Analysis: Wasps double act steal the show

Date published: January 8 2019

Our analyst Sam Larner returns to Planet Rugby to hail the double act of Thomas Young and Joe Launchbury in Wasps‘ victory over Northampton.

The Premiership is in an unusual situation, it seems that currently if you are anywhere from third to twelfth you are just a single win away from either shooting up the table or collapsing into the relegation mire. Wasps were nearer to that second option than the first before their victory at home against Northampton Saints on Sunday. However, they now sit in the final Champions Cup qualifying spot just three points from the play-offs. Between their last win in any competition and this victory were five losses, only two by less than 10 points. It’s no surprise that Wasps’ victory coincided with Launchbury’s return. The England lock formed a formidable partnership with Young.

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Launchbury and Young are marking the back of the line-out in this example and although the break happens in the midfield Launchbury gets back to make the tackle and then Young is the next person to fold in and the two manage to affect the turnover. Their work-rate was a key factor during the game, and consistently they put themselves in the key defensive positions. It’s no wonder that they combined for a fifth of all the team’s tackles.

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In this clip Launchbury is the first person there after Wasps kick it away. He makes the one on one tackle in space but the ball is offloaded. He works all the way back to the five-metre line to then make a second tackle once Tom Wood is getting up to speed. Young holds back and when the ball eventually emerges the Welshman assists in the turnover. It might look like Launchbury has done all the work and Young has emerged from the shadows to stick it in the back of the net but there’s a reason why it wasn’t Young and Launchbury at the forefront. In the dream scenario, Launchbury makes the tackle and Young gets over the top to steal the ball. In the worst case scenario both Young and Launchbury get involved in the tackle and you end up with arguably your two best defenders on the ground for one or perhaps two phases.

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This example highlights that relationship, the ball goes long from the kick-off and Young sees the possibility of a turnover. If Young secures the turnover or Saints clear him out and that leaves the ball available then Launchbury is ready to pounce. However when Young doesn’t get the turnover, Launchbury moves on to the next job, defending the fringe. They work in tandem but they are doing different jobs.

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That partnership can again be seen here. Launchbury moves Young to the openside and puts himself on the blindside fringe. Launchbury is the taller player and he’s going to put more pressure on Cobus Reinach’s kick. Young moves to the openside but when cover comes across he moves back to the slightly more demanding blindside defensive position. Again, they’re working in harmony without doubling up and doing the same job.

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When they did align good things tended to happen. They are separated by a single defender but when the offload happens they end up both tackling the same player and initially attempting the choke tackle. When that doesn’t happen Young attempts the turnover but is eventually warned off by the referee. The end result though is a very slow recycling of the ball.

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In this penultimate example, we see Young’s confidence in defence. The keys here are the things that he doesn’t do. He doesn’t sprint across and give the inside pass attacking option or the cut back run. Instead he just glides across, opens up the outside option and then makes the easy tackle into touch. A less confident defender would try and do too much and create problems for themselves. It’s not a surprise that Young is 44 from 44 in tackles for the past three games.

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If I can make one criticism though, I have noticed over a couple of games that Young sometimes doesn’t work as hard as he could after making a tackle. In this example Launchbury has a genuine shot at turning the ball over but it was never going to be allowed with Young laying on the wrong side of the ball. It’s the openside flanker’s prerogative to lay on the wrong side but if you’re going to do that it helps to have an all black jersey rather than a black and yellow one. When it comes to international selection even minor weaknesses like this can stand between the player and selection.

Conclusion

As long as Launchbury doesn’t pick up another injury I am confident that he will step straight back into the England squad for the Six Nations. Whether Young will be involved in the same tournament is a different matter. The unfortunate fact, when you’re talking about international selection, is that you can’t just be a good player, arguably you can’t just be a great player, you need to be the best player in your position in that country. Is Young the best openside flanker in Wales? I would argue probably not, however, with Dan Lydiate very possibly sidelined for at least part of the tournament with a bicep injury it’s possible that Young could step into the gap. With Young on one flank, Justin Tipuric on the other, and Taulupe Faletau in between Wales would have carrying ability, tackling, and genuine pace.

The big question would come at the Rugby World Cup though. If Ellis Jenkins were to be back fit then Warren Gatland could just pick the entire Cardiff Blues back-row. That would be quite a nice nod to Gatland’s first ever Welsh team selection when he put his faith in the Ospreys and selected almost exclusively from the second most westerly Welsh province. If Young keeps up with this form he’ll be a very hard man to ignore.

by Sam Larner