Since Ireland ground Wales into the dirt of Lansdowne Road, the defending Six Nations champions have reclaimed their honour by thumping a patchy – but until that point unbeaten – France in Cardiff. Ireland narrowly lost to England the same weekend in Twickenham, a trial the Welsh have yet to undergo.
Is there anything different to be said about the Irish or Welsh teams that is apparent after another round of matches? It can be beneficial to put a bit of distance between watching a game and reviewing it. Coaches and players can say some things after a victory about a previous loss that they wouldn’t otherwise have said. For example, in a January interview with the Guardian’s Donald McRae, Paul O’Connell talked quite openly about Ireland’s lack of physicality against Australia in November, and in doing so gave an insight into Warren Gatland’s mindset:
“I remember Gatland said to me in 2009 that the more you think in rugby the less physical you’re going to be. You either play a game plan where you don’t have to think a lot so you can be intensely physical – or you make sure you know the detail inside out so it’s part of your subconscious.”
Sometimes A Narrative Builds Through A Game, Other Times One Is Imposed Upon It In Hindsight
Did anybody expect Joe Schmidt’s team to play to such a conservative [and ultimately hugely successful] gameplan? The Mole certainly didn’t. I expected it to be a high-paced harum-scarum type of game, just as the most recent two games between the sides had been.
In hindsight of course [especially twenny-twenny heinzight], many more factors become apparent. Ian Evans’ ban for stamping in the Ospreys’ Heineken Cup loss to Leinster took away Wales’ biggest lineout threat, and with Bradley Davies already ruled out because of his November shoulder surgery, Luke Charteris’ hamstring injury against Italy did for their like-for-like replacement. He was replaced before the hour in that game, and the early news of his unavailability for selection for the Lansdowne Road tie – it was public knowledge by the Wednesday before the game – gave Schmidt and Plumtree ample time to hone their tactics.
There was a lot of kicking to establish territory, because the Welsh had a midget second row – Alun Wyn Jones at 196cm tall and Andrew Coombes at 193cm tall, compared to Devin Toner’s 208cm and O’Connell’s 198cm – and a blindside who’s about the least used lineout target for his position in international rugby.
As important as the lack of height in the Welsh pack is the fact that Jonny Sexton has a wide array of kicks in his arsenal, something that has typically been overlooked because of four years of comparison with Ronan O’Gara. O’Gara has always been seen as the ‘kicking’ outhalf, with Sexton falling into the role of the ‘running’ outhalf. I’m not saying that O’Gara was a great exponent of the midfield break, but his abilities to get the Irish backline moving under Eddie O’Sullivan have been underplayed, as has Sexton’s first rate tactical kicking.
When the game is done and dusted, sometimes it’s hard to appropriately value the element of surprise. As a spectator, your perspective changes over the eighty minutes, and actions or tactics that you wouldn’t have expected before the game kicked off have become a fait accompli. The Mole has rarely seen a Joe Schmidt-coached team kick the ball so often as their first option, and there’s not really a huge precedent for it. Wales didn’t expect the touchfinder-lineout-maul attack, and they weren’t well-prepared to defend it in the first forty.
Ah, But Still …
The Welsh are an experienced pack though, and you expect experienced packs – and especially experienced front fives – to be adept at recognising and neutralising mauls.
At kickoff, centurion Gethin Jenkins had 107 caps [including 5 test starts for the Lions], Adam Jones 91 caps [with 4 test starts for the Lions] Alun-Wyn Jones had 81 [again, 4 Lions test starts] and Sam Warburton 46 [with 2 test starts for the Lions], while Hibbard, Lydiate and Faletau are all test Lions with 30-odd caps each. Only lock Coombs is a novice with under ten test caps.
That’s a hell of a lot of test experience, and while Coombs was obviously the neophyte, he acquitted himself reasonably well: he did what was asked of him in the tight and had some impressive flashes of play in the loose.
However, the Welsh lineout calling was conservative to a fault, with a high proportion of their throws going flat to two and off the top. Maybe Richard Hibbard had struggled throwing to the tail in training, or maybe Alun-Wyn Jones realized that they were outmatched up and down the line? In any case, ball off the top at two demands another 10m of Mike Phillip’s pass compared to ball off the tail, and it allowed the Irish defense that extra second to come off their line and get in the faces of the big Welsh midfield before they were at full pace.
The Mole has a sketched-out theory about Gatland’s current Welsh team and their success in recent years. We explored it briefly in the ‘Chopper’ article in terms of his backrow selection, because it’s most obvious there, but essentially the thesis is that he selects a number of players to do a very specific job, and when they’re not in the team or are out of form, the machine chokes up a bit, or possibly even grinds to a halt.
