It’s a tough time to be a Welsh rugby fan.
Growing despondency over the fortunes and playing style of the national team, despite wins over Argentina and South Africa in November, has coincided with a slide down the world rankings and Wales now face the prospect of entering the 2019 Rugby World Cup draw as a third seed.
They currently occupy 7th spot and are a prospective second seed for the tournament, but with pools set to be drawn after the RBS Six Nations, they now face off against Ireland in Cardiff and France in Paris in the final two rounds of the championship, knowing that every point counts.
Losses in both of those games would see Wales slip to 9th in the rankings, with Argentina moving up into a second seed berth at their expense, and it could once again see Wales deposited into a pool such as the one they faced at the 2015 RWC, when they had to contend with both England and Australia.
They overcame that challenge in impressive fashion, admittedly, but it is not a scenario they will enjoy taking on for a second time in as many tournaments.
What it does do, however, is give Wales something more to play for than pride alone in the final two rounds of the Six Nations, after losses to England and Scotland ended any hopes they had of winning the title for the first time since 2013.
The importance of the rankings over the coming months does negate Rob Howley’s ability to treat the rest of the championship as an opportunity to experiment with new players, combinations and styles, but, the status quo is not working, so a measure of change is certainly needed.
Against Scotland, Wales were bullied at the breakdown, an area where they have traditionally been very strong during Warren Gatland’s tenure.
The tactic of picking two adept fetching flankers in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric has had its moments during the opening three rounds, including a very predatory display by Warburton at Murrayfield, but the balance of the group is off. Combined with Ross Moriarty, all three back-rowers have shone individually at times but the side’s ability to retain possession at attacking breakdowns has been compromised.
Without that foundation, the backline, that is often critiqued for being ineffective and too conservative, is going to further struggle to manufacture mismatches and scoring opportunities.
A recall to the starting XV must surely beckon for Taulupe Faletau, who is one of the most well-rounded eights in the game and who can help secure attacking ball for Wales. Whether his return is at the expense of Moriarty or one of the flanks, with Moriarty assuming a role on the blindside, is up for debate.
Stealing opposition ball is a nice luxury to have but it is a luxury, and one that cannot be enjoyed if the basic requirement of securing your own possession isn’t being met. Given that Wales have failed to capitalise on Tipuric’s ability as a ball-carrier, especially in the wider channels, he would seem the obvious casualty in the back row.
Cavalry nowhere to be seen
The openside’s demotion to the bench would also help another glaring issue in the current Wales side and that is their lack of dynamic impact from the bench.
Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika like to refer to them as “finishers” and England in particular have become very adept at finding the right options off the bench at just the right time in recent weeks. It is something that eludes Howley and Wales, however.
Where England have been able to turn to the likes of Jack Nowell, Ben Te’o, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler, Wales’ cupboard of game-breakers is bare.
Jamie Roberts is a fine inside centre and certainly a Test-calibre player, but from the bench he doesn’t bring the dynamism or versatility that can change a game. With Scott Williams performing well and the only player that can be sacrificed to bring Roberts on, the arrival of the punishing centre is tough to be viewed as a proactive move to make Wales a more adept attacking side.
The ability to score points of this current starting XV is not so prolific that the limited bench spots can be reserved for anything other than versatile attacking threats.
The likes of Keelan Giles, Gareth Anscombe and Tyler Morgan are just a phone call away. Steff Evans and Owen Williams, both uncapped, are two further options and offer something completely different to what Wales have in their current starting XV.
Fly-half Sam Davies also fits that mould and has impressed off the bench so far this year but the tactic of “put Davies on and hope he changes things” is not enough alone to constitute a game plan that can consistently have success.
Stick or twist at fly-half
The case for Davies to become the starter at ten, or at least be given a shot to prove he deserves the jersey moving forward, continues to grow.
Wales don’t have the kind of ball-playing 12 – Owen Williams aside – to help take the pressure off Biggar to run the back line and there is a growing portfolio developing that Biggar’s young deputy at the Ospreys is better suited to the role of being an arch-creator in a back line.
Davies is a busy fly-half, he likes to inject himself into the same phase of play multiple times and he’s not the type to sit back in the pocket and take a more passive role in the game.
Detractors will criticise his ability to control a game as a result, but until he is given a run as a starting Test fly-half, that’s a debate which has no definite answer.
