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Analysis: Breaking down Welsh defence


Analysis: Breaking the Welsh defence of mastermind coach Shaun Edwards

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods’ cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 King Henry V – “Henry V” – William Shakespeare

The above passage is a passage in Henry V, the scene being Henry wandering his camp on the eve of battle in disguise, judging the mood of his men, before finally revealing himself and leading them to arguably the greatest victory in English military history.

The Battle of Agincourt.

On the 25th of October 1415, outnumbered, weary and starving, facing fresh enemies and highly trained Knights, the English Army had its finest hour. The Battle of Agincourt was told to me as a story of English grit, determination, and courage. The good guys against the mischievous, dastardly, morally lacking French with their wicked ways.

What wasn’t told was the tactical nous of Henry. He knew his army, comprised of 80% Archers, could only fight the defensive battle to win. Therefore, on the morning of the battle, he gambled. He roused his men, decamped, removed their stakes and advanced towards the French lines. Had the French attacked during this advance, the English would have been slaughtered. Upon reaching the top of the hill, they reset their formation with woodland to their flanks, forcing the French to fight before they were reinforced.

After killing their own hired Crossbowmen, the armoured French Infantry had to march up 400-metres of hill under constant waves of arrow shot, through the mud, with the Cavalry unable to flank due to the woodland cover. By the time they arrived, they were so exhausted they were unable to lift their weapons. The result being the decisive victory we know of today.

The point, however, is that this Victory wasn’t just English. As my Year 8 History Teacher Mr. Grist pointed out, it was also Welsh.

Welsh Archers, fighting side by side with Englishmen, launched wave after wave of arrows in the air. Keeping the French at bay and winning the battle of attrition.

I maintain to a certain degree, that a country’s style of play in a sport, their DNA as it were, can closely mirror the cultural ways of how they have fought their military battles.

England as an island, historically with enemies just across the channel, had a defensive nature for a very long time which has shown itself in the defensive bulldog spirit that England teams usually champion.

Germany, espousing the Prussian combat dynamics of speed and mobility in WW2, have replicated the same approach in football, with speed and organisation key amongst their best teams.

Like Agincourt, the union between Shaun Edwards and Wales results in the English bulldog grit reflected in their defence. The Welsh only scored 10 tries during the Six Nations, yet still emerged Grand Slam winners on the back of their defence.

Like the French who slaughtered their own Crossbowmen and walked right into a hail of arrows, you can’t beat it by being silly. Looking at the defence under Edwards, we can see how the much-vaunted Welsh defence was targeted in the warm-ups by England.

Targeting the Welsh Defence

I prefer to look at the ways a ball-in-hand attack can defeat a defence.

Nowadays, this is harder and harder to do, which is why the box kicking game and kicking for territory and feeding off your own defence is becoming ever more popular. The team that comprehensively defeated Wales, Ireland in 2014, played an incredibly accurate box kicking territory game, which won them the game by 26-3.

You could almost see the Welsh line screaming for something to hit. Yet Joe Schmidt’s’ incredibly basic plan was also incredibly effective.

As defences get better, the ways to attack have to get better. This I see as a challenge.

There are only 15 men on the pitch, and there will always be space on a rugby field. Most defences are designed to eliminate the options most likely to cause problems. This is why the rush defence has become so huge for many teams. Cutting the wingers off as we have seen has become a problem for even the best teams.

Shaun Edwards defence is physical, unrelenting and as was shown in the Six Nations, caused problems to all teams. Yet, there are always weaknesses in a defence. if you reinforce your Van you weaken your rear, if you reinforce your left side you weaken your right, if you reinforce everywhere you will everywhere be weak. Sun Tzu is always correct.

Set-piece attack

This is a huge compliment to Wales. The longer phases go on, the harder a defence is generally to break down. With 13 -14 men in the front line and only one Sweeper in phase defence, this is even more true for Wales.

Therefore, in their recent game, England put a lot of effort into the following dynamics off set-piece on 1st phase. Not only is this because they trust their set-piece, especially in the scrum, but everything is equal off a set-piece, a backline vs a backline and therefore, the best time to find space.

Flat play

 England under Jones have long been proponents of flat passes to the forwards.

This is especially so with players running onto the ball at the line. This has numerous advantages, but the key ones are that the defence has less time to number on their man, resulting in more likely breaks.

On top of this, taking it running this close means the players usually break the gain line. To deliver this, the 9 has to be able to scoot, command his line quickly, and be razor-sharp in their distribution and speed of pass, hence Heinz’s position in the team, and why I also wish Nic White was English.

This is as simple of a ‘move’ as you’ll find, a standard M1. A “Miss 1” option every player at some point has encountered in club rugby.

England targeted Parkes with this incredibly successfully.

The second time around, Wales knew what was coming, and close up out-in to shut it down.

However, Jonathan Joseph and Henry Slade in this will be the receivers off 9, with Manu Tuilagi expected at 12. With Tuilagi’s reputation at attracting defenders, this can lead to a nice gap for a 13 with a very good outside step.

The way the Welsh heads are all turned in by the run of the 9, means the peripherals may not pick up a change in the lines run by the 12/13. I expect we will see this move with changes in the running lines to exploit the gaps at the last second accordingly.

The blind

The blind was targeted beforehand from scrum feeds by England repeatedly. The reason it is so often targeted is that the blindside defence can rarely push due to the numbers allocated here. As such it can be very easy metres. Therefore, Billy Vunipola was used to strike here against the undermanned side using England’s strength in the scrum.

