed to be playing much flatter to the gain line that he traditionally does with Wales. Here are a couple of examples.

In the first example, Wales turn the scrum to expose the Irish right hand defence. Biggar is already on the move and Webb’s pass to him is flat at best. This is simple, but effective rugby with Biggar hitting the ball at pace right on the gain line with the Irish defence struggling to come across.

biggar flat 1.jpg

In the second example, Wales are attacking the Irish line and Biggar takes the ball with about 3 metres to the Irish defensive line.

biggar 3.jpg

The important aspect is Biggar takes the ball right to the Irish line before releasing to Jon Davies (scrum cap), who runs at the gap and not the man.

biggar 4.jpg

The tactic though brought Wales some big problems as we can see in the next couple of examples.

With 7 minutes on the clock Webb finds Biggar who is back in his usual deeper position. Sexton comes racing out of the line but Biggar seems unaware of Sexton’s positioning and focuses on the play – a flat pass to Alun-Wyn Jones.

In the second example (below), we see pretty much the same pattern.

This time Biggar takes the Webb pass flatter and has his eyes on the ball to Moriarty who is hitting the gap. Perhaps the fact he is being asked to play an unnatural style of rugby plays on his mind because once again he is not aware of Sexton’s positioning – it’s as if he has lost that split second of additional time he would have had by playing a bit deeper.

The other interesting thing to note about this second example is that the ball was won at the front of the lineout, which means it has to travel a relatively long way before it even gets to Biggar. This means he has even less time to make his move and play the ball.

 

Wales playing off Webb

The Welsh coaches seemed to be nervous about the number of poor passes and interceptions from Biggar and the problems the Irish umbrella defence was causing, so in the 2nd half they changed tactic.

Instead of now playing Biggar flat and having runners off him, it was the job of Rhys Webb to be the primary decision maker and distributor. We now had forwards taking balls from set piece and phase play directly from Webb, with Biggar only used later in the move.

Wales also started to revert more to their traditional kick and press game as the clock ticked down, but using Webb as the primary kicker. Between the 60th and 63rd minute of the game Webb box kicked 3 times to try and pen back the Irish team.

The more expansive Welsh approach with Biggar on the gain line that we saw in the first half, had been replaced by a more pragmatic, territory-orientated game with Webb as the main play maker.

It is testament to how far Webb’s game has developed over the last few years, that he is comfortable taking on this responsibility for the game management. He gave away two cheap penalties and made some errors but his ability to change the game in an instant means he is now one of Wales’ most important players.

 

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Wales v England – Missing touch, Mauls, Itoje & Cuthbert

This was a classic example of an exciting modern test match; plenty of intensity, controversy but little in the way of creative or high risk rugby. That isn’t to bemoan the game because it was a pulsating and enjoyable encounter for 80 minutes.

Just as a week before against France, England came good at the end and won a match that arguably they could have lost. Wales on the other hand suffered their “Australia complex” again and through a lot of their own making, managed to conjure up a defeat from victory.

Here are the main talking points from the game.

 

(1) Why don’t Wales clear to touch?

Since day 1 of the Gatland reign, Wales have been coached to keep the ball in play when clearing defensive lines. The theory was that Wales were fitter than other teams so the more ball-in-play time there was, the more it would suit Wales. It also played to their strengths with a fast pressing line, Dan Lydiate providing the tackle and Sam Warburton jackaling to win the ball or a penalty.

In reality this approach has put Wales under pressure defensively in a number of games and we saw the same pattern again against England. There is a case to be made that 10 of England’s points came from this tactic.

In this first example Biggar could have found touch on the Welsh 10m line, but instead he keeps it in play, England counter and 2 phases later – 25 metres from the Welsh line, Scott Williams gives away a penalty for a high tackle.

The second example is the missed kick that led to the match winning England try. It may be that Jon Davies was aiming for touch but history suggests he was following the team tactics.

 

(2) Driving maul – every team should have one!

If you have read theblitzdefence blog or tweets for any length of time, you’ll know that the officiating (or lack of it) of the maul, is one of our big frustrations. With the officiating of the maul favouring the attacking team a strong offensive maul is a must-have to be a competitive team. As today’s game showed, England have one and Wales don’t.

A strong driving maul can be a great weapon which will bring tries, penalties and tie in opposition defenders.

