In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste observes that ‘the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges’. Although the merry-go-round of international coaches over the last couple of months may not have quite that sharp vengeful edge, there has been a pronounced sense of nations doubling back on themselves and revisiting times past.
First Wayne Pivac was sacked by the Welsh Rugby Union in the first week of December after a poor string of autumn results. The U-turn was completed with the re-appointment of Warren Gatland, the man whom Pivac had originally replaced after the end of the 2019 World Cup.
New Zealand Rugby agreed to terminate Gatland’s existing contract with immediate effect, and suddenly the Mooloo man was back in the country where he has achieved the bulk of his success as a head coach:
“This is an opportunity to achieve something with a talented group of players in a country so passionate about rugby, a country which made my family and I so welcome – when we first arrived 15 years ago, and all the time we were there.
“Our immediate priority is obviously the 2023 Six Nations and next year’s Rugby World Cup.”
It is as if Gatland has never really been away, and the Wayne Pivac era really was just bad dream after all.
It became a double whammy when Eddie Jones received the order of the boot as head coach of England, to be replaced by one of the assistant coaches in the World Cup cycle from 2016 to 2019, Steve Borthwick. One short month later, he was appointed as the new head coach of Australia after Dave Rennie (another man well respected in the Waikato) was sacked.
It is Jones’ second shot at the role, following his previous term of office between 2001 and 2005. Everyone, it seems, is returning to their rugby home, real or adopted. Whirligig or merry-go-round, take your pick.
Sifting through all the appointments and re-appointments, it is Wales who stand to reap the most immediate reward. Eddie Jones only has five preparatory games before the World Cup begins in September to mould an undeniably talented group of Wallabies into a coherent unit. Steve Borthwick, meanwhile, will be looking to find his feet as a head coach in international rugby. He has been there before in the backroom, but the media-facing role as top dog is very, very different.
Warren Gatland, on the other hand, will slip back into his armchair at Wales’ training base in the Vale of Glamorgan quite seamlessly, without a trace of discomfort. His new coaching group contains old, familiar faces like Alex King and Neil Jenkins, and his defence coach Mike Forshaw (late of Sale Sharks) is probably the outstanding defensive mind in the English Premiership, and the closest approximation Gatland could find at short notice to his long-time comrade-in-arms Shaun Edwards.
What I’ve learned – and you never stop learning in this game – is that you must coach to what you have got.
Former Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards
His team to play Ireland in the opening round of the Six Nations on Saturday will contain an awful lot of tried-and-trusted veterans in its spine: The experienced Liam Williams is at fullback and 33-year-old Dan Biggar is pulling the strings at outside half while up front, there are two hookers with a combined age of 70 in Ken Owens and Scott Baldwin, with the ageless Alun-Wyn Jones locking the scrum and tying all the leadership loose ends together behind them. There are 425 international caps embedded in four of those players alone.
The best single unit in the Wales side, and the area which concerns Ireland the most is the back row, featuring 32-year-old Taulupe Faletau and 33-year-old Justin Tipuric. That represents another 184 caps to add to an already weighty bag of experience.
The youthful energy factor will be supplied by 23-year-old Jac Morgan in only his seventh start for Wales. Warren Gatland will be hoping to base the Welsh challenge around a rock-like defence, and it all starts with the selection of two natural number 7s in the same back row.
The ‘Twins effect’ is what elevated Gatland’s Welsh sides from the status of perennial Six Nations contenders and propelled them to greater achievement on the global stage. As Shaun Edwards commented, in an interview with The Daily Mail:
“What I’ve learned – and you never stop learning in this game – is that you must coach to what you have got. With Wales we always had two natural opensides on the pitch and sometimes the entire back row were natural opensides because we were just blessed with those brilliant players and we wanted them on the pitch.”
After the long-standing combination of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Faletau finished, Gatland increasingly relied on at least two of the outstanding generation of Welsh number 7s coming through at regional level to start in the same back row together: first Warburton and Justin Tipuric, then Tipuric and Josh Navidi after the Wales and British and Irish Lions captain retired, then Tipuric and Ellis Jenkins. Now it will be Tipuric and either one of the two young tyros, Jac Morgan of the Ospreys or Tommy Reffell at Leicester.