This was quite clever from England; Billy did not even push during this scrum. It was a 7-man English scrum. Wales felt this, and therefore had the advantage in the push and went hard to go for the penalty. In doing so they committed their blindside, meaning when Billy went for the run, he was going up solely against backs. The goal was to commit George North to pull Watson in off his shoulder, but you can’t have everything.

Phase play attack – ‘Brumby Pattern’

Shaun Edwards, is an ex-rugby league man, so is Andy Farrell. League based defences are known for their incredible line-speed, and as such we see these approaches in the defensive approaches of Wales and England, with ‘Destroy and Enjoy’ being the slogan of Andy Farrell’s defensive system.

What they are also known for, is their fold around the fringes. League defences will fold players over from Blind-Open or Open-Blind to plug the fringes and prevent the pick and go, the run from 9 or the inside pass off 10 scything through.

If this fold can be inhibited, manipulated, or exploited before its re-organised, the results can be deadly.

This is best shown by a strategy England have used since Jones came in, New Zealand has used it to great effect, the Wallabies used a move based off it to crush England’s hopes in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and its since seen recent use in the new Wallaby attack under Shaun Berne.

Pioneered by the ACT Brumbies in the late 90’s and later by the 1999 World Cup-winning Wallabies, ‘Brumby Pattern’ was characterised by; Rapid Pick and go’s, scooting and flat play off the 9, inside passes targeting the ruck, hard running onto the ball, switches and targeting of the fringes before moving it wide. The idea being that taking men out in one channel and attacking with speed before they were ready would mean running right into open gaps around the ruck.

England with their power game, have the ingredients to perform this, let’s take a look at two instances where they used it.


Using the big ball carriers and rapid-fire pick observation, England are able to gain momentum.

They use the Welsh fold over to the open on the second phase to great effect, identifying the Welsh have committed too many men over and go quickly with the pick and go’s, not even letting the ruck form due to the speed.


As we can see, Wales can be enticed to overfold towards the expected direction of attack. In doing so here, they leave the blind sparsely defended while the rest of the defence moves into plug the blindside fringe.

As we can see here, Joe Cokanasinga’s run commits three defenders, the Welsh defence immediately fold to the openside, due to the expected direction of attack.

With quick ball, this means Vunipola runs straight into space on the blind, making metres and supported to the line by Heinz. This break set the momentum for England’s first try.

Here we see the Welsh fold over to the openside too readily, allowing Ben Youngs to scoot and commit the undermanned side. A change in structure to assign a winger permanently to the 9 could pay dividends with England, with a clear gap which Youngs creates with his run. Tom Curry scores on the next phase targetting the undermanned ruck defence.

This was the same principle for both passages of play. Both examples have ‘heads up’ forwards, if you can get go-forward against Wales, they can overfold.

England exploited this by looking up and targeting the undermanned side around the ruck each time, and with speed. Targeting this means a willingness to break from the structure and complexity of sequence plays commonly expected by defence coaches, which is why it can be so effective. It’s so simple, they simply don’t expect it.

The ‘Shoot-Drift’

The ‘Shoot-Drift’ is a dog-leg formed upon the first three defenders shooting up to pressure the first receiver. The 4th man sits back to handle the back pass and subsequent ‘second line’ of attack.

However, with the speed of the third man and his rush up, the result can be a gap with which a hard runner running an ‘unders’ line can take the short pass off the first receiver to exploit. This is not just seen with Wales, its main practitioner is the All Blacks, but we can see England targeted this mercilessly in phase play over the years.

As we can see in the second example, the first drift defender who has sat back, often has to come in to make the tackle if done correctly. This is further emphasised against different opposition as seen below.

As we can see, England still used this as recently as a couple of weeks ago.

This has been thought to be such an important target, we see it at Set Piece, where we also see the elements of Flat play and “Point attack” which we explain later.

As we can see in all these examples, the first drift defender who held back had to come in to make the tackle on the hard carrier. This opens up a huge gap between him and the next defender out, who in all examples did not remain connected.

This is the next development to target this point. England already set a precedent for this run, in the hopes of allowing other runners a chance of making a break around it. This is shown with Anthony Watson’s line inside Piers Francis as seen below.

For me, the below done correctly personifies how England want to play. We see at least two runs at this target in the below sequence, which combines rapid quick ball, flat play, the ‘Shoot Drift’, and Brumby style fringe runners.

At the end, we see Vunipola about to take the ball whilst the defensive line is still getting back on side. This is the tempo and style that England wants to impose on teams. Being so relentless and quick to restart the attack that other teams can’t keep up with them, just like the 1999 Wallabies.

The next development may appear In the form of a back running the screen option behind the hard runner, or the hard carrier targeting the gap between the third and fourth defender, popping the pass at the last minute outside to another hard carrier starting a late run targeting the now wide space between the fourth and fifth defender, resulting in a ‘pop-pop pass’ motion to target this gap.

The list goes on. But as was seen on the second phase, the inside line creates space on the wing for next phase attack. Which got England quite close.

There are other targets, and dynamics England have set up in these warm-ups but not yet executed. However, this is only natural.

The best plays and patterns aren’t being shown yet, with a lot being held back for the World Cup by all teams.

One thing for sure, however, is with the complexity and detail of modern-day defences and the analysis gone into them. Sometimes breaking from the pattern and playing quick and simple, might just be what’s needed to beat them.

England coach Eddie Jones after loss to Wales:

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Analysis: Breaking the Welsh defence of mastermind coach Shaun Edwards
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