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FEATURE Why Warren Gatland's second tenure with Wales won't be so easy

Why Warren Gatland's second tenure with Wales won't be so easy
1 year ago

“They would arrive on a bus, some familiar faces but others completely unknown. One or two might still be wearing their work gear from the mines or steelworks if it was a match on Tuesday or Wednesday evening. Straight from the day job to their hobby with an oval ball.

“Coming out of the changing sheds, I’d often think: ‘They’re no bigger than us, this is going to be alright’. But it never was alright on the night.

“Matches against the Welsh teams in those days were the most exhausting and harrowing I can remember.

“I’d come off the field soaked in sweat. I couldn’t even raise my chin to drink a cup of tea afterwards, it was stuck to my chest because I’d been fighting for my life in the scrums. My body was black and blue with rips and tears and bruises, and they would still be there at training a couple of days later.

“Welsh forward play of that era was controlled thuggery and it took every ounce of your will to get up for it and match it. If you didn’t, they’d just kick you off the field.”

Ardie Savea of New Zealand breaks to score their sixth try despite being tackled by Rio Dyer and Will Rowlands. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Those are the [abridged] words of a very well-known, and highly-respected West Country front row forward of the 1970s about the Welsh tight forwards he faced. Some of his opponents came from the valleys, others from the major rugby-playing conurbations along the M4.

It didn’t matter. Whether he would look up and find Colin Smart of Newport in direct opposition, or Mike Pugh of Abertillery, or Brandon Cripps of Newbridge; Mike Knill of Cardiff, ‘Charlie’ Faulkner of Pontypool, Bridgend’s Ikey Stephens or John Richardson of Aberavon. The list went on and on, but the nature of the test was always the same. It was always intense and pushed endurance to the outer limit.

Wherever you looked around the Welsh clubs of that era, you would find that iron strength in the tight forwards. Look at the regions now, and it is a very different story. The decline of heavy industry, and the jobs associated with it in South Wales is one reason for it, but Wales were still churning out front-row forwards of the calibre of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones less than ten years ago.

Lately the production line has ground to a halt, and there is now no fear factor involved at the prospect of taking on Welsh tight fives, either at national or regional level. Ken Owens will be 36 years old in January and the redoubtable Alun Wyn Jones will be 38 before the World Cup arrives next year. Solid, substantial second row Will Rowlands will depart for France at the end of the season and it is unclear whether he will be available for national selection because under the current 60-cap rule, he is ineligible.

In the good old days, there would be more set-pieces formed than rucks in the course of a game, so that tight forwards tended to be exclusively ball-winners.

If those three pack it in, you can wave farewell to Welsh hopes for a convincing platform up front during the tournament itself. And that is the major problem facing Warren Gatland in his second coming as Wales head coach, and the biggest single drop-off in quality since his first iteration back in 2008.

First, let’s provide a bit of context to Welsh tight forward travails. In the good old days, there would be more set-pieces formed than rucks in the course of a game, so that tight forwards tended to be exclusively ball-winners. In the modern era, the ratio of rucks to set-pieces is frequently as much as five or six to one, which means the ball has to be won in such a way that it can supply a springboard for attack, especially in the opposition half.

Let’s take a look at the match between Wales and New Zealand, at the beginning of the November series. There were eight scrums, 28 lineouts and a total of 213 rucks at the Principality Stadium – six rucks for every set-piece. Both teams won their own scrums and enjoyed above a 90 per cent retention record at the lineout, so you would think that the set-piece battle was fairly even. In fact, that was far from the case. While New Zealand’s domination of the advantage line after set-piece came in at 75 per cent, Wales’ rate languished at a lowly 53 per cent.

None of the three Welsh scrums in the New Zealand half of the field provided a platform for attack because all three were spoiled at the base. Here are a couple of typical early examples:

In the first example, the Welsh front row comes under fire directly and Tomos Williams is robbed at the base by Aaron Smith; in the second the initial set-piece pressure results in a domino effect thereafter. All prospect of a coordinated first phase attack is squashed at the source, and Wales are reduced to a series of ineffective one-out carries by their forwards, culminating in a fumble by prop Thomas Francis.

It was little better at the lineout. Of seven Welsh attacking lineouts in the Kiwi half, the only two which worked effectively came from ball won cleanly off the top, or moved away quickly from the lineout:

When Wales went to the big lineout drive, they came away with a miserable zero from five successful outcomes in terms of setting a platform for phase attack:

Wales have won the ball at source, but it is all negative thereafter. The maul begins to go backwards before collapsing on All Black terms, and the first two ball carriers are forced to absorb tackles behind the gain line. Within a couple more phases, the men in black have developed their advantage in contact further, with Sam Whitelock narrowly missing out on the pilfer before it is secured by Ardie Savea on the very next phase.

Negative set-pieces send out a ripple effect through the carries and cleanout that follow, and at the Principality Stadium they impacted the ability of the rival halfbacks to run from the lineout starter:

The Welsh maul is first denied the roll around into midfield, then hooker Ken Owens is forced back, step-by-step at the base. When Tomos Williams is ready to run, Dalton Papali’i and Williams’  opposite number, Aaron Smith, are waiting to engulf him in a double tackle. The result is more one-out football and another attacking position given up:

Now compare that sample with the New Zealand version of the same attacking idea:

The All Blacks’ drive moves forward far enough to tie in the Welsh forwards on the fringes, and loosen up the interior defence sufficiently for Smith to exploit the space with a break and a try.

If the forwards do their job and move upfield on the drive, it enables the backs to breach the gain line on the following phase with ease:

The strength of the maul sets up big Jordie Barrett for a one-on-one contest with Justin Tipuric, and suddenly the All Blacks are moving forward with momentum while Wales are tumbling back downfield with their dustpans and brushes in defence. The eventual outcome was another try for Ardie Savea against a non-existent fringe defence around the side of the ruck:

When Warren Gatland first took over the reins of the Welsh national team back in 2008, he could call upon the likes of British and Irish Lions like Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Matthew Rees and Alun-Wyn Jones in the tight five. He will not find the same depth of resources in his second term of office.

How times have changed! All of the front five which started Gatland’s first game in charge at Twickenham back in 2008 were from the Ospreys region. When the Ospreys fielded a tight five composed completely of Welsh internationals (with a sixth on the bench in prop Gareth Thomas) in the first round of the Heineken Champion’s Cup last weekend, their opponents Leicester felt comfortable enough to rest four of their own starters in the same spots. They still left Swansea with a 23-17 victory.

That is where the hard yakka will begin for Gatland. He has to find some tight forwards, and he has to find them in a hurry if Wales are to be serious challengers in the forthcoming Six Nations, let alone the World Cup later in 2023. It is a daunting task, and those halcyon days of the 1970s seem like a dim and distant memory indeed.


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