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How will the Wallabies unravel Warren Gatland’s Welsh web?

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Expert
17th September, 2019
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It was the story of the 1978 FIFA World Cup.

Ally MacLeod’s Scotland had qualified in style for the tournament, eliminating European champions Czechoslovakia in the process. They had beaten the ‘auld enemy’ England at Wembley the year before, and their supporters had torn down the goalposts in their euphoria, carrying sods of the hallowed turf back home as a permanent reminder.

“I think a medal of some sort will come and I pray and hope that it is the gold one,” said MacLeod, igniting a wave of national delirium.

Scotland not only hoped, but began to expect, that a team containing stars like Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Gordon MacQueen and Lou Macari would come back with the Jules Rimet Trophy in their luggage. They were the creme de la creme in the English game, after all, playing for the two most famous clubs in the league beyond Hadrian’s Wall: Liverpool and Manchester United.

The tsunami of optimism was unstoppable and gathered pace in the weeks before the competition. Business poured tens of thousands of pounds into Scottish football.

The players advertised cars, MacLeod advertised local textiles: “Ally, see the day after your commercial, my Ma bought one of they carpets” the cry comes, as young fans mob MacLeod by the boot of his car, in this wistful hymn to the 1978 tournament.

A group of 16 dedicated Highland fans memorably dug a trench four miles long from their village of Knoydart to the aerial at the top of a neighbouring mountain, just so they could view the tournament from Argentina on TV. 25,000 people watched the Scotland bus leave Prestwick Airport, draped over the top of motorway bridges and in billowing Tartan-clad throngs by the side of the road.

Cometh the hour, and Scotland were eliminated in their pool. They lost to Peru first up, then only managed a 1-1 draw against unfancied Iran. Only a stirring 3-2 comeback win over the Netherlands saved face, though not their place in the competition’s knockout stages. Rooster had suddenly become feather-duster, and the mood at home turned black.

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The Celtic nations are notoriously poor frontrunners. Install Wales, Ireland or Scotland as the favourites to win a match or a competition, with time to think about it, and they tend to wilt.

That’s why Warren Gatland’s Wales have been playing it cute in the build-up to this year’s Rugby World Cup. Despite rising to the dizzily unfamiliar heights of the number one ranking in the world after their win over England on 17 August, Wales have been determined to fly into the tournament under the radar.

They lost three of their four warm-ups to drop to the more comfortable height of fifth, and leave Ireland holding the baby at the top.

Justin Tipuric in action for Wales

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Wales have steadfastly avoided starting their key players in too many of the preparatory fixtures, with scrumhalf Gareth Davies and hooker Ken Owens only starting two games apiece.

The units at the heartbeat of the Welsh defence – the back row and back three – have rarely been first choice. Probably the best fullback in the world, Liam Williams, has only started one game, and the Six Nations-winning trio of Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi have not started a game together at all.

They have been held back for the key group match against Australia September 29 and will be primed for that game.

In 1978, Ally MacLeod did no work on the opposition at all.

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“Basically, what I’ve decided to do is to try and win the World Cup by preparing my own team to perfection,” he said.

Scotland knew nothing about the players in the Peru team. They didn’t know about one of the finest strikers of a dead ball in South America, Teofilo Cubillas, even though he had been the South American player of the year.

“Who takes the free-kicks around the box, is there anybody good?” asked Scotland goalkeeper Alan Rough.

No answer was forthcoming – see the results of that oversight at 31:50 and 32:00 on the reel.

In contrast, the back-row duo of Tipuric and Navidi plus Williams at fullback will be at the epicentre of Wales’ planning for the Wallabies. They were the key figures in the side’s conclusive victory over England in the 2019 Six Nations, and they are likely to be just as instrumental against Australia.

It was Navidi and Tipuric to whom defensive coach Shaun Edwards turned in order to halt the forward progress of England’s massive forward ball-carriers:

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Right from kick-chase following the first Welsh exit, the two flankers are highly active. First Tipuric (number 7 in the blue hat) chops down Billy Vunipola, then Navidi (number 6 with the dreadlocks) is ready to force Kyle Sinckler back on the following phase.

