Analysis: Confidence battle limiting Wales

Date published: November 29 2016

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Our resident analyst returns to assess where Wales stand after a frustrating month featuring criticised performances, but three wins.

What a difference a few weeks make. When I last wrote about Wales they were in a hideous five match losing streak and looking completely devoid of ideas or inspiration.

They now sit on the back of a three-match winning streak which includes victories over Argentina and South Africa. What does this mean though?

Even the most optimistic of Welsh people would be hard pushed to describe the Welsh performance as vintage but irrespective, it did herald more victories than defeats. To briefly fall into cliché, you can only play the team in front of you, the fact that Wales easily beat a significantly below-par South Africa and narrowly defeated a below-par Argentina, shouldn’t be held against them.

However is this Wales team, rightly panned after their opening match against Australia, a rising force? Or is their three from four record simply a mirage?

Team Points For Points Against Metres For Metres Against Tackles Missed Tackle Success Rate Centre Partnership Metres Made Possession
Australia 8 32 273 656 21 86% 7 43%
Argentina 24 20 272 239 13 89% 33 46%
Japan 33 30 539 547 13 86% 134 63%
South Africa 27 13 327 240 7 94% 81 43%
Average 23 24 353 421 14 89% 64 49%

There’s a couple of things to note from this table, firstly, just remind yourself about the truly dreadful seven-metres-made centre pairing in the opening game. However, in total the centre partnerships accounted for 18 percent of all metres made, a significant improvement on the 2.6 percent that was contributed in the opening Test, but still that leaves some slack that needs to be picked up by the wingers and forwards.

The other thing to notice is that while Wales only had the majority of possession against Japan, despite this they had more kicks from hand than each of their opponents, with the exception of Japan.

Across the four games they had a kick differential of 7, meaning they kicked seven times more than their opponent. When they played Japan, they kicked 24 times, the joint highest of any match. However, their game against South Africa saw Wales record their highest kick to pass ratio, a phenomenally low 5.5 passes per every kick; South Africa had 8.3.

If we briefly look at the positives, the ‘points for’ did improve, along with the wins. The missed tackles reduced, although the defence was still pretty leaky based on metres made alone. But the most encouraging sign, was that the centre pairings did start to carry the team more in attack.

We’ve looked at the qualitative improvements, let’s now take a look at whether the Welsh improved in their play. The below attack comes early in the game, the screenshot is from the fifth phase of attack, and to get to this point we’ve had the following; crash ball 12, two man pod off 9, Biggar playing flat and feeding North, and single forward crash ball. That, in a nutshell, is the Gatland ball manual. Front foot ball, then move it in phases across the pitch, then turn around and do the same thing the other way.

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It might be a derided way of playing but it does create space to attack. In the above example, Gethin Jenkins is the link man and the risk that he, Tomas Francis and Alun Wyn Jones will crash it up has condensed the fringe defence. This gives Biggar the chance to angle his run and fix the outside defender allowing the five on three overlap to happen. As you can see from the checked line, once Biggar moves the ball, the backs will have plenty of space to attack.

Scott Williams turns down the option to go wide in favour of hitting it back up in the centers. Although they do gain yardage on the very next phase, the home run shot had disappeared.

When Wales do decide to go wide, they didn’t always do it well. Above, Jonathan Davies gets the ball and has two forwards to run at. He gets on the outside of one but he continues to drift towards the sideline and although he gains yardage he loses the opportunity to score the try. As soon as he gets on the outside he draws in the outside defender and a final pass would but either Liam Williams or George North into space.

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As we saw above, Wales used Jenkins as a link man to draw in the defence and then spread the ball behind the pod to Biggar. This is effective because it fixes the defenders who can’t disregard the fact that the pod might just crash it up. It also allows the backs to line up much wider than a pass directly from the scrum-half would make possible. However, the more you do this the less effective it is and the fewer defenders are fixed by the initial pod, as you can see above, later in the game.

Although Wales go from the 15-yard line across the entire width of the pitch, they don’t really make any forward progress. They lack somebody to take the initiative to straighten up and burst through the line.

The final clip we will look at comes in the second half and again shows a lack of confidence in moving the ball wide. As soon as Scott Williams gets the ball he has to make a decision, he can move it or he can accelerate and try and find a soft spot in the line. Unfortunately, he decides to go wide by throwing a miss pass to Liam Williams which turns a three-on-two into a one-on-two and ends up losing yardage and pausing the attack.

Conclusion

Taking examples and saying that at some points Wales need to straighten and at others they need to move the ball wide may sound contradictory, but it isn’t.

The truth is that the Welsh attack looks to be lacking confidence, rather than skills. As soon as Scott Williams looks up and sees that there’s an overlap then he, and the rest of the players outside of him, need to commit to getting that ball wide.

That requires confidence in both yourself, to make the killer pass, and everyone else outside of you to execute that move. It feels like the restricted game plan that Wales have fallen into has robbed these talented players of that flair and confidence.

It’s wrong to think that modern day defensive game plans can be broken down easily and just moving the ball wide is not the best way to break them down. However, because modern day defences are so difficult to beat you really need to take advantage of the times when they are weak and that means having the confidence to exploit these occasions.

There are many things wrong with this current Welsh team, the table above highlights many of them. Three wins in the autumn series can generate that confidence, the confidence of knowing that they can grab wins even when they are not playing at their best and they can also create numerous chances in a game.

Despite this I fear that the level of improvement needed is too great, especially given the incredible talent that will be present in the Six Nations and three wins may be the high point. Crucially though, the style of play that was teased during the New Zealand tour and firmly put away over the last month, might come back to stay.

by Sam Larner

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