With Wales giving away a number of cheap penalties England used the resulting lineout to good effect to set up a number of driving mauls. This is a skill that can be coached, given so many of the elements depend on the team with the ball doing the right thing. Borthwick has further strengthened England’s maul but Wales’ hasn’t developed at all under a number of years’ of Robin McBryde’s coaching.

One particular Welsh maul after 71 minutes tied in all the Welsh forwards but went 2m backwards!

 

(3) The force of Itoje

It was fairly obvious from watching Itoje playing for England u20s a couple of years ago, that he was going to be some player. At only 22 years old he is probably one of the first names on the England team sheet, with the versatility to play second row or at blind side.

For a big guy, he is a dynamic carrier with pace and power but also some subtle hands when needed. This clip shows him setting up a try for Anthony Watson in last year’s England – Wales fixture.

He has played well in this year’s 6 Nations to date but a couple of potential areas of weakness have shown up that he needs to be aware of. In the French game he gave away one penalty for a high tackle and was very lucky not to concede a second, and in all probability a yellow card, later in the game.

The second area is his tendency to flop off his feet at the ruck when he is trying to jackal the ball. Although few players actually support their body weight at the breakdown, his lurch in to contact is quite obvious and something he may get a reputation for if officials start to pick him up for it.

Here are a few of the interesting body position he got himself in to when attempting the jackal.

 

 

 

(4) Cuthbert

No rugby players should receive personal abuse for playing the game but it is legitimate to criticise players when they are at fault. Unfortunately Alex Cuthbert has had a lean couple of years and the list of individual errors is building up.

Looking back at the deciding try in yesterday’s game we know Jon Davies’ kick has put Wales under pressure, but Cuthbert’s defence was also culpable in allowing Daly to score the try. Here’s the clip again.

If we freeze the footage we can see that Ford has spotted the space on Wales’ left hand side and quickly transferred the ball to Farrell. The yellow line shows a gap has developed between Roberts and the inside defence of Tipuric.

Daly try 1.jpg

As play develops the gap between Tipuric and Roberts closes. England don’t have a numerical advantage and Roberts seems to have Farrell lined up for a tackle. If we look at the wing positions Daly has started to drift towards the toucline but Cuthbert is still only a metre or so from Roberts and is watching the ball, not Daly’s positioning.

 

 

In the next shot (see below) we see Roberts about to make the tackle on Farrell but he gets an excellent pass away, allowing Daly to hit the ball at pace and continue his arcing run to the corner flag. Cuthbert now turns his attention to Daly.

 

We don’t know why Cuthbert stayed so narrow for so long. Perhaps he lacked trust in the inside defence to come across, maybe he thought he would have the pace to catch Daly – we don’t know. We do know that given that much space, Daly’s pace was enough to beat Cuthbert on the outside, which is rare at top test level.

 

Looking back through the footage Cuthbert could also be partially held responsible for England’s first try as the footage below shows.

Cuthbert initially helps to slow the English charge and then finds himself as the first defender in the pillar position on Wales’ right flank. This isn’t an ideal position for a winger but once he found himself there he had to tuck in tight to the ruck and hold the line.

 

Instead we see him watching the ball again and not getting in to the correct position. Daly is standing in the Welsh pillar position but Cuthbert doesn’t do anything to move him and take up that position. Youngs has an easy dot down given the lack of defensive cover.

These two defensive traits of Cuthbert’s – ball watching plus not trusting inside defence were also evident in the Rugby World Cup quarter final against South Africa which again lead to the deciding try.

 

 

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Bonus point for tries – which country will benefit?

There is no doubt that the 6 Nations is a great competition. It pits friends and foes alike in a tribal bloodbath over a few weeks in the darkest time of the year; it provides a lift to the supporters’ spirits during “dry” January and dismal February.

That’s the plus side. On the negative side, the stifling nature of the competition has inhibited the quality of the rugby on show and reduced northern hemisphere rugby to 2nd rate actors to the southern hemisphere Oscar winners.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Rugby World Cup where the southern hemisphere dominated the latter stages of the tournament we wrote this article, bemoaning the mediocrity of the 6 Nations.

As a means of improving the quality of the teams, and no doubt to improve the excitement levels, this year sees the introduction of a trial, awarding bonus points for being within 7 points of the winning team and also for scoring 4 or more tries.

We have looked through the last 10 years’ 6 Nations results to get a feel for how this try bonus point may change the competition.