When the ball comes back to Eddie Jones’ favourite shortside, the openside flanker is back up on his feet, tackling Tom Curry and spoiling ball at the ensuing breakdown. Three phases of play, three significant impacts by the Welsh breakaways.

It got no better for the main English ball-carriers from set-piece. Manu Tuilagi created mayhem in the Twickenham warm-up against Ireland, but he got little change out of the Wales back-row earlier in the year:

Navidi meets Tuilagi shoulder-to-shoulder on the advantage line and does not budge an inch – if anything, he pushes forward through contact. That, in turn, creates slow ball for Ben Youngs and sets up his mate Tipuric for the choke turnover the following phase, with assistance from veteran warrior Alun-Wyn Jones.

The longer the game went on, the more Wales’ line-speed developed around their numbers 6 and 7:

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Navidi intercepts a tip-on pass between Sinckler and Vunipola on another shortside play, then leads the line to cut down the space for Mark Wilson and force a handling error from the Newcastle blindside flanker:

wales defence analysis

In the 64th minute of the game, Josh Navidi is already five metres ahead of the hindmost foot at the ruck when Wilson receives the ball from Youngs.

The strength of Wales’ interior defence also had a profound knock-on effect on the quality of England’s kicking game. When England kicked the ball, they seldom did it on their own terms:

Vunipola is stopped on the England 40-metre line and the ball is again slow, courtesy of Tipuric’s efforts at the breakdown. This gives Wales halfback Gareth Davies the opportunity to accelerate onto Owen Farrell on a weak-side blitz.

As the game progressed, Wales began to catch England repeatedly in a pattern of strong inside defence followed by weak-side pressure forcing a misdirected kick by Farrell upfield:

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Navidi hits Vunipola, and Owen Farrell once again feels Tipuric coming from his blindside as he attempts to kick across field to the England left:

wales defence analysis

On occasion, the pressure was too much for him:

It is very hard to kick accurately to your left, and (incidentally) towards England’s best aerial chaser Jonny May, when the highest defender is exerting leverage from that side:

wales defence analysis

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Ultimately, England’s kicking played into the hands of another of the Welsh aces who had been carefully kept up Gatland’s sleeve during the warm-ups, fullback Liam Williams.

In the example at the 54th minute, Williams simply makes the catch and the ball changes hands. At other times, he did far, far more:

Herein lies the problem for Australia. If they run short off 9 as regularly as they did against the All Blacks, they risk playing into the hands of Navidi and Tipuric. If and when they are forced to kick, they voluntarily bring the best counter-attacking fullback in Europe into the game.

It was no accident that Wales finished England off with another tip of their hat to the aerial game:

Summary
If Michael Cheika is to win his tactical battle with Warren Gatland in Tokyo, he cannot afford to be as oblivious to the strengths of the Wales team, and its key personnel, as Ally MacLeod was at the 1978 FIFA World Cup with Scotland! Trusting the powers of your own team, to the exclusion of all else, will only take you so far.

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Gatland has meanwhile been spinning the story of the underdog which fits Celtic sporting mentality best. Wales have unburdened themselves of the pressure of their long unbeaten run, they dropped their number one world ranking like a hot potato (only one week after acquiring it), and they have lost three of their four preparatory matches.

Gatland may have had to grit his teeth in order to do it, but he has managed to defuse any overwhelming sense of expectation surrounding the Wales team completely. Absolutely nobody is tipping Wales to advance to the final rounds of the World Cup now.

In the process, he has also kept his key players and units largely out of the line of fire, so that they will be fresh when the real action starts. Rugby is as much a religion in Wales as soccer is in Scotland, but Warren Gatland has switched off the burning spotlight which leads to hysteria.

In order to beat Wales, the Wallabies coaching group will have to find a way to unravel the Welsh defensive web – to marginalise their best players, and prevent them having undue influence on the course of events on the field through their planning off it. They will need the plan for Liam Williams in 2019 that Scotland lacked for Teofilo Cubillas back in 1978.

There is no better time for Michael Cheika to question his own beliefs, and emerge a better coach, and a better man.