Dan Baker helped propel Ospreys to a 26-15 victory over the Blues on Sunday afternoon with an explosive display from No 8. Here, we analyse his powerful attacking performance.
September and October are two vital months for budding internationals on these shores. With encounters against southern hemisphere opposition on the horizon, it is a pivotal time to perform. Beginning with domestic action and ending in a European crescendo, the period provides a perfect platform to impress Test credentials.
Starting and starring in five of Ospreys’ six straight wins, Dan Baker cannot have nudged Warren Gatland harder. Clearly inspired by the experience of two June tours, first to Japan last year and then to South Africa this summer, the red-haired No 8 is intent on a central role in Wales’ plans.
As an attacking weapon, he looks devastating – often instigating go-forward out of nowhere. Though the burly 22 year-old remains slightly raw and is yet to register an full-match shift this campaign, his numbers stack up very well. In 304 minutes, there have been 47 carries. Baker has broken 11 tackles on the way to five clean breaks, executing seven offloads on the way.
Incumbent Taulupe Faletau is a supreme, once-in-a-generation talent. Still, why not accommodate him and Baker in the same side? Either could be deployed as a blindside flanker. Add in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and you have four exceptional back-rowers that cover all bases across a match-day 23, and that’s omitting Dan Lydiate, a Gatland favourite.
Regardless of such debate, Baker was impossible to ignore as Ospreys dismantled the Cardiff Blues on Sunday in a 26-15 victory that was actually far more dominant than an 11-point margin suggests. From the very outset at the Liberty Stadium, he carved into the visitors. These clips demonstrate the carnage Baker caused.
Composure and clean breaks
First, watch this run from the opening kick-off. In terms of setting the tone – something every coach at every level of rugby will highlight just about every outing – this was seismic.
It is well-worn cliché, but keynote carriers must want the ball. Positioning himself in back-field, as many modern No 8s such as Billy Vunipola do these days, Baker shows that desire to make things happen. Having anticipated and caught Lewis Jones’ clearance, he launches. However, Baker is no unguided missile. Look at this screenshot from the moment he takes the kick:
The two Blues chasers circled are Gethin Jenkins (left) and Matthew Rees (right). Baker is facing two front-rowers and has the to awareness exploit the dog-leg caused by a disjointed follow-up. A closer shot gives a better picture of how a step of his right foot unbalances this pair of veterans:
Baker takes advantage of the classic mismatch brilliantly and barges through the leaden-footed defenders. They can only present weak arms rather than sturdy shoulders in the contact area and the Ospreys are catapulted in behind. But Baker was only getting started. Ten minutes later, he was off again – this time from a lineout:
Here, we see a variety of Baker’s attributes. Once more, though, it starts from the relatively simple premise of getting their most potent weapon involved – this time by positioning at scrum half from the set-piece:
From there, with the Blues expecting a run-of-the-mill catch-and-drive, Baker latches onto the ball and breaks off quickly to catch the fringe defence unaware. Then comes the most impressive stuff. Out in the open, Baker stays composed and again takes the defender to one side with evasive footwork:
This helps him get an arm free and interest a second covering Blue before keeping the ball alive with a fine offload to supporting hooker Scott Baldwin. Still Baker isn’t finished, though:
Signalling a great work-ethic and nous, Baker recovers his feet in time to hit the next ruck, honing in onto the jackal of Warburton (blue circle). This helps accentuate Warburton’s influence at the breakdown and compelled referee Leighton Hodges to penalise the Wales captain for not releasing the tackled player prior to competing for the ball. After Dan Biggar‘s kick, Ospreys were 9-0 ahead and cruising.
Punching holes and hunting for gaps
Rhys Webb is in deadly form and is a very dangerous sniper given front-foot ball. With a cannonball like Baker on his shoulder, the threat is multiplied tenfold. Watch how the two combine on consecutive phases:
This sequence evidences Baker’s invaluable ability to create a spark from nothing. Still, while the barrelling run and offload is eye-catching, it is born out of basic principles. Watch where Baker is standing as Webb prepares to pass from the first ruck:
Around four or five metres behind his scrum-half, Baker is offering depth and pace – two ingredients to make any carrier tougher to nullify. This, as well as the sheer industry to take the ball on from the next phase as well, show Baker is not merely a merchant of blockbuster, barnstorming plays. He is well versed in subtleties too.
Excellence under the radar
The Ospreys’ opening try was a slick, uncomplicated example of how speed kills – rapid ruck-recycling was key. Watch out for Baker’s less-heralded effort:
As his team go through a round-the-corner pattern – heading across field in the same right-to-left direction – centre Josh Matavesi takes it upon himself to straighten up the attack. This commits defenders and manufactures a four-on-three overlap that leads to Dan Evans’ going over. But the the penultimate ruck had to be cleared. Guess who was on hand:
This angle is a good one to expose Baker’s contribution. He unselfishly mirrors Matavesi’s angle to hit the ruck and secure possession, which his teammates duly turned into points. As the No 8 underlined later, he is just as happy to assume the role of facilitator.
Watch here how Baker, stood in the backfield again, makes an over-the-shoulder catch look fairly straightforward before immediately throwing a short pass to better-positioned Eli Walker:
A gain of 40 metres justifies from a sweeping counter vindicates Baker’s unfussy decision-making. Indeed, he posed problems without the ball more than once.
Better finishing would have brought the Ospreys an avalanche of points. That said, their processes in attack were exceptional at times. A set lineout move in the second half, with Baker positioned in midfield – again, making himself the focal point as any potent carrier should – was so nearly flawless:
Andrew Bishop’s spill is a mighty shame, because the move is pulled off precisely with Baker a crucial cog – on this occasion as a tackler-attracting decoy:
Pausing at the moment Matavesi frees Jeff Hassler with a short pass behind Baker, we see both Warburton and Manoa Vosowai are fixed, while Cory Allen has drifted wider onto the looping Biggar. A gaping hole has been manipulated, defining a day in which the Ospreys No 8 could do very little wrong.
Treviso and Northampton Saints are up next for Steve Tandy’s side in the European Champions Cup. Two influential outings should be sufficient to see Baker face Australia on November 8. He is a rough diamond, but this is no gamble. Even if the Wallabies fixture feels like a must-win, Gatland cannot die wondering.
Read a feature-length interview with Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar in this month’s Rugby World. Download the digital edition here or subscribe online.