Warren Gatland’s exit from the position of Wales head coach after RWC 2019 was the most significant of the Six Nations sides. He had been in the job for over 10 years, and had moulded his team into a resilient, grizzled unit that, while not necessarily gifted, were good enough to win Grand Slams and reach a World Cup semi-final. His departure was always going to lead to a noticeable shift in how Wales go about their business, and with Shaun Edwards having moved on as well, Wales have turned into a much more attack-minded outfit in a short space of time.
Ireland don’t really have any reason to be optimistic going into this weekend; they were mediocre against Scotland, their record against Wales in recent years makes for difficult reading and Wayne Pivac’s team have started this Six Nations like a steam train. All the same, the tweaks that Wales have made to their style of play means that Ireland’s biggest downfall when facing them (struggling to cross the whitewash) might not be as much of an issue as it used to.
I’ve written before about the brand of rugby that the Scarlets played under Pivac, and from what we’ve seen in the Barbarians and Italy games, the New Zealander has taken the game plan that he used with the Llanelli side and mapped it on to Wales. It’s a strategy based on constantly shifting the ball away from contact and into space, and it’s both exciting to watch and tough to defend when it gets into full swing:
This is a worry for Ireland, because although they kept Scotland tryless in Round 1, they were pushed at times, and that was with Adam Hastings at out-half, a talented player, but not a magician in the same vein as Finn Russell:
A big part of Wales being able to play like this is the fact that Dan Biggar is in the form of his life. The Northampton Saints out-half has added passing and running elements that I thought he was just never capable of possessing. When you add his booming territorial kicks and full-back-like aptitude for regathering his own up-and-unders, you’re looking at a very complete player. He was sensational against Italy, and Ireland would be best-served by making him the focal point of their defensive tactics because if he is allowed any sort of freedom, a repeat of his all-encompassing display last Saturday is guaranteed:
A high-performing 10 is needed for the way that Wales are currently playing, because if your first-receiver can’t orchestrate his backline, then the wheels come off altogether. This is exactly what happened when Leinster derailed a Scarlets who were at the peak of their powers under Pivac when the sides met in the Aviva Stadium back in April of 2018.
Rhys Patchell’s impressive form at the time earned him a call-up to Wales’ starting XV in the Six Nations, but when Leinster applied the blowtorch to him in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, he wilted. More conviction will be required from the Irish pack if Biggar is to be nullified, and a more aggressive rush defence in midfield than what we saw against Scotland would be useful in terms of making wide-wide plays less appealing for Wales’ star out-half and the players outside him.
As much as Wales’ attack has improved, by the inverse, their defence has deteriorated. It’s impossible for a group of coaches and players to cover every single facet of the game fully as there is a limited amount of time in a given week that you have to devote to different areas. If you decide to concentrate on one particular thing, something else has to lose out. Eddie Jones summed it up perfectly when he compared his England team to a broken car back in June of 2018: “You fix one thing and something else breaks”.
In Wales’ case, Pivac and his coaches have focused on transforming Wales into a potent attacking side, which meant that the other side of their game has suffered, and despite keeping Italy scoreless, they were tested more than once by the Azzurri:
It was plain to see that Shaun Edwards was the most influential figure in the previous Welsh coaching ticket after Gatland. A forceful personality combined with incredible rugby knowledge and top-level experience, the Wigan legend introduced the blitz defence to rugby union, and it’s hard to picture his successor, Byron Hayward, having the same level of input or commanding the same amount of respect.
The other personnel change that has hamstrung Wales with regards their work off the ball has been the absence of Jonathan Davies due to injury. On top of being a world-class line-runner and distributor and a powerhouse in contact, the two-time British and Irish Lion is Wales’ defensive lynchpin. His reading of the game, timing of his runs and impact in the tackle have been vital to Wales’ deserved reputation for being adept at shutting down opposition wide movements:
Without him, Wales didn’t have that hard edge against Italy, and they were exposed numerous times in the 15-metre channel, especially early on. They seem to be quite vulnerable to screen passes right at the edge of their front-line defence in the absence of Davies, and the Azzurri turned them inside-out using this ploy:
A lot of Wales’ defensive failings against Italy came down to the fact that not only did they not have Davies at outside centre, they had a player is an out-and-out winger in the position.
For this game, Pivac has selected Nick Tompkins to start, which brings its own problems. The 13 channel is the most complex to defend, and as dangerous an attacking threat as he is, Tompkins doesn’t have the destructive physicality or defensive instincts as Davies:
With the above blemishes in mind, Garry Ringrose’s broken finger is ill-timed. The Leinster centre asks serious questions of defences with his innate ability to glide around would-be tacklers and release the player outside him after drawing the man in. Without him, Andy Farrell has opted for the Bundee Aki-Robbie Henshaw partnership, one that is tried and trusted but offers less in the way of guile.
Going Up A Notch
There was an enormous gap in quality between Wales, England and France and the rest of the teams in this Championship last weekend, and Ireland have plenty of ground to make up if they are to be anywhere near competitive this Saturday. It’s worth noting that Wales had an extra game (against the Barbarians back in November) under Pivac and co. than Ireland have had under their new coaching regime, but Farrell’s side need to ramp up the intensity and accuracy levels for this fixture. The old adage of ‘if you’re not going forwards, you’re going backwards’ holds truer for contact sports, and the higher the level, the less room there is for complacency.
I doubt any of the Irish players were truly content with their individual or collective performances against Scotland, and when it comes to Irish teams, underperformance is often a precursor to an outstanding 80-minute effort in their next game. This year’s Six Nations has brought change for every side involved, and while that can bring difficulty, it can also give you the chance to break losing streaks against teams who have had your number previously.