Warren Gatland’s re-appointment as head coach of Wales’ national side was a surprising one, not so much because of Wayne Pivac’s dismissal, but because bringing back someone who held the position previously is a pretty unusual move in the professional era. It was a harsh call on Pivac who, despite getting Wales to play with more enterprise in attack and produce results in fits and starts, wasn’t quite getting the win/loss ratio that a demanding fanbase was expecting three years into the job.
It’s likely that had Wales not had a defensive lapse at the death against Italy last March or put out a slightly stronger team to play Georgia in November, Pivac would still be in charge, but as clichéd as it sounds, sport at the top level is unforgiving and results-driven, and those losses coupled with a fourth-quarter collapse against Australia at the end of the international year were deemed unacceptable. Reverting to his predecessor still seemed like a strange decision on first glance, though, especially one who had been at the helm for over a decade.
Once a coach has been in charge of a team for a couple of years, they usually take them as far as they go; even someone like Joe Schmidt who revolutionised Irish rugby eventually ran out of road, but when you remember that Wales won a Grand Slam and reached a World Cup Bronze Final in 2019, it is entirely possible that Gatland still has something to offer them. The unfamiliar faces in his squad will be a blessing and a curse; to them he is a fresh voice so there is no risk of the message being stale, but for him, he has to get them to unlearn everything they were doing under Pivac and adapt to his style of play.
In terms of the minutiae of how Wales will go about their business, their performances at the last World Cup are too far back to be worth analysing, particularly given that Shaun Edwards and Stephen Jones are out of the picture, so now that Mike Forshaw and Alex King are in charge of Wales’ defence and attack respectively, what the club sides they have been involved with have done either side of the ball lately will be of interest to Ireland.
Coach Scouting #1: Mike Forshaw
Gatland knows better than anyone that defences win championships, and in the glory days he enjoyed with Wasps and then Wales, being mean when the opposition were in possession was a cornerstone of their success. He doesn’t have the luxury of Shaun Edwards being at his side anymore, though, but even without having the man who brought the blitz defence to rugby union to aid him, the appointment of Mike Forshaw has been a shrewd one.
Like Edwards, Forshaw was a Wigan and Great Britain legend as a rugby league player, and has brought many of the same defensive principles to Sale in the last decade that he has been involved with them. If we take a look at how they defend off set-pieces in the two clips below, we notice a couple of important characteristics:
- The last three forwards in lineout race towards midfield to bring line speed and pressure.
- When their centres do make contact, they go high in an attempt to choke tackle to deny their opponent quick ball.
- The scrum-half stays in the +1 position at lineout but the blind side winger is put out in midfield to give extra numbers and the full-back races across as soon as the ball goes wide.
- The back line race up aggressively and are uniform with the edge defender creeping around the corner to pressurise any passes out the back or offloads, and the open side winger isn’t too far behind just outside the edge defender. This is different to what we see from most teams in that this player normally delays their run to cover potential kicks in behind, but it means that this defender can join the front line quickly, if required:
While this defensive system has its merits, such as denying the opposition momentum with midfield crashes and making wide movements risky, it is not without its flaws. If we freeze-frame the Ulster example above, we can see that Sale actually leave three zones unguarded:
- The space between the heavier forwards who participate in the lineout (marked ‘1’ below).
- The space left behind the onrushing open side winger (marked ‘2’ below).
- The space behind the lineout that is vacated due to the blind side winger being part of the defensive line and the full-back racing across to the open side (marked ‘3’ below):
If Wales defend in the same manner on Saturday, Ireland can exploit each of these zones by doing the following:
- Zone 1: This gap could be exploited with inside passes from first-receiver or directional switch plays, with a second-receiver hovering behind first-receiver feinting to run open but then switching blind and putting a support runner into space (à la the move that Ireland used for Jacob Stockdale’s try against the All Blacks in 2018).
- Zone 2: The fact that Sale have the open side winger push up so soon means that there is space to kick into behind them, especially if Johnny Sexton or one of the other backs takes the ball at second-receiver tucked in behind a pod of forwards in order to draw the defence up first.
- Zone 3: This blind spot could be taken advantage of with a kick back in that direction once the full-back comes across far enough. Joe Schimdt’s midfield crash/diagonal box-kick move has been used by numerous teams in recent years to target this space, and for good reason; it’s an efficient means of exploiting a part of the field that plenty of sides can forget about in their efforts to close down space on the open side.
In phase play, Sale have been quite hard-hitting and niggly tight to the breakdown under Forshaw. More than one player is always sent into contact with at least one going high, and they always look to wrap around the ball to slow the ball carrier’s momentum, but it doesn’t end there.
