On the back of a 13-6 World Cup warm-up victory over England on Saturday, Wales will now officially become the number one ranked team in the world this Monday. With many of the teams near the top of the rankings now beating each other consistently ahead of the World Cup, this analysis will look at a part of what has given Wales their competitive edge to rise above the rest-their defence.
Often when we are coached team defence as kids we are told to stay in a straight line, to keep even spacing, to not rush up on our own. When you look the image below of Wales’ defence against England on Saturday, other than Alun Wyn Jones standing behind the ruck instead of a 9, you would be forgiven for thinking that it’s a normal defence like any other.
What makes Wales blitz defence under Shaun Edwards interesting-and so effective-is that it confounds many of these principles. When we move the clock on a few seconds, focus on the players marked D1 to D4 and see how the defensive line changes.
Gone are the principles of keeping a straight line, the spacing is no longer even, Gareth Davies at 9 has committed the cardinal sin of pushing up out of the line and yet Wales have won a turnover.
So, why do Wales do it and was the turnover just dumb luck or by design? As this analysis will now explain, there’s a lot more to this defence than meets the eye.
If we rewind the previous clip back again, we can see a clear Spear Tip shape to the Welsh defence around the ruck. D1 is protecting the edge of the ruck, while D3 leads the charge with D2 and D4 just behind. What this Spear Tip allows is D3 to put pressure on the ball-carrier while having cover behind if there is a missed tackle. The goal is for D3 to either make a tackle that pushes England’s attack back or force a mistake. The minor mistake England make here is allowing their teammate-circled in red-to get isolated in a ruck and Wales capitalise
Once the tackle is made an important rule applies as follows. The tackler themselves, or the player inside the tackler, but never the player outside them, is allowed to have an attempt at winning a turnover as Nicky Smith does at D1 in the image below.
This rule exists in the Welsh team so that the Wales defence can keep its width on the outside and prevent the faster, more dangerous attacking players out wide from doing damage. You can already see above that Gareth Davies-circled-has this next job in mind and is signalling for more defenders to come out.
While there are a few different facets to the Welsh defence that makes it effective, the Spear Tip is the unifying principle of the Welsh defence in phase play. We see the Spear Tip working again in the 62nd minute of the game.
Like clockwork, D3 lays the trap by pressurising Kyle Sinckler-circled-to pass. D4 again makes the covering tackle and Wales, with Alun Wyn Jones at D1 as the inside defender this time, win the turnover from England’s Joe Marler.
As the next example will show, Wales also use the Spear Tip defence wider out the field with the intelligent Jonathan Davies at 13 often triggering the ploy.
Ken Owens in this instance-marked as D2 here-initially acts as the D3 defender when the ball is passed from the ruck and is quite high up the line as a result when the ball goes beyond him. Jonathan Davies-D3-however recognises an opportunity to pressure the isolated Piers Francis-circled-and Owens moves into the D2 role to cover.
Francis beats Davies on the inside and Owens at D2 is forced to scramble, showing great pace to make a covering tackle while being assisted by D4. George North at D4 can then go for the turnover because he is an assist tackler and manages to win the ball back for Wales. While the ball goes back for a penalty advantage to England, Wales are again using the Spear Tip defence as a weapon to ensnare attackers and win the ball back.
Defence is often thought of the thing you do while you’re not attacking and regularly suffers from a lack of love as a result. It’s frequently characterised as a more negative aspect of the game that gets in the way of the moments of attacking brilliance. However, the Welsh Spear Tip indicates that defence can have much the same nuance as an attacking set-piece move off a lineout. The Wales defence isn’t built with the negative intention of just making tackles and holding on; it’s built with the positive intention to win the ball back and score.
There are many factors that have led to Wales reaching the top of the world rankings; their excellent players, coaches and other teams inevitably faltering as the Welsh have found form. However, the aspect of their rise that has risen above all others to contribute is their defence.
With the World Cup little over a month away, the Spear Tip defence has shown that, rather than passively defend their newfound number one status, Wales will keep pushing on in the weeks ahead.
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