The narrative for Wales this Six Nations will be assessing the success of the radical change in game plan.
Two playmakers, and attacking fullback, running tries from open play are all analysts will be talking about – and probably complaining about the lack of.
But heading into the Six Nations this week, and taking into account performance so far this season, it is clear that Six Nations success for Wales will be all about the forwards. Here’s why…
During the last two rounds of the Champions Cup, the Welsh front row players were outstanding. The Scarlets in particular – traditionally weak up front – produced performances worthy of huge praise. The return of Samson Lee to fitness has been a big boost to the region. He joined his Wales teammates Ken Owens and Rob Evans to dominate the Million dollar front rows of Bath and Toulon. Warren Gatland will have been mightily relieved about Lee’s form with tight heads being in short supply in Wales – Second Choice Tom Francis has had a fairly indifferent season so far.
On the other side of the Scarlet’s scrum, Rob Evans has been superlative all year. During Wales’ autumn game against Australia, pundits said there were actually three playmakers on the pitch: Biggar, Williams and Evans! He showed up excellently in the loose and is playing with the sort of freedom and arrogance that one wants to see from a Welsh international. The Scarlet’s second choice, Wyn Jones, is arguably Wales’ best scrummaging loosehead.
In fact, all of Wales’ loosehead props are in great form. Over at the Ospreys, Nicky Smith did a job on the even more expensive front rows of Saracens and Clermont. Now-departed coach Steve Tandy claimed he was their best player so far this season. Importantly, he also possesses great handling ability which can really flourish in Wales’ new offloading game. Beside him, Scott Baldwin has come back into form after his unexpected bite from a lion (That’s true, google it) meaning Wales now have options behind Ken Owens and are able to use the regional pods in a similar way Scotland do.
Ever since Alun Wyn Jones came on the scene, Wales have had a word class lock packing down. However, the man next to him has fluctuated. With Jake Ball out, Wales looked light on heavy-duty ball carriers in the autumn. Gatland’s game plan still revolves around big men winning the collisions but the Wales team has shrunk massively since their last title in 2013. However, for the Six Nations, it looks like Bradley Davies has won back his place in the XV. He is as physical as they come and will add much-needed weight to Wales’ ball carrying. Beneath them, there is much-needed depth developing in the younger players. Adam Beard has been dubbed ‘The new Alun Wyn Jones’ (which in Wales is like being called the new God) and Seb Davies seems to have caught the eye of the national coaches.
Against the plethora of world-class second rows that will be on show over the next two months, Alun Wyn Jones and Co. will need to be on top for Wales to be competitive. Based on Recent form, there is certainly hope.
You’d think that any team would be struck down with the loss of the most successful Lions captain of all time. Sam Warburton is taking something of a sabbatical this year after undergoing multiple surgeries. But the truth is if there is one area Wales can handle injuries it’s in the back row. He doesn’t seem to get the recognition outside Wales, but Justin Tipuric can count himself unlucky to be playing in the same era as Sam Warburton. If fit, he will slot seamlessly into the number 7 berth. Behind him there is autumn star Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins (tipped to be a future Wales captain) and Olympic silver medallist James Davies. As a comparison, England only have one specialist 7… who cut his teeth in Swansea I should point out.
Aaron Shingler deserves to start at blindside thanks to great form and a decent autumn. Although, Wales could easily go with the two open side set up. The only concern will be Number 8 with Falatau out and Moriarty short on game time. It will be vital Wales can build depth at the back of the scrum and can answer the questions that will be asked by the likes of Nathan Hughes and Sergio Parisse.
One of the oldest truths in rugby is that the forwards need to win their battle up front in order to give the backs good ball. This is especially true with Wales’ new dynamic game plan. This Six Nations though, it will be even more important.
Injuries to Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb mean Wales are now down two world-class halfbacks. Wales’ second choice, the much-maligned Rhys Priestland, is also out. Meanwhile, veteran centre Jamie Roberts has again been left out and Lions player of the series Jonathan Davies is out for the rest of the season. Because of this, Wales will probably be lining up with an inexperienced fly-half and an inexperienced inside centre. Rhys Patchell, Gareth Anscombe and Owen Williams are all immensely talented players but if the pack doesn’t perform then they will be under enormous pressure to rescue their team in the way Biggar has done so many times. It has yet to be shown that they are capable of doing that. But, if the forwards do get on top, then these players can terrorise and defence in the world.
On the face of it, Gareth Davies should be perfect for this new game plan and is in red hot form. However, on close inspection, you can see why he has always been behind Webb.
Wales under Gatland have always used the number nine to dictate the style of play. The infamous Warrenball worked best when Mike Phillips picked out forwards to bash their way up the middle phase after phase after phase. Even with the new style, the tactic is still to wait for the number nine to get to the ruck before recycling it. This is where Davies falls behind Webb.
If you watch Davies play for the Scarlets, you’ll see he scores all his tries off the back of scrums, lineouts or from running support lines on line breaks. He has great feet and real pace. However, when the Scarlets attack over multiple phases they tend not to wait for the scrum-half to distribute the ball. They simply have the player who gets to the ruck first stand in at scrum-half.
Wales on the other hand, wait for the Number 9. Webb is a fantastic distributor, a real threat around the fringes and most importantly a very vocal leader. Gareth Davies doesn’t boss his forwards around in the same way, his kicking game isn’t as strong and his distribution is much slower.
It is vital for Wales’ new game plan that the ball is recycled quickly. With Webb out they must give a passive Gareth Davies front-foot ball. The Scarlets players will be used to distributing the ball themselves. Gatland would be wise to utilise that tactic this tournament.
Wales’ campaign kicks off against Scotland who themselves are employing a frantic new game plan based on their running back line. Based on the autumn internationals, they have been far more successful at it than Wales have. The best chance Wales will have to overwhelm the Scots is at the set piece and in the contact area. Ironically, Wales should forget offloading and keep it tight whilst turning on the power game. Warrenball might not be dead just yet. After all, Mr Gatland refers to it as ‘Winning ball’ for a reason…
Author: Huw Griffin
I live in the UK and work in engineering by day, but watch sport by weekend! I came to rugby a little later in life than many, but when my grandfather introduced me to the sport I was hooked from day one. You’ll find most of what I say is about Welsh rugby, hopefully one day it will be positive!