Why prefer twin opensides to a more traditional balance, with a lineout expert or an ‘enforcer’ on the blind-side flank? There is a potential for more speed in support, better chase on defence and more presence around the tackle and post-tackle, in a game which is increasingly dominated by outcomes at the breakdown. The key is that the two number 7s bring different skill sets to the sport, even if they prefer to play the same position.
The ever-present in the ‘twins’ combos selected by Warren Gatland in his first tenure was Justin Tipuric, and it will still be a question of whether it is the Ospreys’ Jac Morgan, or the Tigers’ Tommy Reffell picked alongside him now. Tipuric himself is non-negotiable.
The recent Heineken Champions Cup match between Leicester and Ospreys, in which all three participated for the full 80 minutes, illustrates just why that is the case. The three natural number 7s dominated the shape of the contest, both on the stats board and in the flesh:
- Tipuric won the most lineouts in the game, more (seven) than any of the second rows on either side.
- Tipuric and Morgan were the two top tacklers, with a combined output of 33 tackles completed out of 34 attempts.
- Between them, Reffell, Morgan and Tipuric had six turnovers in the tackle or at the breakdown immediately after the tackle, with Reffell topping the charts with three pilfers and another four near-misses.
- Morgan led all forward ball carriers with 15 runs for 47 metres and no less than eight tackle breaks.
It is a hugely impressive list of ‘little victories’. What do they look like in practice?
The Ospreys used Jac Morgan at number 8 as their main power carrier in the forwards, with Tipuric ready to use his superb footballing skills as the wider of the two number 7s on attack:
In this instance, Tipuric (in the blue hat) takes the lineout ball and Jac Morgan rolls around the tail with it. His low centre of gravity ensures that he survives three separate tackle attempts and all but one metre of the yardage gained is ‘post-contact’. The same was true towards the end of the game:
Once again, 90 per cent of the yardage occurs after a defender makes the first tackle attempt.
First, Tipuric has the vision to cross-kick for his wing, then the speed and footballing nous to follow up another chip ahead and finish the try. He can also play as an emergency fullback, and set his backs in motion with a perfect pass in off the sideline:
Morgan and Tipuric dovetailed as neatly together on defence as they did in attack:
The speed bonus with two natural 7s is evident with Tipuric in as the first man to hold up Freddie Steward on a kick return, then Morgan adding himself as a third to complete the maul turnover.
Both Tipuric and Reffell showed excellent skills in judging the right moment to ‘dig’ or to ‘wrap’ – whether to stay in the defensive line, or contest the tackle ball and pilfer on the deck:
In the first instance, Tipuric wisely pulls out of a contest he is never likely to win on first phase, staying alive to block the path forward of Leicester scrum-half Jack can Poortvliet on second, and finally scenting the opportunity to exploit a disconnect in the Tigers’ cleanout on third phase. In the second, Tommy Reffell can see no daylight in between Jac Morgan’s carry and Tipuric’s cleanout over the top of him on the initial play, but he is rewarded with a much more inviting one-on-one versus Ospreys’ prop Nicky Smith on the following phase.
If the whirligig of time has not quite brought in his revenges, he has certainly shifted the coaching pieces back where they belong – or at least, feel most comfortable. It has been a case of back to the future, and a round of second chances: Eddie Jones is back with the Wallabies, Warren Gatland has returned to his favourite stomping ground in Wales, and there is an Englishman – as English as they come – coaching the Red Rose.
Gatland has the jump on everyone else at the gun. He has a solid-looking coaching staff with a League-educated defence coach, and tremendous experience in the spine of the team in the shape of Ken Owens, Alun-Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar and Liam Williams. He has his Jamie Roberts clone in youthful Joe Hawkins at inside centre, and above all else, he has the ‘Twins effect’ in the back row, with Jac Morgan and Tommy Reffell rivals to fill the spot opposite Justin Tipuric at flank forward.
Tipuric is a world-class footballer and lineout option, Morgan carries like a JCB and Reffell can be relied upon for 10-12 significant pilfer attempts per game. It is a heady prospect. If Gatland can get reasonable production out of his tight forwards, he may just be able to do some business in this year’s Six Nations.