Analysis: How Scarlets toppled Toulon

Date published: December 21 2016

Our analyst is back to break down where it all went right for the Scarlets in that famous win over Toulon last weekend.

Amongst a stack of shock results over the weekend, the biggest probably came in West Wales where Scarlets clung on to defeat the behemoth of Toulon.

The Scarlets left points out there in the first half but in the end it didn’t matter as they did enough in the second half to hold off the resurgent three-time European champions..

The Scarlets ‘ gameplan was very simple, speed up play when they had the ball and move the lumpy Toulon pack around the pitch. When they did cede the ball, which happened much more in the second half, they tackled in pairs and tried to immediately turn the ball back over. In fact, the Top 14 side turned over the ball 18 times and lost their own ruck five times.

The Scarlets had 40 fewer rucks but made just one fewer pass, they had 31 fewer runs but made just 24 metres fewer during the game. As much as the final ten minutes may have looked like a lower league team doggedly clinging on in the face of an unstoppable force, in reality, the Scarlets took their chances better, kicked all their goals and did prevent one of the most talented backlines in club rugby from crossing for a try.

Rush Defence

One of the keys was the Scarlet line speed which limited an already limited attacking game plan to just one out runners.

Despite the incredibly physically taxing nature of playing this kind of defense, the Scarlets were able to keep it up throughout the game and also benefitted from a tiring Toulon attack, which sacrificed width as the game progressed.

The blitz defense isn’t simply a case of having the third and fourth man out from the ruck rushing up and pushing players back infield. It’s really about having the attention and discipline to know when you should be rushing and when you should be holding off and waiting for support. In the below example, Tadhg Beirne closes down the space but spots that he has an overlap so he holds off and waits for his inside support. A relentless rush defense will put pressure on the attacking team but without any thought it will be easily picked apart by an intelligent attack.

Individual Defensive Tactics

The Scarlets lock duo and back row combined for a total of 66 tackles with just four misses. If the back five in the scrum were a great wall, then Rhys Patchell was a garden fence – he missed three tackles out of a possible four attempts. However, this wasn’t new information and so the Welsh team could concentrate on keeping him away from the thick of the action and leave him free to marshall the attack.

When defending, Patchell was placed as far away from any defensive duties as possible. Even in the above picture, where Patchell looked like he might end up being involved in play, the Scarlets pack were very quick to fill in the space and push the fly-half towards touch.

Despite their efforts, they couldn’t hide Patchell from all defensive work. However, their philosophy of putting multiple players in the tackle took pressure off his individual tackling skills. In the above and below examples, Patchell is helped out by Hadleigh Parkes, who made the most tackles of any back, seven, and despite the fly-half missing the tackle Mathieu Bastareaud was still brought down before the gain line. In fact, after last week’s performance where the French centre ran riot for 63 metres, he was limited to just 31 metres this week.

As mentioned before though, the real heroes of the Scarlets defense were the locks and the back row. When I watched the game it seemed like every tackle either included a player from that group or the follow up work at the breakdown was done by one of those players.

In the above example, Bernie (circled), takes advantage of the slow moving forwards coming around the corner by tackling high, and letting Rob Evans take the man low. He then rides the tackle down and is immediately over the ball, as you can see below, the lock is jackaling for the ball before the support players have hit the ruck, the end result was a turnover.

In the final defensive example we will have a quick look at the work done in the maul by the locks and back row. During the game last week, the Toulon side exploited their power advantage over the Scarlets with their set piece and their maul. However, despite giving the French team plenty of practice, especially in the second half, the Scarlets were able to halt forward progress and twice get a turnover from a maul.

In the above example, Aaron Shingler and Bernie are able to swim straight through the middle and put pressure on the ball carrier. The work of the other Scarlets in the maul are halts the momentum which means that Ken Owens and Will Boyde, circled, don’t need to get involved and so can maintain width in defense. This maul ends up with Shingler in a choke hold and an ensuing penalty and yellow card allowing the West Walians to clear their lines.

Attack

Because of the hard work in defense by the forwards, the backs were able to run against an unorganised defensive line more often than not. When they threw caution to the wind in the first half they had substantial success, however as the game wore on and fatigue built the attack was less penetrating and they leant more on the boot of Patchell.

The turnover in the above example took place in the orange circle. The ball was spread left to Jake Ball who offloaded to Stef Evans to reach the above picture. The Toulon defence is in tatters with huge exploitable holes. Evans ends up going by himself, which proves to be the wrong thing to do. But, we still see that the Scarlets attack reacts to the turnover much faster than the defence.

In the first game of the double header the Scarlets lost four of their own lineouts. But in the repeat they didn’t lose a single one and it was this stat and their attacking intent from the lineout which helped push them onto the front foot.

This play is the second phase from lineout and leads up to the Scott Williams try, the only try of the game. The first phase is a hit up in the middle with Hadleigh Parkes, they throw a number of players into the first phase to ensure quick, secured ball and then simply swing round the corner to exploit the overlap. Off first phase you wouldn’t expect to be running at an overlap but Ken Owens holds the inside runners and allows Patchell to use his outside support.

In the final example we will take a look at Patchell’s ingenuity. The fly-half, justifiably, took some flack for his defensive prowess earlier in this article but he’s growing into his attacking role this season. He sees the slow moving inside defenders and the injured player and knows that there will be a hole he can rush through.

Once through he has a huge amount of space to run into and although this will go down as an occasion when the Scarlets left points out there – Gareth Davies dropped the ball over the line – it was another example of the ferocious attack that they could unleash.

Conclusion

It’s hard to see the Scarlets beating Saracens and so this victory might not end up leading to anything more than a grand day out for the west Wales faithful. However, it’s a great example of what can be achieved with a perfect game plan, perfectly executed.

The work-rate of the forwards was phenomenal and underpinned the success; they tackled everything and turned over a huge amount of ball. That made it easy for the backs to play on the front foot and hide largely out of the way when it came to defence.

They won’t need to play like this every week but it’s a great confidence boost, and for any other ‘smaller’ teams facing one of the European giants, proves that they can be overcome by hard work and discipline.

by Sam Larner

All images courtesy of Sky Sports

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