Ian Botham, one of England’s great sporting heroes, reckons he knows exactly who he will be cheering for should his grandson James ever take the field in a rugby Test against England.
Wales were semi-finalists in 2019 but became eighth in the world and fifth in the Six Nations in 2020. One big difference is the attacking structure.
Under Warren Gatland they attacked with Dan Biggar as a solid pivot to just distribute and Jonathan Davies as the key to unlock the defence, with Josh Adams and George North serving as pace and power wings.
An example of this playing style would be the following passage of play.
After his good distribution for Ken Owens to crash up, he resets to first receiver and identifies the overlap they have against the Springboks. He passes to Davies, who slings a lovely flat pass to speedster Josh Adams. Adams uses the space, getting the Welsh into the 22. The pass was unluckily marginally forwards, but it was a sign of the gifts that Jonathan Davies brought to the game.
The roles between Biggar and Davies can be reversed, and against South Africa in the semi-finals the line-break phase exemplifies this.
Davies stands at first receiver in what looks like a five-man pod after the ball skips Tipuric and finds him. The thing is that under Gatland they often used Biggar like South Africa used Willie le Roux – hidden behind the line and late onto the ball to create the extra man.
In this case Biggar is at the back of the first three men of the pod with a supporting Ken Owens. Biggar slides out as Sbu Nkosi desperately shoots up to kill the play, but good quick hands in the draw and pass from Biggar gets North free and away, running a broken play and passing to Adams. This phase gets to the opposition 22.
In 2020 we saw Wayne Pivac not using the Gatland expansive game and instead trying to do something completely different.
However, when they do attack expansively they play with Dan Biggar as a primary pivot and strike runners in Hadleigh Parkes or Owen Watkin (No. 12) and winger George North (No. 14). The No. 12 serves as a smooth operating second receiver. They use Nick Tompkins as an initial line-breaker and second playmaker and then Leigh Halfpenny to inject into play as the last-pass guy. They have a pace wing in Josh Adams.
Take Josh Adams’s try against Italy as an example. Because of lineouts the typical first-phase is a Justin Tipuric-Hadleigh Parkes combo the defenders have jammed in to guard the space, which Tipuric and Parkes always attack.
This opens the gap, and the Welsh spring their triple axis to exploit that space.
It comes to Biggar, who has a good screen of Tipuric-Parkes lined up for Tompkins and to stop the defensive drift. He commits the line and fires a perfect pass to Tompkins, who then unleashes Leigh Halfpenny into space, who gets some ground before fixing the last man and firing a beautiful flat pass to Adams, who scores.
They are trying to adopt a triple-receiver passing game in Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins, and Leigh Halfpenny, with Leigh Halfpenny trying to replicate what Davies normally does – the last pass.
I had assumed the No. 13 would continue as a playmaker when Davies returned, but it turns out otherwise. Wales instead shifted their attacking passes through Biggar and Halfpenny, taking away one of the best attackers in the world from their attack.
One example would be one of the few set-shape phases they made any progress. A quick ball by Lloyd Williams goes to Biggar, who fires a good tunnel pass behind dummy runners to Halfpenny, who commits and plays a string of runners to the edge.
They are currently using flyhalf Dan Biggar and fullback Leigh Halfpenny as dual pivots. Gatland used Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies as dual pivots and was far more successful. While using Bigar and Halfpenny as dual pivots is decently effective, they are crossing the gain line in static play, while using Biggar and Davies gets major line breaks like the two I mentioned earlier.
The question is: why are they not using Davies as one of their pivots?
Dan Biggar has long been renowned as a defensive and kicking flyhalf, but recently I find he is an attacking flyhalf. His move to Northampton has nonetheless made him a more creative player, and under Steve Jones his skill set has increased and Wales are playing off it.
Consider one first-phase-off-the-scrum play against Italy, which was reviewed by Wibble Rugby. He runs a switch with Hadleigh Parkes, takes the pass back and fires it to Leigh Halfpenny, who fixes and puts away Johnny McNicholl down the wing.
They have used the one-two very well, especially with Biggar playmaking, an effort that culminated in Tomos Williams’s try.
Biggar passes to Alun Wyn Jones in the space and then takes an offload back before offloading and setting Tomos Williams in untouched.
Biggar has been running a lot of inside runner plays, as Wibble Rugby also pointed out. His wide passes can unlock defences by unlocking space. Meanwhile, his kicking game is brilliant, one of his old strengths. He is the closest thing Wales have to the prolific South African pivot Handre Pollard – lovely flat passing, a great kicking game, good goal kicking (slightly better than Pollard) and great tactical thinking.
They are using him to fill the Jonathan Davies role, or at least trying to. They took out Tompkins, brought in a better playmaker in Davies and do not use him to make plays, limiting his role to crash ball.
Jonathan Davies has a big frame and distribution skill, the typical centre capabilities. He also brings quick hands and the delayed release to open space. His passing is excellent as well, and he can create many such opportunities. He is such a good playmaking No. 13, and not using him as one is a waste.
Also, currently Wales have horrible ball retention and a non-existent platform for their backs. Against Ireland they had a ghastly 23 per cent ball retention. This means every chance they have, they have to make it count with either a major line break or a try to stand a chance. Because right now they are using an attack that is decent but not the best, they are not even scoring enough tries.
They are very close to building a good attack, but they are a work in progress. Halfpenny, though a decent playmaker, does not have the X factor of Davies. He may still serve as a piece in their attack, but Davies has to be utilised as a playmaker.
They can continue with playing off the complete skillset of Dan Biggar, but they have to tweak their game to activate Jonathan Davies.