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Analysis: Wales' win over Ireland- Brilliant Tactics, Structure and Defence

By Will Owen
Kate Wiliams of Wales, centre, celebrates after the TikTok Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Wales and Ireland at Cardiff Arms Park in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo By Mark Lewis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)Cardiff , United Kingdom - 25 March 2023

What a fantastic occasion Saturday was for Wales fans. A huge win in front of a record crowd, all done in the silkiest style imaginable. With captain Hannah Jones wrapping up the bonus point before half-time, Welsh fans couldn’t have asked for any more at the 40 minute mark.

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The most satisfying thing, however, was Wales’ ability to iron out errors that have left them in some sticky situations in games gone by. This time last year, Wales had to be at their absolute best to close out their game in Dublin. This weekend, Wales massively took their foot off the gas in the second half and didn’t look overly threatened.

Much of that is down to the fact they’re a year further down the line of professionalism than Ireland, and have much stronger athletes – but you have to credit Wales’ tactics throughout the game. Let’s have a look at how they managed to not give Ireland an ‘in’.

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In the Rugby World Cup opener against Scotland, Wales often found it difficult to secure kickoffs cleanly, recycle possession and exit. In the interim, this is clearly an area Ioan Cunningham has worked on with his players. Here’s how Wales responded to each kick-off in the first half:

First kick-off (0-0): Wales play one phase in-field, then Elinor Snowsill clears.
4th minute (5-0): Kerin Lake catches the kick-off and passes to Keira Bevan, who kicks in-field, beyond the halfway line.
13th minute (12-0): Georgia Evans catches and passes to Bevan, who kicks to almost the exact same spot.
24th minute (19-0): Hannah Jones catches and runs up to the 10m line. Wales get quick ball and try to attack for two phases. As soon as the ball slows down, they settle, work to an edge and Bevan box-kicks.
33rd minute (26-0): Sioned Harries catches and carries. Snowsill is charged down, but Wales win a penalty.

It’s evident that Wales have no interest in messing around in their own half, even when they’re three or four tries up. But why is this? Well, it’s because of their much improved defensive shape and fitness.

When Shaun Edwards was defence coach of the Welsh men’s team, they were taught to keep the ball in-field and back their defence. The theory was that if the opposition pack are tired, they’re more likely to be slow into position, slow to a ruck or give a penalty away.

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On the fourth kick-off, Bevan’s kick is carried in by Méabh Deely. Ireland play one phase toward the touchline, which Bethan Lewis contests.

Once Lewis is cleared out, the ball is exposed. Wales, however, don’t compete for the ball or pressurise scrum-half Molly Scuffil-McCabe. They’re probably entitled to, but they would run the risk of getting penalised.

Wales maintain their discipline and apply lots of line speed. For three consecutive phases, they catch Ireland behind the gain-line. Alex Callender contests one breakdown, then immediately works into a wider position once she knows she isn’t going to win the ball.

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Ireland try playing wide, but with no luck. Courtney Keight makes an excellent tackle on Aoife Doyle on the wing, wrapping up the ball. She waits until the referee calls “release” before letting go of Doyle, buying Wales an extra second to set their defence. Carys Williams-Morris counter-rucks, but doesn’t contest for the ball whatsoever. This ruck takes a grand total of nine seconds before Scuffil-McCabe gets her hands on it!

The Welsh defence is so far on top, and Ireland are already 10 metres behind where they started. Callender constantly swivels her head between the breakdown and Sam Monoghan in front of her.

Callender makes a lovely, low chop-tackle on Monoghan. She immediately pops back to her feet and rejoins the defensive line before Scuffil-McCabe has her hands on the ball. This means she can take the “guard” position and every Welsh player can slide out one position – they have one woman more in the defensive line than Ireland do in their attack.

After another phase, Ireland call it quits. They’ve been pushed back from near the halfway line to near their own 22. Wales could have happily kept defending until Ireland were on their own line. Cronin kicks the ball just shy of the half-way line, meaning Wales gain possession in line with where Ireland first launched their attack.

This patient defence is a real asset for Wales. The likes of Callender and Lewis are both known jackal threats, but Wales instead prioritise getting 15 women on their feet to send Ireland backwards. This is one of many outstanding defensive sets from Wales.

Let’s look at one more Welsh defensive set, just to show this isn’t a one-off.

Ireland play wide off a scrum, and Wales happily concede ground on first phase, knowing their pack will be in position quicker than Ireland’s. Bethan Lewis has already worked to the “bodyguard” position, two players away from the tackle.

Lisa Neumann in 14 is the tackle-assist, so Ireland clear her out beyond the ball. Neumann is fine with this, as they drive her to the exact position she wants to be in, behind the defensive line. Wales divide their pack into units: 8 and 6 (Harries and Lewis) are nearest the breakdown, 4, 5 and 7 (Fleming, Evans and Callender) are marking Ireland’s first carrying pod, while the front-row are all marking the pod at the top of the above screenshot.

After Ireland’s next carry, Wales still have 15 women on their feet. Scuffil-McCabe picks the ball up and looks blindside, only to see Evans and Lewis have it covered. This allows the next group of Welsh forwards (including Callender on the far left) lots of time to fly up and smash the next set of carriers.

Kelsey Jones identifies Linda Djougang as Ireland’s strongest ball carrier, so she rushes up and puts a huge shot on her. If Enya Breen (12) passed to either of her other forwards they probably still wouldn’t have gone forward – that’s how well-connected Wales’ line is.

Ireland, once again, started on the 10m line, and by the time Cronin kicks it away, she’s inside her own 22. Cronin’s kick is fantastic and crosses the Welsh 10m line. Wales recover brilliantly and Keira Bevan, once she’s finished scrapping with two Irish forwards, nails a 50/22.

The World Cup was somewhat frustrating for Wales fans, as you could see how talented the players are and what they were trying to build, but they seemed so far from the finished product. Saturday’s win in Cardiff was proof that Wales are a clear step up from their last campaign, as the grittier parts of their game were tightened up. It’s still a big ask to see if they can compete with England or France, but their newfound defensive focus will surely do no harm in shrinking the gap.

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