Wales competed for two Tests against the All Blacks but faded badly in the Third Test, so how can the Lions can contest to win the Series in 2017? RW does the analysis
Although Wales eventually lost the Test series 3-0 to the All Blacks, nobody could claim they did not go down fighting. Wales scored five tries in the first two Tests and totalled over 20 points in both games. The Lions will need to at least match those totals to have a chance of winning the series next summer.
I believe that Wales approached the series in the right way, keeping ball in hand and looking for opportunities to counter-punch rather than trying to suffocate by strong defence and forward play. The Kiwis tight five already average well over 50 caps per man and the set-pieces will not be an area of weakness for them.
Looking at this footage from Sky Sports, Wales took every opportunity given to them to counter off turnovers and kicks in those first two Tests.
“Playing in chaos” is a not something that European teams do particularly well by cultural inclination, but Wales’ willingness to shift the ball wide was encouraging given that their coach Warren Gatland is hot favourite to lead the Lions next year.
New Zealand like to keep three defenders in their backfield whenever possible; with their No 9 Aaron Smith sweeping in behind the front line, this means that there are never more than a maximum of 11 defenders up front. If you can commit their backfield, there will be space out wide.
Wales announced their intentions to do just that as early as the 8th minute of the 1st Test at Eden Park. The Wales half-back Rhys Webb puts up the box-kick down the left side-line, and the characteristic All Black defensive shape is evident – Aaron Smith has dropped off the line, while the backfield defenders form an “L” shape as the ball descends from the clouds. Waisake Naholo is highest upfield, while 15 Ben Smith and 11 Julian Savea rotate towards the ball:
The Welsh 10 Dan Biggar manages to insert himself into the space between Naholo and Smith, and Wales win the ball back:
When the ball is delivered quickly from the first ruck set by Ken Owens, it is easy to see how the field has opened up promisingly for the wide counter:
The 11 defenders are defending in the line, but 15 Smith and 14 Naholo are struggling to make up ground to the far side of the field as the ball goes through the hands. At 8:14 Wales have what they want – a one-on-one between Liam Williams and Savea, a situation they believe is a potential ‘win’.
Williams makes ground all the way up to the All Black five metre line, and when the ball comes back infield off the side-line, they keep the foot on the throat with a pass from Alun Wyn Jones from the first into the second line of attack:
Look how far away Smith, Savea and Aaron Smith are as the second pass is made – at least 10-15 metres inside the 2nd receiver George North. If Wales can make their passes there will be no cover defence capable of defending the far side-line. The Welsh #11 Hallam Amos succeeds in committing the last defender (Naholo) and gives the scoring pass to 8 Taulupe Faletau:
This scenario recurred in different forms throughout the game. Later on, Wales received a New Zealand kick and spun it infield to their key attacker Liam Williams. As Williams receives the ball there are basically 9 chasers (at 30:31), with a 10th man (Julian Savea) joining on the far left, one second later. :
At 30:35, Williams detects the space between the two All Black locks, aided by a screening block from his tight-head Samson Lee on Luke Romano.
Post-break at 30:37, No 9 Aaron Smith and No 8 Kieran Read come into view in the zone between the backfield and defensive front, while Ben Smith and Waisake Naholo are both maintaining their depth expecting the kick.
They are too far away to prevent Williams making the break and laying off a scoring pass to Webb at 30:40.
Later in the second half from a New Zealand 22 drop-out, George North picked up a loose ball and ran it back deep into the All Black 22m area:
In the still at 50:34, Naholo is contesting the ball at the tackle and the replacement full-back, 22 Beauden Barrett is standing alongside him.
Another ball out of the first line via Alun Wyn-Jones is enough to set up another chance out wide:
If Jonathan Davies hits Liam Williams on the short ball at 50:41 rather than throwing the looped miss pass, Wales must have come close to scoring.
Although the All Blacks’ coaching panel made an improvement for the 2nd Test, bringing in a second full-back in the shape of Israel Dagg and shifting Ben Smith to the right wing, some of the same weaknesses remained under the high ball out to their right:
In the first example, Wales won the ball back in the air, in the second Dan Biggar drew the penalty for a Fekitoa block.
Additionally, after an initial penetration through the middle by centre Jonathan Davies, Wales were also once again able to unlock the New Zealand D just before half-time by going wide-to-wide in four phases.
With the examples above in view, the selection of the Lions backs next summer doesn’t look too difficult at all. Twin first receivers will probably be necessary in order to bolster the kicking game and enable those quick wide-wide transfers, and the Lions have two available in the shape of George Ford at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12. Wales’ Jonathan Davies can supply the power and straight-line threat at 13.
In the back three, a combination of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg at 15, with Liam Williams at 11 and either George North or Anthony Watson on the right wing, would give an excellent balance of speed, elusiveness and power.
The battle-lines have already been drawn for next summer!
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