Adam Jones is there to scrummage, Richard Hibbard is there to carry into contact close-in, Ian Evans is there to win lineouts, Dan Lydiate is there to tackle, Sam Warburton is there to win turnovers, and Jamie Roberts is there to get over the gainline in midfield.
That’s quite a reductive summation, and I have little doubt that anybody inclined could find examples of them doing different things in a Welsh jersey, but for the most part, they are the roles that Warren Gatland wants those players to fulfill in his team. It’s not that they’re incapable of doing anything else, it’s just what they do best and most often in Welsh red. And again, for the most part, they play those roles very well.
It’s one of Gatland’s strengths as a coach: he’s authoritative, he fully understands the particularly physical requirements of test rugby, he knows what he wants his teams to do, he recognises strengths and weaknesses in his personnel that can aid or hinder his gameplan, and he’s ruthless in selection.
You can see some of those traits reflected in Joe Schmidt’s selections as well. There are dissimilarities in personalities that mask them, and the two coaches have a very different ethos about the game, but some of the Irish coach’s selections are very single-minded: Devin Toner is there to win lineouts. Chris Henry is there to slow ball at the breakdown. Ireland’s wingers thus far have been selected for work-rate, dependability and aerial prowess, not pace or footwork.
There has been much debate in Ireland regarding the omission of Simon Zebo from Irish squads in the championship to date. A November interview with Andrew Trimble from the Irish Independent provides a significant insight into the coach’s priorities:
“I’m more conscious now of the type of winger that Joe is looking for. He’s looking for someone who is accurate, who is physically dominant, who knows their role inside out and performs a lot of small areas of the game very, very well … He demands so much from his players. Joe isn’t overly concerned about a winger that breaks a gain-line and scores tries from halfway. He looks for a winger who does the simple stuff very well, presents the ball at ruck time accurately all the time, accuracy in kick-chase and reception. Every little thing. He has to do everything to make the team tick.”
Hard Hittin’ Hibbard
The Mole is of the opinion that Jamie Roberts is the most important part of Gatland’s strategy. If you take the Big Bopper out of the Welsh midfield, they struggle to get over the gainline in the middle of the pitch. Without that front foot ball on tap, they lose momentum and a lot of the benefit of the physically big runners that Gatland prefers. There are other parts of the jigsaw as well though, and when those pieces are broken or missing, the picture isn’t complete.
Take, for example, Richie “L. Ron” Hibbard. Hibbard is going to run into you as hard as he can, then go to ground. He’s not going to go two-out, he’s not going to throw a screen pass, he’s not going to try and side-step you, he’s not going to try and free his hands and release a trail runner … he’s just going to try and plow through you, get over the gainline, go to ground and then set up a ruck. His game is to run into people close to rucks as hard as he can. It’s a hell of a brutal way to make a living.
The Ospreys’ hooker has had possession of the ball 78 times in his last 10 starts for Wales, and gone into contact with it 72 times. He’s only passed 6 times before going into contact. And, of the 72 times he has gone into contact with it, he’s only made 1 offload.
Over those last ten matches, he’s complete 48 tackles and missed 11 – an average tackle count of 4.8/1.1, essentially 5/1. Some of those have been absolutely huge hits, collisions that give a real boost in enthusiasm to his team-mates. On the other hand, you don’t see him winning many turnovers or blocking down many kicks, scrambling to make last ditch tackles or breaking free and linking with other players. He’s a guy who brings a lot of power and impact to the game, but isn’t really an all-rounder. Compared to Keven Mealamu, Bismarck du Plessis or Rory Best, he’s pretty one-dimensional. Now, it can be a hell of an effective dimension, but he’s a player on whom you can rely to do the same thing time and time again, and as a result becomes a bit easier to plan around.
Priestland tends to draw a ton of shit from the more vituperative elements of the Welsh rugby press, because he doesn’t play with the élan they want from the inheritor of the jersey of Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies.
They want their No10 to be the composer of the score, the conductor of the orchestra and its lead soloist. It’s an unrealistic expectation, and if Wales lose, the good things he does in the match get quickly ‘forgotten’ – or intentionally written out of history.
For the record, some of Rhys Priestland’s touch-finders were out of the top drawer. He had a couple of dodgy kicks – as did Sexton – but he made huge yardage into touch. In terms of handling the ball, he did what Gatland asked him to do: put the pill out in front of Jamie Roberts and George North and let them careen into the opposition midfield defense. The Mole gets the impression that if he started free-lancing too often, he’d find himself out of the team.
