Wales’ performances in the Six Nations (the Italy trouncing aside) reminded me a lot of Ireland’s hammering at the hands of Australia in November of 2013. The error count and lack of intensity from Ireland that day were symptomatic of a team who were trying to process a high volume of information from their new head coach, and although it didn’t inspire hope, it was followed up with a near-miss against the All Blacks the next week once the players had developed clarity of purpose.
That outstanding performance signalled the start of the Joe Schmidt era, and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if we see a similar display from Wales sometime soon. They demonstrated the complexity of their attacking play against an admittedly amateur Italian defence, and even in their clashes with stronger opposition, they showed glimpses of what they are capable of. They will be a different beast this weekend to what Ireland faced back in February, and it would be foolish of the men in green to think that this fixture will follow the same pattern.
Sharpening Up On D
Despite coming off second-best on the try count when they last met Ireland, Wales did conjure one brilliant score when the game was still a contest, and there were other moments where they weren’t far away from unlocking the Irish defence, and a higher degree of accuracy would have led to a line break or a try:
The pattern that Wales use in this example is a midfield trio pod of Ken Owens, Hadleigh Parkes and Nick Tompkins, with Leigh Halfpenny and Justin Tipuric being the wide pod of two, the idea being that the pod of three narrows the Irish midfield, creating space outside for the wide pod:
Excellent line speed from Tadhg Furlong and Rob Herring forced substandard passes from Dan Biggar and Hadleigh Parkes, allowing Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki to snare Halfpenny, but Wales’ midfield and wide pods would have been more effective if they had stood a couple of metres deeper, as illustrated in the image below:
This would have given Parkes more time to draw the edge of the Irish defence up and in before releasing the ball to Halfpenny, giving him and Tipuric a 2-on-1 scenario against Jacob Stockdale. Coming on to the ball from deep and slick handling were hallmarks of the Scarlets when Pivac was in charge of them, and you can see how he has tried to implement this with Wales. Small details can make a world of difference, and if Wales had tweaked the above move slightly and executed better, they could well have crossed the whitewash.
It’s hard not to imagine Wales’ passing and attacking patterns being a step up from what they produced in the Six Nations, so Ireland’s defence needs to improve, too. One more Welsh try in the February match, and the endgame would have been much nervier than Ireland would have liked. If they decide to relax in defence this weekend based on what they have seen from Wales this year, it could be the losing of the game for them.
Shifting The Focus
With a stronger possibility of physical parity between the sides this weekend, Ireland aren’t going to get the same purchase from standard, one-out forward carries. This means that tries won’t come as easily as they did last time round, so Mike Catt is going to have to give more consideration to where Ireland’s point of attack is going to be on Friday.
There was a heavy emphasis on targeting Nick Tompkins and the space either side of him, and for good reason; it was his first start in a Welsh jersey, and he struggled with the physicality of the game and defensive decision-making:
Jonathan Davies is back in situ at 13, and with the 6’2” Owen Watkin starting alongside him, Ireland won’t find it as easy to go up through the middle of Wales or around them with big openside plays, but Wayne Pivac’s side do have other defensive blemishes.
In Wales’ defensive system, the scrum-half is hidden on the blind side of the ruck, and you can understand why. All of the 9’s in their squad (bar Kieran Hardy) are six foot or under and Ireland wasted no time in attacking this weak point in their last clash with Wales:
Ireland did well from the carries from Johnny Sexton above, but I felt they could have gotten a greater return if they had overloaded the blind side with CJ Stander taking Sexton’s place, and Josh van der Flier positioned between him and Andrew Conway, as illustrated in the image below:
If Ireland had used the formation outlined above, the preferred outcome for them would have been a strong carry from Stander through Williams with an offload from him to van der Flier with Conway in support to receive a pass from the openside flanker to score in the corner.
Caelan Doris is more than capable of carrying out the same role as Stander in the above scenario in the Munster number eight’s place, and van der Flier is back at 7 for this fixture to act as the link man, one of his finest traits, and something that Ireland probably haven’t used enough in the past. With James Lowe bringing power to the 11 jersey, I think we can expect Ireland to use him to have a few charging runs at Gareth Davies as well whenever they have a short side to work with, so they are well-equipped to take advantage of this weakness in the Welsh defence.
The other problem with positioning your 9 on the short side of the pitch in defence is that they can’t act as a sweeper behind the front line in the manner that most scrum-halves do nowadays, and Wales left acres of space in behind their 10-12-13 axis back in spring:
The Leinster midfield took advantage of this space expertly in the closing stages of last season’s Pro14, and even though Garry Ringrose is not starting, we’re likely to see the same from Ireland on Friday. It’s entirely possible that Wales could change their defensive set-up completely on the back of Byron Hayward’s dismissal, but this is one aspect of it that is bound to remain the same if they want to avoid having Gareth Davies being targeted with carries from Robbie Henshaw or Chris Farrell.
Beware The Dragon
Wales’ run of poor results this year could work in their favour in the sense that their opposition might underestimate them. It would be a mistake on Ireland’s part to do so because not only are they potentially on the verge of clicking in terms of strategy and performance, their squad has the ideal blend of experienced, proven Test operators like Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies and Leigh Halfpenny and promising young talents such as Aaron Wainwright, Josh Adams, Nick Tompkins, Leon Brown and Louis Rees-Zammit, not to mention Dan Biggar reinventing himself as a creative force under Chris Boyd at Northampton.
Alun Wyn Jones won’t let his team be beaten up in contact as badly as they were in their last encounter with Ireland, so you can expect more bite from them in the physical exchanges. Being willing to hand out hidings to one another is a sign that a rivalry has developed between two sides, and that is certainly the case with Ireland and Wales. Andy Farrell’s charges must hit the ground running because the older heads in the Welsh squad have beaten Ireland enough times that they don’t fear them, and they will definitely be smarting from their defeat back in February.