Defensive disasters, predictable play and coaching conundrums – the key learnings from Wales’ defeat by England

‘Spreadsheet Rugby’ found out

Wales’ opening 40 minutes at Twickenham were undoubtedly the worst of Warren Gatland’s tenure. It was a complete meltdown of everything on which Gatland’s style of rugby depends. Wales managed to secure just 39% of the ball and 37% of the territory in the first half. Combine this with a startling tackle completion of just 75%, a lineout that struggled hugely in the opening ten minutes and the concession of five penalties after just 20 minutes – and Wales were totally shut down. Shut down to the point, where at half-time they didn’t have a single point on the board and more worrying still, particularly in modern Test rugby, hadn’t even managed to secure single a kick at goal. Wales had only been in England’s 22 once in the opening 36 minutes.

Maro Itoje

It’s mine! Maro Itoje wins a lineout ahead of Taulupe Faletau. Photo: Getty Images

Wales struggled hugely at the breakdown where the jackaling of Dan Cole and the hugely impressive Maro Itoje wreaked havoc. Wales’ inability to adapt to Craig Joubert’s desire for a very clean and quick breakdown was also hugely costly. England were also effective in targeting Wales’ right wing; bombarding Alex Cuthbert’s channel with carriers and high balls.

But as worrying as the key performance indicators were, far more alarming was Wales’ inability to change their game plan in the face of a complete first-half whitewash. It wasn’t until the last 15 minutes where Wales seemingly ditched the spreadsheet rugby, with its predicable running angles and obsession with high balls in between the ten-metre lines, and played the rugby that they are more than capable of. Welsh rugby was taught a lesson at Twickenham; whether it is learnt from is another matter.

Coaching staff need to accept some blame

The Welsh camp is a very honest, sometimes brutal, environment, where individual errors and drops in performance are often aired for all to see. Indeed, Warren Gatland was very quick to criticise his players’ performance in the opening 40 minutes in Twickenham. But if the players accept responsibility, then so must the coaching staff.

Warren Gatland

Rethink? Warren Gatland was at a loss to explain Wales’ poor first half. Photo: Getty Images

The reality is that Wales are playing a hugely one-dimensional style of rugby, the effectiveness of which is built entirely on fitness and size. It’s not even as if Wales’ style of play has been ‘found out’, there is nothing to find out. You don’t need to dress in camouflage, ascend a tree and ‘long lens’ the Welsh training camp to discover their game plan – it has always been thus. When it works, Gatland’s ethos can be effective, but when it doesn’t there is no other option. This Six Nations is the start of a new four-year World Cup cycle; surely Wales can’t copy and paste this style until 2019?

A defensive meltdown

Wales’ worst 40 minutes with that ball in hand, under Warren Gatland, also coincided with the worst half of defensive rugby under Shaun Edwards. Wales’ tackle completion was spectacularly low – just 75%. Wales completed only 80 out of a 106 tackles – missing a staggering 19 tackles in the first half. It was a weird anomaly, and a huge factor in Wales’ demise.

Alex Cuthbert

Under pressure: Alex Cuthbert was continually tested by England in defence. Photo: Getty Images

Wales’ style of play over the past 12 months has been characterised by an inability to score tries, yet has been able to rely on a high goalkicking percentage and military grade defence to close out games. But without a tackle completion of 90% or higher, Wales looked hugely susceptible. The tackle completions were particularly low amongst the Welsh back-line, with the usually reliable Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies missing nine tackles between them. Add to that four missed tackles from Alex Cuthbert and two from George North and Wales’ usually watertight defence had turned into a water filter. It will probably be another decade before Wales defend as poorly as that.

Standout performance from Liam Williams

Whilst the bulk of the Welsh squad will need to cling onto the positives that occurred in the last 15 minutes, Liam Williams can be proud of his entire 80 minutes. The full-back’s performance would have stood out even amongst a positive Welsh display; on Saturday its splendour was enhanced further by the ugliness that surrounded it.

Liam Williams

Bright spark: Liam Williams wins a high ball against England. Photo: Inpho

Once again Williams was masterful under the high ball and, as ever, his defence was near immaculate. But it was his tackle bust and ‘cat flap’ for George North’s try which must receive the praise. With Rhys Priestland on the field, standing refreshingly flat, the Welsh back-line finally gave Williams the opportunity to hit the 13 channel at pace, where his aggressive angle and soft hands cut the English defensive line to shreds. It was a rare highlight on a murky day for the Welsh team.

Crossing the line is no longer enough

There was a time in the amateur era where crossing the line with the ball was enough to get the try. Due to the less intensive defensive systems and fitness levels it was more common for players to cross the whitewash unattended. As we saw in Twickenham, that is no longer the case – Ben Youngs’s attempt in the second minute and Dan Cole’s in the 14th being prime examples.

Dan Cole

No try: Dan Cole is held up as he tries to touch the ball down. Photo: Inpho

Few players now cross the line alone, most now have at least two defenders clinging onto them like barnacles on a large sea mammal – and it is there where the battle to ground the ball begins. Grounding the ball has almost become a game within a game. The grounding, with the introduction of the TMO, has almost become as identifiable a subsection of rugby as the scrum or lineout. Weirdly, blocking all of the feasible camera angles, with defensive bodies, has almost become as important as the tackle itself.

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