People like to badmouth Phillips because he can be a bit of a lairy dickhead, but much of the criticism of his rugby becomes confused with personal gripes, or passive-aggresive bleating. When he’s on top of his game, the guy is a monster and can causes a big problem for any team.
Sure, he’s not the quickest at the base, but his pass is very quick through the air and he can put a hell of a lot of length on it. He’s generally accurate, especially when it comes to putting it out in front of his big midfield backs, which is both a difficult skill and a big part of Wales’ ‘A’ game. Anybody who clearly recalls Ireland’s 2012 Six Nations match against Wales will remember the tactical kicking masterclass he put on: height, distance, box-kicks, touch finders … as much as the über-dodgy try he scored, it was his kicking game that gave Wales the edge in that match. Even his most vocal critics would acknowledge his explosive running game around the fringes as a huge part of recent Welsh successes. However, it was largely absent against Ireland.
At 31 and a bit, he’s not quite in his final throes, but he’s beginning to feel his age a bit. Phillips has always been a loose cannon off the field, whether it being assaulted outside a nightclub at 4 a.m. in 2008, arrested for a public order offense involving a taxi driver in 2009, arrested for brawling outside a McDonalds in 2011, undisclosed ‘off-field behaviour’ issues that led to a suspension in Bayonne in 2012 or turning up pie-eyed for training in 2013, an incident that cost him his job.
The point of all this gratuitous muck-raking isn’t to wag a finger and show everybody what a naughty boy Phillips has been since his international breakthrough, it’s just to impress the fact that he has been burning the torch at both ends for most of his test career. That’s definitely not to say that if it wasn’t for the booze he ‘coulda been a contendah’: he’s achieved a lot in his career – more than 80 Welsh caps, two Lions tours, three Six Nations championships – and he’s been a world class player. Different strokes for different folks. Some people don’t have the same wiring as in the diagram.
However, moonlight shenanigans take their toll on the body and on the mind. Getting back into shape is a hell of a lot tougher than staying in shape. If you’ve got great genetics, a deep skill-base and an other worldly sense of discipline and drive like Randy Couture or Bernard Hopkins, you can extend your prime in a one-on-one sport, even the physically toughest and most psychologically challenging ones. If you don’t have that teak tough, unwavering discipline or that remorseless drive, you can’t.
Ricky Hatton couldn’t put a lid on his eating or drinking habits between bouts, and all the experienced boxing writers covering his career said that it’d take years off his career. It seemed like he could handle it; he never failed to make the weight in his career. Ultimately though, it can only have hurt him. Even if you weigh the emotional release he got from bingeing between fights as a healthy counter-balance to the psychological and physical trauma of preparing for and fighting title bouts, the amount of stress it must have put on his system to go from genuinely obese to incredibly fit must have been staggering draining.
In Matthew Pincent’s autobiography, the Olympic rower tells his own story of taking time out after the Sydney Olympics in 2000:
“I did absolutely no exercise and enjoyed the feeling of fitness slipping away. If I had been retiring, I would have hated it, but I made the most of it, knowing that when I went back I would be training harder than I wanted to, so for a spell it was fantastic. I did a fitness test for a television program early in December, nearly three months after the Games, and found that nearly 12% of my endurance and strength had ebbed away. Levels of effort on the rowing machine that I could hold for an hour at the time of the Olympics were a struggle after five minutes. Suddenly it became a bit of a worry. Losing 1 per cent a week was no joke.
The first camp was a horror show. It was in the Canary Islands on bikes, and the very first ride was about 100 minutes long. I held in the group for about 40, keeping my front wheel jammed up behind the wheel ahead, making the most of the hole in the air. But the hills were killing me. On a long steady ascent the group kicked on and I was left behind, literally bring over my handlebars as my legs screamed their way uphill … the first week was a training hell the like of which I have never known …”
Matthew Pincent, A Lifetime In A Race [p290]
The Mole wouldn’t be at all convinced that Mike Phillips is ‘finished’, but his performances for the Lions and his outings for Wales in the Six Nations have shown that he’s not the force he was in his prime. Rhys Webb provides a viable alternative option at the moment, but will he ever reach Phillips’ peak levels? Without the massive threat of a breaking Phillips around the fringes, does Gatland’s gameplan have to change?
The above criticism is not to say that Wales are composed entirely of one dimensional automatons. There are always going to be good footballers in Wales, and the current team has its quota of very, very talented players who can do it all: Gethin Jenkins, Alun-Wyn Jones, Toby Faletau, JJV Davies and Leigh Halfpenny can each do everything that is asked of their position at a very high level, make good decisions on the pitch and can add a bit of spice.
