Our resident analyst breaks down why Wales might be creating more chances, but their finishing is an issue.
As I have previously mentioned in these weekly articles; I am Welsh and so I watch most Welsh games with an unrealistic sense of optimism, which appears around ten minutes before kick-off.
It is masked throughout the week by cold hearted realism but as the anthems build I’m suddenly aware that if everything aligns, Wales could beat any opposition that they play.
That was completely absent prior to the weekend’s game, partly because the performance against Italy had been stuttering and limp and England had finished strongly against France, once they’d shaken off the rust. My hope was that Wales would begin to evolve a new style of play and prevent England from running away with the game.
Jonathan Davies and Alex Cuthbert will shoulder the majority of the blame for their part in the loss; Davies for keeping the ball in play when the Welsh defence had been pinned in their own 22 for an eternity and Cuthbert for his two defensive lapses that led to both tries.
However in reality the biggest issue was that Wales just couldn’t convert their chances. Before we go on, we should just touch on Cuthbert. There is no shame in not being good enough to play for you country. Hundreds and hundreds of wingers have played at the very highest level of club rugby in Wales and haven’t gone on to represent the national.
The cruelty lies in being continually sent out to do a job that you are not capable of and, although Cuthbert receives some indefensible hate on social media, he is carrying the can for anger directed at a Welsh coaching team who seem unwilling to push new players into starting roles unless necessitated by an injury crisis, as in the case of Ross Moriarty.
Whilst the Welsh front row changes in and out on a weekly basis, the back three have stayed inexplicably static and Wales are now an injury or two away from throwing someone completely untested in as a starter.
However, this article isn’t about Cuthbert or the coaching team; it’s about the Welsh inability to turn pressure into points. Against England they had 123 rucks and scored just one try, consistently in recent matches, Welsh pressure has not equaled points. As you can see below, Wales threw virtually everything at the Italians last week in the first half but came away with just one penalty.
Against the same opposition, Ireland had virtually the same attacking opportunities and came away with 25 more points and the game in the bag.
So, although Jonathan Davies should have kicked to touch and the tackle should have been made, the biggest issue was Wales’ inability to score enough points to put the game away. Let’s look at what they failed to do and how they can improve for the next three games in the Championship.
In this first example, Wales attempt to put width on the ball but with this length of pass there’s no chance that Rhys Webb can consistently hit Sam Warburton on the run. He therefore has the hit the former captain whilst he’s stood still and they end up losing ground and then not generating quick ball.
Just a couple of phases later and Wales add more width on the ball by having Dan Biggar as the link between Webb and Moriarty. But, Moriarty is now trying to time his run off two passes and although he has some forward momentum he doesn’t have enough to break the gain line. The lack of an option in behind means that the English defenders can just focus on Moriarty and they stop him in his tracks.
As a comparison, the above example shows what happens with a more dynamic attack. Both Tom Francis and Liam Williams offer themselves as possible attackers and Dan Biggar waits long enough to draw the defenders out and unleash Scott Williams and then Justin Tipuric on the outside.
Wales don’t just need to spread the ball wide time after time but by offering dynamic runners and options they make defending mentally as well as physically taxing.
The real issue for Wales though, is their attack when they get close to the opposition try line. The last 18 months have been littered with Welsh attacks, which are extinguished after 20 phases of trudging attack.
Jonathan Davies has just made a break into the 22 and Wales have then hit the blindside, but the dynamism is then shut off. The ball is slow anyway in the above example but Rhys Webb then slows the ball even further which allows the English defence to get reset.
Again, Webb is very slow to move the ball even when it is well placed at the back of the ruck. In this clip the trio of Alun Wyn Jones, Jake Ball and Warburton all move forward when Webb looks to the blindside and because they are then resetting they actually have backwards momentum when Ball gets the ball.
They’re also so tightly bunched that they only actually draw in two defenders, Jamie George and Courtney Lawes.
On the very next play, Webb can’t afford to keep the ball at the back of the ruck so he has to speed up play and hits the marauding Ken Owens as he comes round the corner. Again, this sacrifice of width for forward momentum gains valuable yardage for Wales.
In this example Webb puts a long pass in to Samson Lee. The prop finds himself in some space which draws English defenders towards him and therefore puts Jake Ball, immediately outside of him, in space. But the second-row never looks like he might get the ball and a great try scoring opportunity goes missing.
This lies at the heart of the Welsh attacking problems at this point in the pitch. Too often they have just one point of attack, which at international level is too easy to defend. It is hard to understand why Liam Williams’ try, with many different points of attack and dynamic running, wasn’t a catalyst for more of this type of attacking as the game progressed.
In the same attack, Wales have spread the ball the entire width of the pitch and are now on their way back to the nearside. They haven’t gained many yards but they are starting to rebuild their attack but all that momentum goes because of a pass to Ken Owens who is stood completely stationary.
Compare the previous example with this one, there’s no pass involved and Warburton sticks tightly to the fringes but, most importantly of all, he gains yardage. The reason why Warburton goes, instead of setting up a ponderous pod of forwards, is because Samson Lee is the only player in the ruck and is susceptible to counter rucking.
When Wales are forced into making a quick decision their instinct is generally correct. The Welsh insistence on width instead of forward progress is in fact hampering their attack and making life much harder for their scrum half and forwards.
If we move away from Wales and look at Ireland, we can see exactly what the principality should be doing.
Even when they get slow ball and lose forward momentum they substitute runners hitting the ball at pace for multiple angles of attack. The above clip doesn’t go for a big gain but it stretches the defence by adding a second attacking option.
Change the shirts here to red and this looks exactly like a Welsh attack. Except it doesn’t.
Sean O’Brien comes onto the ball at pace and drifts away from the pass to get on the outside of the defender and, in addition to that, the two support runners are realistic options for the pass, which stretches the defence. This is the Welsh attack with dynamic running and multiple points of attack added.
In the final example, this really shows the difference between Wales and Ireland. Robbie Henshaw hits this ball at pace and then does some quick footwork to hit the weak shoulders of both defenders.
He doesn’t break through put he does put Ireland on the front foot. This dynamism is something that is completely missed in the Welsh attack.
The Welsh performance against England was much improved from their attempts in November. Unfortunately, although the Welsh improved their ability to get into the 22, they still couldn’t finish those chances off and were left frustrated.
I once heard from a football pundit that teams shouldn’t worry if they’re creating chances but not scoring, the big issues happen when they’re not even creating chances. On this basis alone, Wales should be just fine, but they can’t continue to leave points strewn across the final ten metres of the pitch.
In November, after the Australia Test, I wrote a piece about Wales’ struggles. Since then, and despite the universal panning they received after that series, it doesn’t seem like Howley and the coaching staff, have changed anything despite some relatively straightforward fixes.
The Welsh attack is still naïve enough to think that by getting the ball wide from the base of a ruck and running a single forward at a wall of defenders. At least Wales are creating chances but they desperately need to get more efficient when it comes to crossing the white line.