Analysis: Wales’ changing game-plans

Date published: December 6 2017

This week our analyst takes a look at how Wales have evolved from the much talked about Warrenball game-plan to a new expansive style of play.

Wales have come out of another Autumn International series with two wins and two relatively close losses against the best opposition they faced.

They had a turgid victory against the lowly ranked Georgian team and beat a plummeting South Africa with a second string squad. This is textbook Wales; look back through the last few Autumn International series and, although the number of wins might change, the type doesn’t – a struggle against a weaker team, a decent victory against better opposition and at least one close but ultimately unsuccessful game against the best teams in the World.

Enough has been written about the new Wales style and the move away from ‘Warrenball’, but, from what I’ve seen, nobody has ever really adequately described either.

So, using the game on Saturday as a guide, let’s take a look at what Wales are doing now and how it’s changed.

First of all, what was Warrenball? I’ve taken a clip from the Six Nations game against Ireland below, this game was chosen because Wales had a ratio of 1.43 passes per ruck, the lowest of the last nine games – more on that later. It’s important to remember that any style that a team chooses to play with is just a guideline; it’s never going to explain every single phase of play. For Warrenball, the guidelines were these:

Use the entire width of the pitch
Use brute strength to gain an advantage over the opposition
Use wide, one out forward runners to stretch the fringe defense
Be patient and wait for a gap to appear in the defense
Kick possession and try and compete to win it back

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You can see some of these principles in this clip. They are wide, they’re about as far as you can go on the pitch and Rhys Webb is throwing a ten-yard pass to a one out runner. At some point, the space should open up on the near side because you’re asking the defence to keep running around the ruck.

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That leads to this: they have created space and they kick, to regain possession, and manufacture a line break. There’s not broken field however, so they revert to type with the next clip.

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A one out runner, a long pass from Webb and they’re heading back across to the other side of the pitch waiting for space to develop.

Warrenball gets a bad rep because at its worst, it’s not exciting. However, it’s a way of setting up a team to perform if you don’t have a high skill-set across the entire squad and if you back your fitness against the opposition. To give Warren Gatland credit, he has hauled Wales out of the doldrums and they are now a team who could win the Six Nations each year and even a World Cup, with a following breeze, something that was never possible in the years prior to his takeover. Everything will evolve however, and that takes us to the new Welsh style, and this graph.

The blue bars show the number of Welsh passes in each game, this isn’t the focus though – pass numbers can be inflated because of possession, instead look at the red line. This shows the ratio of passes per ruck (PPR) in each game, a team with a high PPR ratio is doing more with the ball, a team with a very low PPR ratio are using a lot of one out runners and keeping everything tight. In the Six Nations, Wales failed to get over the two PPR mark in any of their games, the highest they achieved was 1.86 against Scotland, in the Autumn they only failed to get more than two PPR once, against New Zealand, 1.93.

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How does this look in an actual game? There’s more ball handling from the forwards, you can’t be expansive if you don’t have tight five forwards who can shift the ball. It doesn’t come to anything but you’ve replaced the predictable crash up with some more expansive play and worked it all the way to the far side of the pitch.

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There’s still room for the one out crash, but it’s quicker because you don’t have to set all your forwards up and have a long pass from the scrum-half. There’s also a little inside pass dummy to keep the defence on the back foot.

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It’s not all about the forwards however, the inside centre crash ball was a particular favourite of Warrenball and this is what this clip shows. However, Josh Navidi is playing scrum-half and Aled Davies has pushed into the first receiver position. South Africa are expecting the maul but when the ball finds its way to Davies he can attack the line and pop it to the crashing Hadleigh Parkes.

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This is another inside centre crash ball, but Parkes flicks it back to Talupe Faletau before he takes contact. The South African line are anticipating the crash ball and get lazy outside, if Faletau can get the ball out to Scott Williams, the Scarlets centre is going straight through the hole in the defense.

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They haven’t removed the kick from the game plan but they’re using it even more as an attacking weapon. Two of their three tries came from a kick and the above example almost led to another as Hallam Amos continued his aerial dominance.

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This example really encapsulates everything about the current Welsh side, enterprising but not yet 100% successful. Parkes gets to touch the ball twice in this phase, he is filling the role of the distributor while Rhys Patchell can take a back seat and survey the attacking possibilities. This is where Wales have made a big step forward, employing a distributor in the inside centre position allows you to essentially double the attacking possibilities. As they get more used to this new style of play, Scott Andrews will be flying straight through that gap rather than putting a halt to the attacking move.

With the number of injuries that Wales had going into the Autumn Internationals it was always going to be a difficult time to try and install a new game-plan. However, the early shoots of success are there and improvements are clear. A resurgent Scotland and high flying England and Ireland might relegate Wales to fourth in the Six Nations, but the changes that are happening will benefit the team in the long run. Who knows, maybe Rob Howley will also be able to save his reputation as an attack coach if he can successfully navigate the implementation of the game plan.

by Sam Larner