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Opinion

What's up with Wales?

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3rd April, 2020
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From grand slam champions and World Cup semi-finalists in 2019 to fifth in the Six Nations, there might be an explanation in the shambolic state.

Wales began the 2020 campaign with a strong start, with a stage of triumphant jubilation at the end of the match that held a 42-0 scoreline, and with playmaker Dan Biggar kicking in to make the plays for Josh Adams on the wing.

Josh Adams is the Welsh version of Cheslin Kolbe. His play is scintillating and is perhaps the closest Europe has to the South African phenomenon of a winger. On their day Wales can triumph over any team but anything can happen in the span of the next three games.

In their first loss to Ireland, there was a mere 24-phase retention, which means that the crucial playmaker Biggar can virtually not create anything. Throughout the game, every single decision by the flyhalf was a gain-line success running off him, other than a plain epitome of stupidity by moaning to the ref and losing the ball, which became a try several phases later. Again, if they could pin back the opposition, this would not have occurred. Poor handling from other men and the inability to kill plays was the downfall of Wales here.

In the second loss to France it was quite understandable. It was a rejuvenated France galvanised by the prodigy of a captain: the indomitable Charles Ollivon, reprogrammed by the Fabien Galthie set-up, which boasts Shaun Edwards. They avenged a match they should have won in the 2019 campaign.

Here, Biggar spent a fair bit of time complaining to the ref but that is the peeve of Biggar, who is an honest athlete despite his short fuse. The Welsh scrum was not good enough to accommodate Alun Wyn Jones’ plans for scrummaging plays. Meanwhile, the intercept by Romain Ntamack was quite a poor decision from Nick Tompkins, a fast centre, but lacking playmaking talent.

Against England it was a poor start and a late comeback was simply insufficient, despite a good performance by the old king Justin Tipuric.

Justin Tipuric in action for Wales

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Now, we are merely at the tip of the iceberg. The main problem lies in the game play. Wales are famed for scintillating tactics that are designed to trick the best of defensive infrastructures.

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In the past year, the team has been heavily reliant on some players such as Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams, George North and Liam Williams.

In 2020, only four of these men have retained solid playing shape and remain consistent and reliable for the Welsh.

Dan Biggar is a rock-solid flyhalf and although he may be constantly criticised for a lack of creativity in his play, he is far from tame. Against Italy he was the epitome of attacking genius. An insane hut between the legs found Adams in space for a score. A good gap-finder put Tompkins to score on debut, while a link-up with Leigh Halfpenny through attackers and a deft touch by Halfpenny set Josh Adams in for a try.

His play against England was solid. With the colossal pressure from the forwards of England, he was not free to play fanciful rugby and get the accolades. He was a tireless distributor and managed to inject runners into the defence. He even scored a try in the match.

Justin Tipuric is perhaps the best player in Wales at the moment. In terms of attack, he has caught a couple of sublime kicks from Biggar and got set loose. An all-rounder who is a great support runner and a king of the breakdown, Tipuric is unparalleled as the best Welsh flank at the moment. Man of the match against Italy was justly won with a dominance at the breakdown.

The captain Jones is a total workhorse who embodies the heart of the pack. His power drive and relentless defensive work have remained no slouch.

Alun Wyn Jones

(ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Josh Adams remains a phenomenal winger but try-scorers don’t exist without playmakers.

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Liam Williams was far from scintillating form against England and his errors in handling were costly. He is perhaps out of form and rusty.

In the hype over Liam Williams, a man by the name of Leigh Halfpenny has been neglected for the 15 jersey. However the absence of Williams in the first couple of 2020 matches has allowed Halfpenny to show that he is truly worth the Welsh 15 shirt.

He is a metronome from the tee while his high-ball skills are rock solid. Against Italy he was superb with the flat ball to Josh Adams and was great in the air. Linking up with Biggar, he is a solid playmaking fullback. It truly takes a Teddy Thomas to make him fumble.

In Warren Gatland’s latest game plan, Biggar has been prevented from doing what he can. His only choice is to select a forward runner. The lack of any talented backs around him and the ever-remaining presence of tight five forwards means that a passing game would not be able to occur. There is a lack of any back in an available passing position in open play for Biggar to distribute to.

The default Welsh game of Gatland means that attacking brilliance is heavily stifled. The only time they have a set piece in plausible scoring distance is when they are on the front foot in the game, getting a penalty to touch or a scrum near the line.

In the Azzurri clash, there was one try where Biggar skipped Tipuric to find Tompkins, who put in a release to Halfpenny, who then fixes his man and fires away a flat ball to Adams. In another try Biggar was involved in, it was pure magic with a pass in between the legs to find Adams in the sweetest of spots for a try.