However, there are a number of talented footballers that Gatland has consistently left out for guys who are better at one particular thing – Justin Tipuric’s wiliness and ball-handling omitted due to Sam Warburton’s breakdown ability, Ryan Jones’ leadership, ball-carrying and handling overlooked in favour of Dan Lydiate’s tackling, and James Hook’s intuition and complete skill set discarded in favour of any back who will take orders and run into something.
Ruck Marks, And A Note On The Numbers Game
We outlined the Ruck Marks system we used in this article from back in October: if you haven’t read it, it helps to make sense of what otherwise is very likely just a spreadsheet of names, numbers and unintelligible jargon.
In a recent article on ESPN’s Grantland.com, Football Outsiders founder Bill Barnwell wrote, “It’s not about reducing sports to numbers; it’s about finding evidence.”
That’s an admirably concise statement, and one with which I fully agree. There’s a number of reasons why we write these articles: to highlight the work of players in what is a vitally important part of the game; to try and better understand why the match went like it did; to try and establish some set of ‘facts’ about what can be a visually overwhelming or confusing set of events [i.e. rucks] and to generate a more discerning view of particular players’ involvement in the game, rather than just relying on a narrative constructed of biases or memory.Peter O’Mahony
O’Mahony is playing an entirely different role in the same No6 jersey for Joe Schmidt and John Plumtree than he did under Declan Kidney and Gert Smal.
In set-piece play, the numbers of balls targeted on him at lineout time has increased again, whether it is Paul O’Connell or Devin Toner making the calls. Toner has added an extra dimension to Ireland’s lineout play: teams can no longer put their best jumper on Paul O’Connell and temper Ireland’s supply from the middle. There’s no doubt that O’Mahony has benefitted from this, but that’s because he has the natural ability to make the most of it. He’s probably the best back row jumper in the tournament, and has certainly been the most successful thus far, with 12 takes on his own ball [in comparison to Yannick Nyanga’s 10, with Tom Wood and Scotland’s Ryan Wilson both on 8].
While Ireland haven’t yet used him in the Keiran Read role for restarts – having Sexton cross it flat to him on the touchline when Ireland restart, essentially an inversion of the corner kick [i.e. kicking it from the middle of the pitch to the edge, rather than the edge to the middle] – that’s a wrinkle that I’m sure will develop over the next year or so. That ploy depends more on leaping ability and handling than it does on pure pace, and it’s a good fit for the Cork Con man.
However, it’s really in broken play where the major changes between how Schmidt and Kidney use him become apparent. Under the Kidney plan, O’Mahony was often used in wide channels as an auxiliary centre in the 2013 Six Nations. This was a ploy very much in evidence in 2010 [especially the November internationals of that year], when Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip were regularly to be seen in midfield.
It was an interesting tactic and well worth bringing to the table back then. The positives were that it exploited the open field running abilities of Ferris and particularly Heaslip – who had 7 carries for 69m against South Africa and 10 carries for 109m against New Zealand that Autumn – and engineered mismatches [i.e. a back on a forward in space, or in this case, a forward running at a back with pace] without relying on a high number of phases to organically drag a defensive set-up out of shape.
The downside of it that was the Irish pack was essentially competing quite often with six men against eight, with the mismatch in numbers frequently resulting in slow ball that allowed the defense to realign and negate many of the advantages of having forwards on backs in midfield. It also often meant that two of Ireland’s most mobile and accurate breakdown exponents were left stranded on an island in an ocean of backs when they were more needed up front, which was frustrating for all involved. If one of the backrows out wide broke the defensive line they had the pace to make the break count, but for every home run, there were a lot of strikes thrown up front.
Finally, packing a backline with two forwards occasionally meant that they would clutter up the space that backs like O’Driscoll, Bowe and Earls needed to prompt questions of defensive alignments and beat men one-on-one. Ireland’s backline play under Kidney was a step backwards from the O’Sullivan era, and there was less structure or subterfuge involved.
In any case, it wasn’t a tactic without merit, but it had its downsides. Resuscitating it with O’Mahony in the wide runner role in 2013 was an interesting wrinkle to see and occasionally produced some good moments, notably in the first match of the tournament against Wales, but it also saw him frequently isolated from the action – the disappointing [and still a little confusing] loss to Scotland in Murray field being the prime example.
