This week we will mostly be pouring scorn on mentality, schedules, a criticism and the maul…
Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of big girls' blouses, wet fish and limp lettuce. This week we will mostly be pouring scorn on mentality, schedules, a daring criticism and the maul…
“I don't think we got the last kick right,” said Warren Gatland, frustrated, angry and sad in equal measure that his side had managed to chuck away a 13-point lead in the final 11 minutes in Nelspruit. But for me, the rot was set in a couple of minutes before that.
Not to be misunderstood, Wales were excellent on Saturday and would have been good value for a win. But their lesson to be learnt came in the two minutes before that brace of ill-thought drop goal attempts, starting with the moment they won their own restart after the penalty try.
So cast minds back. Remember New Zealand in Dublin last year? Down in the final moments? They wanted points.
Now, this is Wales, in a better position with more time remaining, attempting to put pressure on South Africa. It's from 1:30:00 on this and there are clearly 70 seconds left on the clock, and when Liam Williams makes his half-break it is to between 30 and 35 m from the line. All in all, a better position than New Zealand had. This is what Wales do.
One speculative long-range kick without even a test of the Bok defence, and then 18 phases for about a five metre gain, only once leaving the middle 20 metres of the pitch, never once even threatening to achieve an overlap, stretch the Bok defence, move the play from one part of the pitch to another…. what was it all for? Hoping for a penalty? Believing a penalty might come if you keep the ball long enough?
Going back to the New Zealand sequence, it's not just that they needed the try, it's that they understood that defences need to be stretched and pressured, that a penalty concession is a result of stress and pressure, that no defence can cover everywhere all of the time. Never once did Wales even stress or pressure the Bok defence in those final two minutes, yet they were given perfect chance: turnover ball in the middle of the park, 35m from the Bok line.
You cannot stress a defence by hammering repeatedly at the same part, you need to knock on a door here, then over there, then back here again, then all the way over there, then there on the side, then here, then right over here… and do it with tempo. A feature of the New Zealand sequence is the depth of the first receivers, the width of Aaron Smith's passes, the ease and speed with which the ABs changed the play from one area of the pitch to another.
This was what Wales got wrong. They got it right in the first half and were ahead because of it, but like Ireland last November, once ahead they felt the need to close out the game, to stop applying the pressure. And in those final crucial moments, they felt the need to be arrogant enough to hope that the opposition would somehow give them a penalty if Wales just waited long enough, without trying to earn it.
South Africa did not. Defence like that is a feature of SA rugby. The Boks must have thought the Welsh had given up.
The plus point for Wales: They were in a winning position. The lesson to be learnt: You have to earn every point, nobody will give them away.
Sticking with that game, and a look at the maul…the slow-motion sequence between about 27.30 and 29.00.
No discredit to South Africa, whose maul was sublime at the onset, but how long can a maul go past the initial point of contact, past the counter-maulers and into open field before it is considered no longer to be a maul?
The player at the back of that maul essentially had five blockers in front of him as the pile rolled on past the Welsh forwards. This is the problem with the current maul. Once it rolls it is unstoppable, and the practice of allowing one formed maul team to essentially run a flying wedge, or a multi truck-and-trailer, after the defence has been beaten is becoming too much of an advantage.
Surely it is now time for referees to declare a maul over once the opposition forwards have been shoved out of the way? Otherwise you have what is more or less a line of scrimmage in NFL with a running back being shepherded over the line…
Two international coaches this week worried about the amount of rugby their players are playing and the fatigue they are suffering. Heard it before? It is the game's next great challenge.
Finally, the IRB rankings tell their own tale at the moment. Argentina in 12th, Japan in 10th, Italy in 14th… the world order is shifting. There's been some great rugby this June all over the world, with the most convincing evidence yet that the tier two countries have ramped up their structures and talent pools. The England World Cup, and especially the Japan World Cup, are set to be the most open yet.
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens