Assessing Wales Autumn Performance. What went well, what went badly and what needs to improve for the upcoming Six Nations?
In a slightly unusual Autumn period in the rugby calendar, which saw the conclusion of the Six Nations as well as the first Autumn Nations Cup, Wales’ performances were mixed. Some matches inspired a sense of optimism and confidence in the future of Wayne Pivac’s team whilst others provoked a sense of dismay and despair. James Skeldon assesses Wales Autumn performance ahead of the Six Nations.
Unfortunately, more often it was the latter during their misfiring campaign. Comprehensive defeats to France and Ireland highlighted the gap between Wales’ current team and the upper echelons of world rugby. Their dismal, turgid performance against Scotland where they limped to a 7-6 defeat shone a glaring and damming light on the shortcomings of this Welsh team.
Their loss to the Scots saw them slip to ninth in the world rankings, a far cry from their world number one status 18 months ago as well their successful 2019 World Cup campaign which easily could have been won had more gone their way.
That said, two stuttering but comfortable wins on the bounce versus Italy and Georgia in the final two rounds of the Autumn Nations Cup has renewed a sense of optimism for the Welsh team and provided an insight into what Wales are trying to achieve under Pivac and co.
So, what made them go from the world-beating team they were in 2018 and 2019 to the ninth-ranked team in the world? Is it all doom and gloom for Welsh Rugby? And how can they enhance their performance to improve matters come the Six Nations?
Wales’ misfiring attack
Wales, at times, were completely toothless in attack. This is exemplified fully through their woeful statistics going forward.
They managed a meagre team total of 191 metres carried against Scotland and 161 metres versus Ireland.
This, as well as achieving only three clean breaks in each of those games and beating just eleven defenders against Scotland and nine against Ireland.
In their performance versus France in March, they ran 523 metres, made 19 clean breaks and beat 27 defenders. Despite losing that match the performance was drastically better. So, what has caused this lack of potency in attack?
Woeful set piece
Wales’ lineout never looked solid this autumn. They managed a disappointing average of a 75% win rate on their own throw. Considering in 2019, when Wales were able to secure their own ball 90-95% of the time, the lineout going awry once every four throws is a worrying drop in execution in such little time.
At scrum time, there were serious issues as well.
Rhys Carre was hooked before half time versus Ireland. Samson Lee, Tomas Francis and Wyn Jones were up against it as well at scrum time and it added to Wales’ lack of attacking platform.
Wales constantly had their attacking opportunities undermined by a poorly executed set piece. Therefore, it is no surprise they have not had the same attacking success that they have had in previous years.
Wales aren’t a team renowned for their attacking prowess in recent times. In their 2019 Grand Slam Six Nations campaign, they finished bottom of the pile with metres made, defenders beaten and tries scored. However, they were incredibly effective in scoring points when given the opportunity despite their lack of penetrative attack according to Simon Gleave, Head of Sports Analysis at Gracenote.
He states, “During the 2019 Six Nations Championship, Wales went into the opposition 22 exactly five times in each match, fewer times than their opposition breached the Wales 22 line in four of those five matches.”
He also states that “The 25 controlled entries to the opposition 22 by Wales was the lowest of any of the competing teams but the conversion of these opportunities into points was second best with 3.48 points scored from each entry on average. Only England was better with 4.10 points per 22 visit on average.”
Despite, having a fraction of the attacking opportunities that their rivals had across the tournament, Wales were able to consistently rack up scores at an impressive regularity. Something they have not been able to achieve in this Autumn campaign with attacking opportunities being few and far between particularly in the matches against Scotland and Ireland.
In these matches, they fell well short of the mark at the set-piece. Wales won just 20% of the scrums on their own feed versus Ireland. They also lost 4/5 of their lineouts which is the most they have lost in their previous 64 matches. This is a woeful statistic and demonstrates the decline in the accuracy, discipline and patience which allowed them to be so successful in previous years.
Wales conceded sixteen penalties against Scotland and eighteen against Ireland. There has only been one occasion in the last 10 years where they have been so badly disciplined.
There is no way they could have the same attacking success with such a poor set-piece and whilst being so ill-disciplined compared to previous campaigns.
All doom and gloom?
Whilst it was mainly a campaign of negatives for Wayne Pivac’s side, there were signs of improvement and reasons to be optimistic about the future of Welsh Rugby.
It is worth noting that Wales were always going to experience teething problems with Pivac’s new gameplan. He attempted to immediately adopt the plan that he used to great effect whilst he was the head coach at the Scarlets.
Taking a squad of players who have grown accustomed to Warren Gatland’s methods for several years and totally changing the way they play to a different game plan will certainly make it difficult and ineffective at first.
Pivac experienced this in his debut season at the Scarlets where he was not particularly successful at all. However, in his third and fourth year as coach, he masterminded his team’s success in a winning Pro 12 campaign in 2017 as well as reaching the final of the tournament the following year as well.
They also reached the semi-finals of the Champions Cup in the 2017-18 season which highlights the world-beating potential of the gameplan.
No Welsh rugby team in recent memory has been as successful as the Scarlets so there is definitely reason to be optimistic about Wales’ future under Pivac.
Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau
One of the biggest positives throughout this autumn has been the excellent form of two of Wales’ most consistent performers. Justin Tipuric maintained his lofty standards throughout the campaign. He was often the shining light in an underperforming pack.
His incisive line break and outrageous dummy to set up his side’s opening try against Italy underlined his credentials as a top, top openside flanker and a world-class player. It would have taken a special performance to outshine Justin Tipuric’s against Italy but the efforts of Taulupe Faletau eclipsed his back row teammate.
The Bath number has suffered a stop start couple of years after a series of broken arms and niggles that prevented him from hitting top gear. He has not been fighting fit since 2017. This has resulted in a series of muted performances from the two-time Lions tourist.
Ben James, WalesOnline Rugby reporter, stated that Faletau had become a “passenger” in the Wales system.
This all changed in his performance against Italy. From the first whistle, he appeared to be a different player. He carried with a ferocious intensity that gave Wales the grunt and go forward they have so badly missed this Autumn.
It is to Wayne Pivac’s credit that he reassessed Faletau’s role in the Welsh attack. He stated post-match that they wanted to involve the former Dragon more in attack.
“We shifted him from playing in the 15 metre channel into the middle of the park, where he can get his hands on the ball a little bit more and use his footwork,”
“He did that exceptionally well, making line breaks and setting a try up as well. He had a strong game and Justin Tipuric back from his head knock went well along with Taulupe” said the Welsh Head Coach.
It was his deft handling and canny angles of running to fix the Italian defence and send his back row counterpart, Justin Tipuric on a rampaging run through the midfield. He set Tipuric up again for the final try of the game, bursting through the porous Italian defence and galloping into the 22 to put him over in the corner to cap off a titanic Test match from the number eight.
Three clean breaks. Six defenders evaded. Two offloads. 63 Metres ran. Faletau was world-class.
How to improve for the Six Nations
It is crucial that confidence is given to Pivac and his coaching staff. Taking the structures that Gatland had in place for years and completely overhauling them was always going to be difficult.
Wales have reason to be confident going into the 2021 campaign. Key operators that have been missing for the autumn will be back and at the peak of their powers. Hooker, Ken Owens is set to return which should hopefully solidify Wales’ faulty line out. Breakdown specialist, Josh Navidi is back also.
The player of the 2017 Lions tour Jonathan Davies will have had much more rugby come February next year and will offer more spark than he did after easing himself back into test rugby this autumn.
A full camp and ample time for Wales to refine Pivac’s game plan will enable them to be back where they belong, contending for the Six Nations title.
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