By Paul Williams
WALES beat England 19-12 to clinch the Triple Crown on Saturday – the first time Wales have ever completed their sweep of the home nations at Twickenham. Here’s the lowdown on the good, and not so good, of their performance. Stay tuned for more Welsh analysis as the championship reaches its climax next month…
Eight seconds that won the game
Scott Williams has played well for Wales over the past six months and has shown moments of quality. He has executed important tackles, carried the ball well, made clean line breaks and scored some important tries. However, he has never shown his entire skill-set in one game. On Saturday he showed it all in eight seconds. It was a glorious passage of Six Nations rugby. His rip and strip embarrassed the muscular Lawes (Courtney would be well advised to drink a few more of those protein shakes that he endorses), whilst his positionally aware grubber, searing pace and calm two-handed take will live long in the memory. Williams also opted to finish his try with an elegant swallow dive; it’s the first time Twickenham has seen that manoeuvre for quite some time.
Obsession with the 12 channel
Wales have had enormous success targeting the 12 channel over the past 18 months. There are few international outside-halves and inside-centres who are able to cope with the repeated heavy carrying of Jamie Roberts. Yet Wales’ repeated use of this tactic on Saturday verged on OCD (Obsessive Centre Deployment). Roberts carried the ball down the central channel four times in the first 12 minutes, where he was met with the more than able defensive pairing of Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt. It’s not that Roberts didn’t make yardage, he did; but there are hard yards and there are smashing your head against reinforced concrete yards. It’s little wonder he didn’t come out for the second half.
Whilst the policy of hitting the 10-12 channel with Roberts is understandable, continuing with the same tactics when Scott Williams took the field was not. It seemed as though this offensive pattern had been devised in anticipation of Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell playing at 10 and 12 respectively, and hadn’t changed to allow for a change in the English defensive line. In light of the English re-shuffle, a policy of attacking the 13 channel may have been more fruitful; Manu Tuilagi’s strengths lie in going forwards, not backwards
Wales struggled in the narrow channels
The English defence in the narrow channels was first class and it restricted Wales’ ability to get over the gain-line. This will come as no surprise to anyone who watches the Aviva Premiership. The ruck defence in England’s top flight is second to none; it is where much of the division’s rugby is played. Indeed you could play some Aviva Premiership games on a credit card signature strip, such is the desire to keep things tight. Strangely, Wales played to England’s strengths. Instead of implementing some ‘widening’ plays to stretch the English defensive line, they repeatedly executed ‘narrowing’ patterns and lost valuable yards in the tackle as result. In fact, the English ruck defence was so effective it restricted the entire Welsh pack to a combined ball-carrying distance of just 67 yards. That is their lowest total of the championship so far.
Shallow kicking angles
Wales have struggled with their kicking. The goalkicking percentages have on occasions fallen well below the requisite 75% demanded at international level. It is therefore unfortunate that on the day Wales converted 83% of their kicks from the tee, their kicking from hand could have been their undoing. Rhys Priestland’s clearance kick in the 43rd minute could have cost Wales the game. It provided the Mouritz Botha with a simple charge down that resulted in Wales conceding three points and losing their outside-half to the sin-bin for ten minutes.
It’s not a problem that solely affects Wales. The modern game places a premium on distance from both line and tactical kicking; it has created a launch profile that is lower and longer, yet easier to charge down. It’s something that the Welsh team need to address, as shallow kicking angles in the 22 also produce shallow heart beats in their supporters.
Clever when down to 14 men
Wales concede more points when they have a player in the sin-bin than any other team in the Six Nations. On average they concede just over seven points every time they are down to 14 men. And when Rhys Priestland was yellow-carded in the 44th minute, it looked as though England would stretch their three-point lead, particularly when you consider Wales had lost their outside-half and no one amongst the remaining 14 had any experience of playing ten at regional, let alone Test level. But Wales were very clever. Having effectively given England a ten-minute overlap, they kept the ball safe and tight. Their neat pod work allowed them to build a 21-phase set and they spent an incredible five minutes of the sin-binning camped between the halfway line and England’s 22. When the sin-bin clock finally turned to zero, Wales’ net point loss was exactly the same. It was very impressive; in fact Wales’ work with 14 men was more memorable than some of their work with 15.