Tuesday 20 February 2018

French rollover gives Gatland plenty to chew on

Wales' tactical approach has not moved with the times, writes Brendan Fanning

T here have been a few moments during this Six Nations campaign when Warren Gatland looked like he was about to lose his lunch.

In week one, against England, it can't have been easy to retain any sense of decorum when Alun Wyn Jones stuck his leg out in that moment of madness which got him 10 minutes in the bin.

In week two, against Scotland, you could take Dan Parks' drop goal with just over 10 minutes left as the moment the Wales coach felt everything was going south.

And on Friday night? Well, when the camera cut to him after those intercept moments he looked acutely ill. Then, after the game, there was an interesting little joust with the BBC's Graham Thomas. The interviewer wanted the coach to expand on Wales' apparent problems; the coach wanted to focus on the second-half comeback, another episode in what is becoming a gripping serial with them this season.

When Thomas questioned the tactics that had contributed to the two intercept tries that ultimately undid his team, Gatland darkened visibly. "What do you mean the tactics?" he responded.

Perhaps the tactics that saw Wales play into France's hands. One of rugby's truisms that has been debunked thoroughly in the modern age is that possession wins games. Not any more it doesn't.

Wales are suffering especially from this turnaround. Their ball skills are good and in their successful Grand Slam campaigns of 2005 under Mike Ruddock ('licence to thrill' was their catch phrase) and 2008 under Gatland, they played some really attractive rugby.

Nowhere was it more effective than in the clinching game of the 2008 campaign in Croke Park. In a confrontation that was loaded with the baggage of Gatland's time in Ireland, and how he had been replaced by Eddie O'Sullivan who was opposite him that day, Ireland tried to batter Wales on a narrow front. And when it didn't work they tried to chase the game when they weren't tooled up to do it.

As Gatland signed off on Friday night, he tried to convey the impression that Wales had served rugby well by their expansive approach and France had done the opposite. In fact, Wales would have served rugby, and themselves in particular, a good deal better if they had come up with a way of getting around or through France's blitz defence.

The game was 22 minutes old and Wales were already 10 points down when Stephen Jones at last ran a wrap-around play that, with the help of a little blocking from Lee Byrne, got them in behind France. They had enjoyed lots of possession to that point. Well, enjoyed is probably not the right word for they were being, as the name suggests, blitzed.

So why not change sooner? Indeed why start in the first place playing rugby that was food and drink to the way France defend? Ireland were unsuccessful in their battering ram approach against Wales in Croke Park two years ago but with a little variety it would have served Wales a whole lot better on Friday night.

In the second half, when they mixed it up a bit, they made progress, but there are a few aspects to the Welsh game that must deeply concern the coach. Injuries and off-the-field incidents in the last two weeks tore a hole in the Wales pack and the effect was seen at the set-piece.

Five minutes before half-time and trailing 13-0, at last they got a scrum in a great attacking position in the France 22. And got shunted. Instinctively Adam Jones

tried to halt the slide by lowering Thomas Domingo, except that it ended on the deck and France got the penalty. Domingo tapped his opposite number to say 'thanks' as Wales picked themselves up and trooped back.

The lineout was no better. The stats had Wales losing three lineouts but the quality of four others was wretched and when Gert Smal and Paul O'Connell turn their attention to this they will see plenty of scope to do damage.

It's probably hoping for too much however that Lee Byrne should bring such poor concentration again to the task of punting penalties to the right spot on the touchline. When their revival was in the foothills of the second half, with two penalties from Stephen Jones waking up the crowd and giving them hope, Byrne lost the plot when all he had to do was knock a penalty kick to France's five-metre line. Kicking it dead was a disaster. Later he went in the other direction and left another penalty short when Wales were desperate for the territory.

They have been so erratic in this campaign that all of this fits perfectly with a team that is struggling. They will have some of their injuries sorted in time for Croke Park and will probably field 11 of the side that started against Ireland two years ago, but they are well removed from the form that swept them along back then. Gatland's look says it all.

Sunday Independent

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