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This was a play from the five, where basically anything can be created with great execution. The third try Biggar had his fingerprints on was a line break that got good metres, setting the Azzurri into a frenzy, and he overshot the ball but got back in time to see the gap for Tompkins and sent the machine of pace and agility for a debutant try.

In the next couple of games, Biggar was inextricably linked to two tries. One was against England where a cross kick to Tipuric found the flanker in space and good hands by him and the nine found Tipuric in the corner. His play also earned him a try of his own in that match. Against Ireland a distributing pass to Jones found the man in between Conor Murray and Bundee Aki, and as the skipper drove forwards, he got his hand around to offload back to Biggar, who sent it away to Williams for a superb try.

Wales are fond of using a double attacking line. Back to the phase play I mentioned earlier, they use Biggar as a concealed runner from behind the line to hit the opposition with a bamboozling mismatch. In this case he would either fix his man and put another runner through with a clever ball to the smallest of gaps (though this is sometimes the cause of forward passing) or play in another move. As the distributor for an earlier phase, he would link up with Jonathan Davies through a short pass, who then gets it across to someone in space to put a man in a free gap.

Now, Davies has the natural flair of a designated killer in the back line. His quick hands and superb passing are key to line breaks and tries. In terms of the Welsh tries it is often linked to offloads or quick hands from Davies in big games.

Without Davies, the plan does not work. The playmaker is not there to link up with Biggar and make the big plays. Wales have excellent tactics in all of their tries but they have an insufficient number to win games against teams galvanised by insurrection and simply in top form. In the absence of Davies, the Welsh are left with a distributor who as a ten is not positionally located to make a play on the edge.

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(Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Now even with Wayne Pivac’s new game plan, it is not sufficient to compensate Davies. The game is expansive with passing to and fro to find players in space. However the lack of a killer on the edge means that they are just short of tries flowing through the infrastructure without the playmaking killer.

Wales will go through a period of uncertainty without their killer on the edge unless they can fix two main problems: ball retention and scrum work. The weakness in the scrum is where opposition packs draw penalties from and in stalemate matches they are costly. Against a side that has an English scrum that is a simple penalty-winning machine, their inability to dominate will cost them penalties, and in matches where they have no breathing space, penalties of the scrum will be costly. Their ball retention has to improve and if they cannot withstand the breakdown skills of CJ Stander, their tactics can be easily turned to dust.

The theory of having Biggar swing it wide or play wide in big plays is not ideal as the defensive infrastructures are honed to cut off these plays. In such cases only draw-and-pass methods suffice.

For the nonsense that no man would dream of having Biggar on the edge, there is a simple answer not even requiring common sense: Biggar is not versatile to 13, while it would mean not even having a distributor. The other two Welsh tens are Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe. Anscombe has an uncanny knack for ignoring space on the outside while Patchell if pressured is unable to execute with accuracy, thus it remains a nonsensical pile of rubbish.

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Unlike the try play against Wales by England for Manu Tuilagi, the Welsh back line lacks the boon of two flyhalves. The double flyhalf plan has been an effective tactical ploy in the latest era. With two playmakers it means that there is a man to distribute and another to pass on the edge. It was a good draw and pass from Owen Farrell to find George Ford, a magnet for the rush of defenders. Quick hands fired it away to Tuilagi, who walked in for a try.

Hence they should drop the old game plan as it was adapted to have Davies on the edge as the killer. It was nevertheless a good tactic by Gatland but in the lack of the cornerstone of the plan, it is not plausible.

The forwards of Wales, excluding the back row and Jones, have not been the best of brute units, and having Biggar isolated from the players blessed with handling and positional value is not the best of ideas.

Thus they should have a back line-centred game plan, where the Welsh flair belongs with forwards still involved but with the handling players present and close to the distributor Biggar.

Have they dropped in talent? No, but in the lack of Davies they may lack a crucial try or two to prevail over the penalties that keep coming.

Wales have a number of great ruck men, such as Ken Owens, Tipuric and Jones, who can secure the rucks for a next phase but a steal is always looming, which sometimes may disrupt these plays.

Thus they should try to keep the ball flowing and making a forward impact in the tackle, which is inconvenient for steals.

The play should thus be more using of the backs in the lack of Davies until his return when the Gatland game plan will then be ideal.

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In conclusion, the new game plan is more expansive, but in the lack of the injured Davies they may not have enough tries created on the edge. If intending to win games, players need to put in a stronger showing in scrums and shore up the ball retention for their playmaker Biggar to have a platform to create play off.