Under Schmidt and Plumtree, O’Mahony is far more involved at the heart of the action, and there is little room for debate about how effective he has been: arguably man of the match in the Scottish game, he clearly took the laurels in the Welsh game. At the centre of both performances was his work at the ruck and breakdown. He notched a Ruck Mark of 99 against Wales [2 turnovers, 0 decisives, 21 hits, 8 guards and 10 presents], finishing one mark shy of Chris Henry’s table-topping effort, and set the tone with an early penalty win as a jackal [at 03:47] following Paul O’Connell’s chop tackle of Dan Lydiate, and an important poach near the Irish line just about eight minutes into the second half [47:51] that relieved a period of Welsh pressure.Jamie Heaslip vs Toby Faletau
The Heaslip/Faletau head-to-head was one that The Mole was particularly looking forward to, especially in light of Heaslip’s excellent first test for the Lions and Faletau’s top drawer performance in the third test of the same series.
In the interim Heaslip had put in a strange, subdued performance in the middle part of the second test [which had more than a little to do with Gatland’s tactical approach] and had suffered for it, dropped for the only time on two Lions tours.
Faletau was Wales’ primary ball carrier in this game, toting the pill 14 times and making 40m. In contrast, Heaslip’s carrying stats look positively anemic: 10 carries for 6m. So Faletau clearly won the No8s’ duel, right?
Well, not really. The vast majority of Faletau’s running gains came from two excursions down the left wing, and he turned over the ball on both occasions. In his first he simply ran out of room and into touch with barely anybody laying a finger on him. If this was the NFL, you would have thought that he was trying to stop the clock.
The second example was almost a carbon copy of the first, except that he remembered not to run into touch, and threw a Hail Mary offload inside before his feet crossed the chalk – unfortunately for Wales, his prayer was answered by St Peter of the Turnover, who scooped up the reed basket and took it back to Pharoah. Or something.
There are also incidents in the game which have a big impact, but don’t fall into any handy statistical category. For example, Heaslip’s chase of Jonny Sexton’s chip down the right wing forced Rhys Priestland to carry the ball into touch and concede a lineout to Ireland close to the Welsh line at around the 31 minute mark. Chris Henry scored directly off the lineout maul and Sexton knocked over the conversion to give Ireland a 13-0 lead. If Heaslip hadn’t pushed himself for that kick chase, that sequence of events probably wouldn’t have happened.
Which looks better on the stat sheet: Faletau running with the ball for 20m, or Jamie Heaslip chasing a kick but not even making a tackle at the end of the play? Which had a bigger impact on the player’s team? Faletau giving a soft turnover to an already dominant Irish lineout or Heaslip forcing a turnover 5m from the Welsh line?
Heaslip’s performance at the breakdown earned him 65 Ruck Marks [1 turnover, 1 decisive, 13 hits, 5 guards and 7 presents], good for sixth on the Irish team overall. He earned 41 of these marks after halftime with both the decisive [74:26] and the turnover [76:51] occurring late in the game. Some of that is due to the increase in the number of rucks in the second half: there were 80 in the first forty minutes and 101 in the second forty minutes. Some of it is also due to the departure of captain Paul O’Connell in the 53rd minute.
Paul O’Connell – Sick And Tired
O’Connell had led the Irish first half effort with a Ruck Mark of 59 [0 turnovers, 2 decisives, 13 hits, 4 guards, 4 presents], but his shortened second half showed the ill-effects of the chest infection that had forced him to miss the game against Scotland. He was only able to put together 16 Ruck Marks in those 13 minutes [4 hits, 1 guard, 2 presents] in a particularly high-paced series of play that included 35 rucks [with Ireland having possession in 15 and the Welsh taking the ball into the other 20].
With the captain only having been involved in 7 of 35 rucks early in the second half, and with three of those involvements being relatively ineffective, coach Joe Schmidt’s hands were forced.
This was a strange kind of game given the recent history between the two sides, largely because Ireland wheeled out a very different tactical game than was expected. Typically when that happens, a side throws the ball around more, but in this instance it meant that they threw the ball around a lot less.
Warren Gatland was faced with an interesting dilemna when Scott Williams injured his shoulder early on: would he move a winger into centre [North] and bring on his outside back sub [Liam Williams], or would he bring on his inside back sub [Hook]? It’s a difficult call at the best of times. No13 is sort of a midfielder, but more of an outside back. What’s more, the game was but a nipper at that stage, and Ireland’s tactical approach had not yet unfolded. He choose a ‘more is more’ approach, moving North in and leaving Hook unused for the entire game.
Did that clarify his intentions for the game to the point of transparency, or is it something that too much emphasis is placed on in hindsight? The general criticism of Gatland in the Welsh rugby media is that he couldn’t react to the game as it panned out in front of him. Going back to O’Connell’s interview, is that because the Welsh coach chooses not to have more thinkers on the pitch?