Analysis: Spotlight on Wales’ many struggles

Date published: November 8 2016

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Our resident analyst returns to dissect where it is all going wrong for Wales on both their attack and defence.

I have to first confess an interest. I am Welsh and I was at the game on Saturday, I was one member of the tepid crowd – a crowd uninspired by the product on the pitch.

I was also at the Millennium eight years ago, the last time Wales beat Australia. I was also there in 2011 when Shane Williams played in, and scored in, his last ever test for Wales.

22 players played in that game, in 2011, for Wales and ten turned out for the home team on Saturday. Were it not for injuries, that number would’ve risen to 12.

It has long been thought that the fact that Wales haven’t beaten Australia in 11 attempts was an anomaly. Frankly, after Saturday, it’s an anomaly that Wales have beaten them as recently as 2008. The Welsh were utterly dominated by an Australian side who ghosted through without ever needing to put their foot down.

A lot of the knee jerk reaction has come down to Wales getting a slow start, which is true, but even after the start they never got a foothold in the game.

They made just 273m, in their previous seven games they have only failed to reach 300m twice. The two main things that we will look at in this article are the insipid Welsh attack and the limp defense.

Defence

Wales have now lost five games in a row, during that time they have conceded 27, 39, 36, 46 and 32 points – an average of 36 per game. Shaun Edwards will be left answering questions about his team’s defense in the initial phases after a set piece.

Early in the game, when Dan Biggar had been sin-binned, the Australians were able to slice through the Welsh defense.

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Rhys Webb has dropped into the defensive line to cover the missing Biggar. However, by doing this he allows Nick Phipps to fix the defence and then deliver a deft pass to put Reece Hodge through. The attack ends with a handling error but this break highlights the fragilities of the defense.

As soon as Webb dropped back he, Jamie Roberts and George North needed to tighten up and only allow the Aussies to break through if they can work the ball out wide. Instead, Phipps is allowed to run free and then hit Hodge, who has a number of gaps to run at.

In the lead up to the second try, the defense was once again under pressure and at fault. Three phases after the lineout the Australians switch back to the blindside and run in a bunched formation.

Stephen Moore becomes the playmaker and he flicks behind to Bernard Foley. Foley uses his great hands to pop back inside for Hogg to burst through the line.

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When I was a performance analyst at a National 1 side in England, we would spend ages trying to find weaknesses in the defense of the opposition. Even at that level it would be hard to find a consistent weakness that could be exploited, but Wales have signposted their own weakness for Japan, Argentina and South Africa to take advantage of.

They spread their defense too thinly and so when teams attack with numbers at the ten channel the outside backs need to rush back in towards the ruck, as was the case above where Biggar and Bradley Davies went for the same man, which opened a hole.

The final defensive example comes in the build-up to the third try. Australia once again worked infield from a set-piece and then switched to the blindside. Finally, Wales actually do have the numbers to cope with this switch but Rhys Webb flies out of the line to cut down the space and Foley simply swings the ball over the top.

Although Webb’s decision is inexplicable, it is partly understandable based on the way the home side conceded both tries and clean breaks up until this point.

The Welsh have been very leaky recently in defence and part of the issue seems to be trust. At least against Australia, too many players were trying to do each other’s jobs and the defence was breaking down far too early in the phase count.

Modern teams will run attacks where they bunch players together and then have many options to move the ball in this bunch. If you can’t defend this, then expect to have plentiful times to practice in your upcoming games.

Attack

The player who carried for the longest distance for Wales was Hallam Amos, 70m, a player who was subbed on deep into the second half. Apart from that brief positive, the center pairing made just 7m in the entire game, the starting lock pairing made 2m in 13 carries.

The entire front row, substitutes and all, made just 4m from 15 carries. The Welsh attack was a blunt instrument, which lacked both options and creativity, as we will see from the examples below.

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During one of the few moments of Welsh possession in the first half they had this play. Biggar has gone to the blindside, leaving Scott Williams as the alternate playmaker in the open field. The centre doesn’t really have many options, he can go himself or he can emulate Foley and take the ball to the line and distribute to Tipuric or Charteris who can gain ground.

He does neither, instead he steps around and then goes himself, straight into an Australian wall who push him back for negative yardage.

This happened time and time again and it meant that more Welsh bodies had to be sent into the ruck to secure the ball which in turn limited the second phase options.

In the very next phase, Ken Owens is asked to take the ball up without any support. Adam Coleman tackles him and Lopeti Timani goes in to steal the ball, that’s two men – with two men the Australians have pushed the Welsh attack backwards and then slowed down the ball.

In addition to that, none of the other defenders have to do anything other than just drop back into the defensive line and wait for the next phase.

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In the second half the Welsh got their hands on the ball more but they still weren’t really able to do anything with it. In the above example Dan Lydiate is the middle player in the three man pod, 90 percent of the time you want him to be the ball carrier with the other two supporting players there to deliver quick ball and help drive him over the gain line.

However, 10 percent of the time you might want to pop the ball either side to one of your supporting players or play it out the back to, in this case, Biggar.

If Lydiate pops this ball to Samson Lee then the prop might not be able to fly through that hole but he should be able to get at least back to the line of the ruck. If Biggar is used then the fly-half has no option other than to kick.

It’s no surprise then that the Aussies stack that 10m channel and blitz out. Lydiate doesn’t move the ball and he’s dragged down well behind the gain line.

In the final example, we see that there are also issues with converting chances when they do come. Justin Tipuric, one of two bright sparks along with Ross Moriarty, has skipped through the defense and offloaded to put the home team firmly on the front foot.

Rhys Webb has delivered quick ball and Gethin Jenkins has passed it out the back to Biggar. The ball has to, has to, go wide but Alex Cuthbert cuts straight back into the defense. The Welsh would end up working their way down towards the try line but the ball is eventually turned over.

Conclusion

The Welsh have a week until they face Argentina, back at the Millennium and they need to produce a display which is befitting of the level of play that they showed in New Zealand. Ticket sales have been slow to see the South Americans and they’re unlikely to improve much after that performance so expect another low key atmosphere.

However, the main factors are the fragile defence and uninventive attack. If, and it’s definitely an if, Jamie Roberts is selected to play, he needs to do a better job of marshaling the defence around him and making sure that they close the space down quicker. If they don’t then Nicolás Sánchez will have one of his easier days in an Argentine jersey.

In attack, Jonathan Davies should be back and he does add something more. However, neither he, nor the rest of the backline can do anything unless they get front foot ball.

This means that they have to move away from just using single forwards as battering rams against well organized defenses and they need to take the ball to the line and put people through holes.

If they do that then the five-game losing streak will end. If they don’t, then expect to see a bleak November ahead.

by Sam Larner

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