 

Total tries scored over last 10 years

The first graph (below) shows the number of tries by year over the last 10 competitions.

total-6n-tries-by-year

After a steady decline to the nadir in 2013, we have seen an increase in tries over the past 3 seasons. This may though be due to the decline in the fortunes of Italy who have taken a few recent beatings, rather than an overall improvement in quality.

The second table, shows how the total tries are split per nation over the same period.

total-tries-in-6n-by-country

This chart is a stark visual that demonstrates Scotland’s lack of try scoring ability, a problem which has hindered their ability to convert possession in to wins.

 

Can teams score 4 tries in a game?

The total try tally doesn’t give the full story because a team will only be awarded a bonus point for scoring 4 or more tries in a single game.

We have looked at the try data over the period and highlighted the number of times a team has scored 4 or more tries in a single game. The results are quite surprising.

4-try-games-by-nation

10 seasons worth of games equates to 50 matches, over which Italy and Scotland have only ever scored 4 or more tries once!  Italy scored 4 tries against Scotland in 2007 while Scotland reciprocated by scoring 4 tries against Italy in 2013.

Wales have managed the task 5 times – twice against Scotland (7 tries in 2014 after Stuart Hogg was sent off and 4 tries in 2009. The other 3 occasions were against Italy in 2016 (9 tries), 2015 (8 tries) and 2008 (5 tries). Wales have failed to score 4 or more tries against England, France and Ireland.

France have scored 4 or more tries 8 times, which includes 5 tries against England in 2015 in a defeat in Twickenham 55-35. In that same game England crossed the French line 7 times.

Ireland top the table with their 10 occasions coming against Italy and Scotland, with a sole 4 try game against England in 2007.

Summarising these results we see the following pattern:

4-try-games-by-opposition

Perhaps the standout statistic there is that Wales have never conceded 4 or more tries in a game (over the last 10 competitions). Ireland are close behind with just a single game, with England and France on 2; Italy have been the whipping boys on 18 occasions.

 

Will the bonus point for tries work?

Based on historical data the chances of a team getting a try bonus point are pretty slim, indeed Scotland and Italy will manage it once every 10 seasons.

What this historical data doesn’t show us though, is what impact will the bonus point have on the approach the teams take in this tournament?

Will teams set out with a more expansive, high risk approach from the start in order to secure a try bonus point, or will they continue to adopt a more pragmatic “win first” mentality against the bigger teams and only focus on the 4 tries against the lesser nations?

Time will tell but this has to be a positive move for the 6 Nations.

 

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Wales’ 6N Squads – Player Contribution by Region (2003- 2017)

When Rob Howley announced Wales’ squad for the forthcoming 6 Nations, perhaps one of the most noticeable aspects of the squad makeup was the number of players included who ply their trade in the Aviva Premiership.

To see if this was indeed a developing trend, we looked back through 14 seasons of 6 Nations’ squads and looked at the contribution from each region and also those also playing outside Wales. This is what the data shows us.

 

Contribution for each year by region

The left hand Y axis shows the number  of players in the initial 6 Nations squad.

region-contribution-to-wales-6n-squad

What does this graph show us? Well, there are a few obvious things to pick out:

  • The squad size has varied greatly over the past 14 seasons
  • After a brief peak around 2006 the numbers of players in non-Welsh regions has steadily increased
  • The Dragons have consistently contributed the fewest players of all the Welsh regions over the period
  • The Ospreys have supplied more players for each squad than any other region over the period
  • This season’s Scarlets’ contingent equals their joint highest contribution (2014 had the same name of Scarlets players in the squad)

Looking at some of these findings in a bit more detail:

 

Squad size

Over the period we have analysed the squad size has varied from 37 to just 28, although the trend seems to be for bigger squads.

wales-squad-size-by-year

 

Contributions from England and France

As the first graph showed, the general trend is for more players from outside Wales to be picked in the Wales 6 Nations squad. If we break this number down in to its two categories – England and France, we get the following distribution:

england-and-france-in-wales-quad

 

Contribution by Welsh region

Which regions have contributed the most players over the period.

contribution-per-region

If we average this out for each season they have been in existence we get something for the Celtic Warriors fans!

contribution-average

 

And finally, which team has been the top contributing region for any one 6 Nations’ season?

top contributor.jpg

 

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