Their forwards demonstrate good work ethic and combatativeness in the tackle by always trying to wrestle with and twist the ball carrier and are competitive on the deck once the tackle is completed:
In wider channels, Sale operate on an ‘up and in’ system; they never drift, and there seems to be a priority placed on preventing/disrupting the ball getting into the 15-metre channel, with the edge defender always shooting up to pressurise the ball going wide, but their ability to stay connected is impressive given their quick line speed:
Midfield crashes and offloading through the forwards are key features of Ireland’s attacking play, but Forshaw’s defensive system looks to be designed to nullify both. If Ireland can get around the last defender, there should be room to manouevre, but doing so will require convincing decoys/pods and frequent use of Garry Ringrose/Mack Hansen/Hugo Keenan as second playmakers. It’s a role that those three players have carried out superbly in Ireland’s attacking system, but they will be under intense pressure to take and give passes on Saturday afternoon.
Coach Scouting #2: Alex King
Alex King and Warren Gatland have known each other since King played out-half for Wasps in their heyday, but there’s no question that the former’s appointment is on merit. He has amassed a wealth of experience coaching some of the top clubs in England and France, most notably a nigh-on invincible Clermont team from 2010-2013 whose work with ball in hand during that period was the stuff of nightmares for opponents, and was more recently in charge of Gloucester’s attack for two seasons.
Under King’s stewardship, Gloucester regularly looked to move the ball to width, and they used a 1-3-2-x shape to do so, with the ‘3’ and ‘2’ pods acting as screens to get the ball to a playmaker in behind who arced around the outside once the midfield defence had been drawn in:
In a lot of cases, the ‘3’ pod tended to run towards the far touch-line whereas the ‘2’ pod angled infield, so that there were runners going at different angles in order to target weak inside shoulders of defenders who had turned towards the open side:
Gloucester weren’t slaves to the above wide-wide pattern during King’s time with them; they did mix it up with two-out pop passes close to the breakdown and midfield crashes so Ireland will need to be patient in defence against this system this Saturday, and focus more on maintaining width rather than blitzing on any one area specifically as King’s philosophy is to constantly vary the point of attack.
One area of opposition defences that was of particular interest to Gloucester when King was involved was the gap between the tail of the lineout and the start of the backline. This is a common weak point in defensive systems, as forwards can sometimes be slow to move across to cover it once the set-piece is finished, and if you can get the ball to it quick enough, it gives you a clear run at the opposition 10 unguarded.
Gloucester got a big return from targeting this space in a number of ways, such as maul feints and angled runs from a centre coming on to the ball at pace:
Given that Johnny Sexton is just returning from injury, this tactic is sure to be rolled out again, as Wales will want him involved in as many heavy collisions as possible in order to at least reduce his effectiveness.
The other threat that Wales could pose in attack on Saturday is on kick-returns, provided that their players are given the same license by King that he gave his former club side. Gloucester seemed to have the freedom to always run the ball from deep in their own half when King was involved, and taking this risk often paid off for them:
Ireland can’t afford to be loose with their kicking or switch off just because Wales are near their own try-line because King will have backed them to look for space in these scenarios, and if they do find it, it will be hard to recover with the pace that the Welsh have in their backline.
The detail of what Wales do on both sides of the ball under their new assistant coaches will be crucial, but Gatland will bring a gritty resolve to his old side that was sometimes lacking under Wayne Pivac. That may sound like shallow armchair analysis and it is certainly an intangible trait, but even without Shaun Edwards or a January trip to Spala, Wales are bound to be instilled with a determination by their new head coach that will come to bear over the course of this Saturday’s fixture.
Ireland enjoyed a degree of comfort in possession and at the breakdown in their last meeting with Wales that won’t be repeated, so they need to be prepared for a tougher challenge this time round, especially with the home crowd on their backs. There was a dark cloud hanging over this Welsh squad for most of last year and the furore surrounding John Phillips’ resignation hasn’t helped matters, but Gatland’s return and some stellar individual and team performances in the URC and Champions Cup this season (as well as a newfound squad depth in spite of injuries) are massive fillips.
There will definitely be expansive play from them because with the squad they currently have, their main strength still lies in moving the ball to the wider channels rather than taking teams on in the set-pieces or around the fringes, but they are guaranteed to exert pressure on Ireland with the boot, too. Pragmatism and tactical astuteness are trademarks of Gatland-coached teams, so on top of Alex King’s wide-wide attacking system, Ireland will be put to the test aerially and territorially.
Whether they can remain calm and think (on top of fight) their way through what will be a tricky fixture in a difficult venue will determine not just the outcome of this match, but also the course of their Championship. It’s not ideal that Johnny Sexton is just returning from injury, but if Ireland lose this game, then they play France with no momentum behind them, and a poor Six Nations is not what they need heading into a World Cup.