“I wanted a play that would paint the full face of sensuality, rebellion and revivalism. In South Wales these three phenomena have played second fiddle to Rugby Union, which is a distillation of all three.” – Gwyn Thomas
Welsh rugby in the golden era of the seventies was a romantic, beautiful game. You had players like Barry John, Phil Bennett, John Dawes and the illustrious Gareth Edwards, all symbolising and playing the style of rugby that near painted Wales’ identity.
Wales expressed themselves internationally through their rugby; daring, creative, skillful play that captured the imaginations of rugby playing countries world over.
In recent years, this perception of the beautiful game has somewhat subsided in Wales, as romanticism and flow were replaced with brutality and structure. Whilst incredibly effective and successful, it went away from the style that some Welsh fans consider their way and lifeblood.
Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones are set in returning to these days. They have started this journey with a little Scarlets panache, an implementation of 11/21 patterns targeting the forwards, a throwback to the Welsh Rugby days under Steve Hansen, and a return to basics.
It is an exciting time for the Welsh, and the journey has only just started.
The Grand Mentor
In the lead up to the 2003 World Cup, the press in Wales, as well as many fans, were clamouring for Hansens’ resignation.
They had been beaten 43-9 by England’s reserve team, had finished last in the Six Nations of that year, and were being panned by pundits and journalists alike.
After the 2003 World Cup, the public were begging him to stay, such was the style of play he had got Wales playing in brilliant performances against New Zealand, and eventual champions England, whom to put it mildly they scared the living “expletive” out off.
This has fed into 2020.
Jones was a part of this Welsh team that ran England so close. This play is down to him, and we may see Wales take more from that era.
This trend is ever-increasing, with more old-school plays appearing in the playbooks of modern teams, not just Wales. This shows that coaches are now starting to look to the old ways, to unlock the defences that have come so far.
Copying Eddie Jones
Whilst a controversial statement and possibly coincidental, Wales’ new attack shape is similar to Japan’s and England’s under Jones, the key difference being England are more inclined to run “off-9” than Wales.
This shape is the 1-2-2-2-1 pattern, where the English forwards split across the field within three pods of two, or two pods of two with one forward providing a “roam” additional support option if needed.
With Wales, we have started to see a similar setup in phase play.
As we can see, the Welsh are sending pods of two, with the main difference being in the distribution. Dan Biggar is much more prevalent in this shape, with England running it a lot “off-9”, and secondly, the second receiver for Wales is often the outside or full-back due to Hadleigh Parkes’ crash ball role.
With the mobility and experience in the back row that Pivac can call upon, this is a natural fit for the Welsh team. The Pro14 allows more contesting at the breakdown than any other competition, this combined with Sam Warburtons’ coaching influence means Wales can bring a natural efficacy to this game-plan than other teams could.
The Inside Option
This is the shape that Wales have used “off-10” with far more profligacy, especially on the first instance in two phases cross-field.
The “2-pod off-10” is quintessentially Jones’ England, but Wales have adopted the principle of the inside option in a big way. This links in with the backs (IO) and the forward inside option (FIO).
The reasoning behind the FIO is not only can the forward operate as an inside option but can act as a second cleaner to ensure quick ball can be generated. They can also take the short pass “off-9” if the fringe defence drifts out to cover the 10.
Whilst we may think this separates Wales from England, this is a very common shape with them as well.
The key purpose of this shape for England is to generate quick ball, and as such saw usage against New Zealand when chasing the game.
In the above two cases, we see the outside slotting in at second receiver much like the Welsh style of the outside centre.
The 10-12 axis was restored with Ireland. Japan also shows the 10-12 axis in 2015.
It’s a different, and more unpredictable pod set up than the generic wedge “3-pod”. But offers all the benefits and ball security that it offers with the added deception.
With the modern rush defence, the back three are finding themselves more and more nullified on the wings. Meaning Pivac and Jones have built structure for them to follow the play and be useful elsewhere.
Biggar is now providing this option with his increased skill at taking the ball to the line, much like Ford provides England.
The Strike move philosophy
One of the best things about Wales under Jones is the options in their attack.
In sequence plays, we have passages known as the “21” and “31” patterns. These are passages of play that involve two or three phases “off-9” in one direction before a switch play “off-10” to the opposite.
Wales have adapted a system where they set up a sequence in exactly the same way, but through the decision making of Biggar, they are able to exploit the side of the field most opportune through the flexibility in their structure.
Below we see the first example of a new 21 pattern move, resulting in a try in Pivacs’ first game in charge.
We see the same move against Italy, except Wales have selected different positions for the strike runners off the first phase, the two replacements being Parkes and Justin Tipuric. This has continued a trend since.
Owens plays the same decoy runner role “off-9″ on second phase, and whilst it doesn’t come off in the second example, it does show a few things.
Here, we see the Welsh shape for a first phase strike move.
Like the 21, Wales have taken to setting up Parkes and Tipuric at first phase on multiple occasions, and this particular move, results in Josh Adams’ first phase try.
However, as the pass hits Nick Tompkins, he has the option outside in Leigh Halfpenny and George North on the inside. This inside option is one that has proved effective in targeting the seam, as England showed against New Zealand.
This set up has been shown in all the game Wales have played under Pivac and shows the variety Wales now have. If the defence drift too early, an inside pass can be given to an incredibly powerful winger. If they hold, the option out wide is on.
Regardless, Parkes and Tipuric combining on first phase is becoming an increasingly common feature. So, the defence are comparing multiple options within each phase of attack, with the defence having no idea how the next phase could set due to the same setups at the start.
This allows them to launch a multitude of attack sequences that could mean an 11 pattern, a 21, or something entirely separate.
Aspiring for Total Rugby
We have to admire the direction of the Welsh management in these early days.
We have seen things that show Wales are trying to move towards the total rugby side of play, with practicality around the harsh realities of test rugby.
We’ve seen wingers coming in at first receiver, as well as the inside options to target the fringes, combatting the rush defence. We’ve seen forwards as distributors, and an increasing rise in the offloading game to pierce the defensive line.
We’ve seen Parkes developing a monster boot at 12, and the “hands up” positioning from the dummy runners in the pods when the ball is intended to miss them. This all buys into an adventurous more back to basics style of play based on speed and skill.
It’s early days, but all this is pointing to a game where Wales can literally bring too many options for a defence to bear at breakneck speed.
If they can get it right, not many teams will be able to live with it.
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