The frustrating factor for fans is that Wales do have the players with the ability to cause defences problems and if Davies can put those players into the positions they need to be to succeed, then it is worth Howley kicking the tires on the former IRB Junior Player of the Year.
Silver linings in defeat
It would be remiss not to show this ability and the potential the Welsh backline has.
The following images show Wales taking an opportunity their match against Scotland presented them with and then executing the basic skills of rugby to be a dangerous attacking team. Unfortunately, this was very much an isolated incident at Murrayfield.
Taking a quick tap, scrum-half Rhys Webb is savvy enough to realise flanker John Hardie is carrying a leg injury and runs straight. This draws Finn Russell in, who can’t rely on Hardie being able to cover Webb, and also keeps as large an openside as possible for the rest of the Welsh back line to work in.
Having drawn in Russell, Webb is able to pass to Biggar, who has Scott Williams as his primary pass, but also the deeper options of Jonathan Davies and George North arriving behind Williams.
These extra options draw in Tommy Seymour. The Scottish wing sells himself too early, rushing up into no man’s land, as the Welsh back line are too deep to get to and defensively pressure. If Williams can pin Seymour with his run, he should be able to create a two-on-one for Leigh Halfpenny and the out of shot Liam Williams.
And so it transpires.
Scott Williams straightens up, keeping Seymour committed, who is still wary of the deep lines being run by Davies and North, and plays the perfect pass in front of Halfpenny.
The full-back now has 25 metres to the touchline to work the two-on-one with Liam Williams in, with Stuart Hogg (out of image) the only defender capable of influencing play.
Halfpenny drifts out far enough so as not to be caught by Seymour, but then straightens and keeps Hogg on his heels. One more precise pass in front of the man and Liam Williams has five metres between himself and touch, not to mention a running start, to squeeze in at the corner and score Wales’ sole try of the game.
None of this is rocket science or reinventing the wheel. It’s just execution of simple skills, such as passing, drawing defenders and running lines that, even if you believe you are a decoy, make you an option to the ball-carrier and cause defenders to pause for thought.
Horses for courses
Wales’ remaining two opponents are Ireland and France. There are tweaks to the XV and bench that Wales can make to catch these two sides out.
Joe Schmidt’s side will be encouraged by what they saw Scotland do to Wales’ attacking breakdown and will fancy themselves to have just as much success. If Wales turnover the ball as much to Ireland as they did to Scotland, the score line will likely be even uglier.
A combination of Moriarty, Warburton and Faletau should solidify Wales’ attacking ball, whilst the presence of Tipuric on the bench gives Howley a genuine “finisher” to call upon if required. It would be refreshing to see him joined there by Owen Williams.
It wouldn’t hurt to call consultant Ben Ryan in for the week, either, and have the former Fijian Sevens coach work with Moriarty, Faletau and Tipuric on what they can bring to Wales in the wider channels, especially if Warburton is kept on a closer leash in the centre of the field and following the ball.
Then comes France.
This is the clutch fixture. Les Bleus are the team currently ranked 8th in the world and a loss for Wales to a team below them could well be the loss in points required to see them slip down to a third seed for the RWC draw.
Run, Rob, Run!
France do not have the conditioning to sufficiently last an 80-minute Test. They wilted against England, looked out on their feet in the second half against Ireland and their only win has come when they physically dominated Scotland in Paris. Controlling possession will be key to tiring them out and the aforementioned back row adjustment will help with that.
Most important, however, will be to play with tempo and width.
Width is no guarantee of success, as if used improperly, it can see sides crab from left to right and back again, struggling to generate any forward momentum. This is where Sam Davies comes in.
He will inject that width and tempo himself and will do so intelligently. He did so against Italy and was effective doing so because centres Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies kept the Italian defence honest, running hard lines off his inside and outside shoulders.
For all Biggar’s merits – and there are many – this style of playmaking is not chief among them.
Plenty more can be written on Wales’ coaching set-up, the type of players being developed at age-grade levels and the selection policies that have permeated Gatland’s tenure, but all of that is of little consequence right now.
We are mid-tournament, RWC seeding is on the line and Wales face two dangerous opponents. The game plan cannot be ripped up and Wales cannot go back to the drawing board. Howley and his staff must rely on small and subtle – but impactful – tweaks to achieve victory.
The return of Faletau, the inclusion of Davies at fly-half and the addition of “finishers” to the bench can help do just that.