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Analysis: 'Give Wales' front row the freedom of Port Talbot- or anything they ask for'

By Will Owen
07 March 2020, Kelsey Jones celebrates and approaches Hannah Jones (Wales, 13) cheering. Fourth matchday of the Women's Six Nations 2020 rugby tournament; England - Wales on 7 March 2020 in London. Photo: Jürgen Kessler/dpa (Photo by Jürgen Kessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

It’s been a long time since Welsh fans were treated to a properly world-class front row on the big stage.

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Ever since Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones retired from the Welsh men’s team, it’s felt as though you can only properly start enjoying supporting Wales once the first scrum is over; when you have the relief that the front row will be alright this week, that they’ll hang in there – or, in some cases, you realise you’re in for a long day.

Up step Gwenllian Pyrs, Kelsey Jones and Sisilia Tuipulotu. Wales have been excellent in their two convincing wins thus far this tournament, and the talking point has rightfully been how the Welsh front row has been unequivocally the best unit on the park. As the three of them walked off the pitch in the 79th (!) minute against Scotland, every Welsh fan imminently wanted to get them a beer, an ice bath, freedom of Port Talbot – anything they ask for – in exchange for the platform they gave the Welsh backs.

What’s especially astounding is only a couple of weeks ago this was a mildly controversial selection. Pyrs, less so, as she’s been the cornerstone of the Welsh pack for over a year now, and if an opposition tighthead was lacking, she’d just about get the better of them. Jones was seen by many as a great option to sit behind Carys Phillips, but has very much proven that the two shirt is hers. Tuipulotu, having never started a Test at tighthead before, made the step up and, well, she now has two starts there, two wins, two player of the match awards. And she’s only 19.

We’re not going to delve into the optics of the scrum today – we’ll leave that analysis to the more qualified front-row geeks out there; however, we can marvel at some stats. Wales mullered Ireland at the scrum, with 18-year-old Sadhbh McGrath making her debut on the loosehead alongside the usually explosive Linda Djougang. They got a nudge against Scotland’s starting props, Leah Bartlett and Christine Belisle, but really became dominant when the pair were substituted, which is rare.

Many will claim the true test comes this Saturday, when Sarah Bern comes to town. Bern and new front-row groupie Mackenzie Carson has been consistent in demolishing her opposition props thus far. Both England props stand at 170cm and weigh 90kg. Pyrs, the same height, weighs 103kg and Tuipulotu 113kg, with only an extra 5cm.

England have picked a starting front row of Carson, Lark Davies and Bern (with usual starting hooker Amy Cokayne away playing for the Royal Air Force). We’re looking at England giving way 32kg in the front row to Wales. Bern is one of the most ludicrously strong props in world rugby, but she’s going to have to be at her best to shift that extra five stone.

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What’s more impressive about this Welsh front-row is the way they’ve dominated the carrying stats and the scoresheet. The props have five tries between them, equating to more points in the tournament than Keira Bevan or Pauline Bourdon. Jones averages a fantastic 5 metres per carry, which is almost the same as George Turner (5.09m per carry), the top carrying hooker in this year’s men’s Six Nations. Tuipulotu, though, is the third top carrier in the tournament with 29 carries; making an unholy 143 metres and averaging 4.93 metres per carry.

There are many ways to look at this stat. Firstly, it’s an absurd number of metres for a tighthead to make. Secondly, can you imagine how exhausting it is to tackle a 113kg Welsh behemoth and then get back up to your feet to make another one on someone else? Let’s have a look at how Wales have used their titans tactically to tire their opponents.

After a counter-attack by Courtney Keight, Wales work into a 3-3-2 structure. In the first group, Kate Williams is the lead carrier with Natalia John and Bethan Lewis in support. The second group contains Alex Callender, Georgia Evans and Pyrs. Jones and Tuipulotu are the furthest group out.

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Williams carries and Wales play their next phase off fly-half Elinor Snowsill. Pyrs’ line is fantastic – she almost stands too flat, so the Scottish defence expect her to take the ball, but instead Wales’ other top carrier, Evans, takes a short ball and gets Wales inside the Scottish 22.

Wales then use Tuipulotu as a carrier, again off Snowsill. There are a couple of benefits to her being stood in this wide position: one is that she gets a 1v1 carry against Lana Skeldon, whose chop tackle is superb. Another is that the most realistic breakdown threat is Meryl Smith, a centre. This is why Wales have entrusted Jones to do the majority of the clearing out herself, with Hannah Jones helping out.

Tuipulotu is such a good carrier that much less impact is required on the clear-out as typically the defence will be backpedalling. Most importantly, this means Wales’ ball is quick and they can run at the same defenders who just tackled Evans.

Wales then go through six more phases, meeting the gain-line on five of them.

Tuipulotu’s next carry comes a minute later, and she once again runs at Skeldon and Smith. Skeldon makes another good tackle but this time surrenders two metres. Wales get super fast ball and within two phases Evans gets up to within seven metres of the Scottish line, thanks to some slightly more passive tackling.

Tuipulotu makes her third carry of the set less than 45 seconds later. Skeldon is once again the player to make the chop, but look at the contact area around the ball: Scotland have had to commit three forwards to get Gloucester’s powerhouse to the deck early. Wales pick and go for a couple of phases, encroaching on the Scottish line, and Scotland’s only way to stop them is by giving away a penalty for not rolling away.

Every time the Welsh front row, and particularly Scary Sisilia, touch the ball, there’s a knock-on effect on the Scottish defence. The runner is strong, therefore she is hard to chop, therefore defenders are more tired, therefore Scotland have to commit more women to the contact. By repeatedly targeting one of Scotland’s best tacklers in Skeldon, Wales made her hits progressively more passive.

There are so many late-on examples where Wales’ structure and speed into position kills Scotland’s pack – if you look at Wales’ lengthy passage of attack before the scrum for Ffion Lewis’ winning try, Scotland are constantly asked to dismantle a tank, immediately get back up and do it again, with no time to recover.

When Wales eventually knock the ball on, it’s no surprise that the Scottish front row are so spent they can’t scrummage. Watch back that passage (beginning around 75:20) and count how many tackles the Scottish front row have to make – and that’s even before you consider how far they’re running.

So why did the glorious Gwlad front-row all stay on for so long? Well, there are a few reasons. One is because they played so well and didn’t look like they were fading. Head Coach Ioan Cunningham clearly trusts the three of them, and wants to reward their exceptional form. The second reason is conditioning. All three of them are unbelievably fit, and can still get into shape faster than their opposition in the 79th minute. That’s next level.

And another reason, surely, is psychology. Everyone knows how rare it is to leave a full front row on for an entire game, so imagine the confidence boost it must give you knowing you’ve been trusted to stay on ahead of such fantastic stalwarts as Carys Phillips, Cara Hope and Cerys Hale!

In the 2019 Men’s World Cup, Bongi Mbonambi was initially picked ahead of Malcolm Marx; arguably the best hooker in the world at the time, and was told he could keep the shirt until he delivered a performance below an 8 or a 9 out of 10, which Marx delivers every week. Mbonambi’s 7/10 game simply never came, and that may well be the situation Kelsey Jones finds herself in right now.

Whatever happens against England on Saturday, one thing’s for certain: She absolutely deserves the freedom of Port Talbot.

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