Friday night in Bath didn’t turn out quite how the vast majority of Bath fans expected it to. After going to West Wales earlier in the campaign and coming back with the victory, the opportunity to boost their claims for a quarter-final place was there for the West Country men to take. Nevertheless, not only did they fail to get anything from the game, it also showed that the Scarlets’ game plan could be the blueprint for Wales to beat England in the upcoming Nat West 6 Nations Championship.
Commentators were pitching the size and direct ball carrying abilities of Bath – that had so convincingly seen off Worcester last weekend – against the free-flowing expansive game of the Scarlets. Bath’s heavier forwards were thought to have the edge over the lighter weight pack of the Welshmen but the international front row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee dominated the scrum and the athleticism of Aaron Shingler provided good competition for countryman Luke Charteris in the line-out.
Scarlets’ Game Plan could be the Blueprint for Wales to beat England
Equally, although the Scarlets’ handling and offloading got a lot of the attention, it was the defensive planning that Byron Hayward had done and the execution by all the players – whether blitzing or scrambling – that created the space and the opportunities for attack. The desire to work for their team mates was no more evident than near the end of the match when three players made up ground to bundle Zach Mercer into touch when the line was beckoning. That was merely to deny Bath any consolation in the form of a losing bonus point rather than to win the game.
But it was the tempo that was central to this win and this is the key to unlocking victory when Wales face England at Twickenham on 10th February. After the first 30 minutes of this game, the bulkier Bath forwards were struggling to keep up with play and hold their defensive positions.
— Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 13, 2018
Exhilarating to Watch
The speed of Scarlets’ open field running, their constant breaking of tackles and freeing of their arms, trusting that their support runners would be there ready to pick up the pass, was exhilarating to watch and it made one of the Aviva Premiership’s top sides look slightly cumbersome and frankly, not at the races.
The lynch-pin to this whole strategy was Gareth Davies. It is extremely frustrating for Welsh fans to watch the inconsistency with which Davies can play. On his day and performing the way he did at The Rec, he is as good as Rhys Webb and maybe has a slightly more physical edge to his game. Yet, Webb maintains these high standards week-in week-out and also on the big stage at international level.
Davies’ speed to each breakdown was ferociously fast, blending passes away from the ruck with little darts through the middle to keep the opposition defence honest. There was none of the two-step delays that can creep into his game, possibly because the forwards had them on the front foot so much but the effect was clear for all to see.
England’s Achilles Heel stems from Club Game
This tempo is what many have been saying is the current – albeit very successful – England team’s achilles heel. Sir Clive Woodward was critical throughout the Autumn International period and has pointed the finger at the club game as the culprit for this. Exhibit A was on show on Friday evening and Bath (and the rest of the Premiership that they were representing) were banged to rights.
So many of us clamour over the competitive nature of England’s top tier but is it really clouding our view of the game’s standing against the best in Europe and particularly the Pro14. If you currently look at the pools within the Champions Cup, all five pools are headed by Pro14 or Top 14 clubs.
England’s performances of late have lacked an urgency that was present when they were successful in Australia in the summer of 2016 and as with the influence of Davies on the Scarlets, many feel that Danny Care would provide that tempo from the start rather than Ben Youngs who is seen as the more conservative and reliable option.
Nothing to Lose and Everything to Gain
If an under-strength Wales team are to produce an upset at Twickenham, they should look to play as unstructured and fast-paced a game as they dare. They are the underdogs, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The question is whether Warren Gatland and his coaching staff are of the right persuasion to allow this sort of performance to happen. Wayne Pivac, Stephen Jones and the rest of the Scarlets’ coaches have put freedom of expression and execution of skills at the heart of their ethos. So should it be at national level.
The vast majority of players on display on Friday night could be utilised when the Welsh squad is announced on Tuesday and it will be interesting to see if players such as James Davies and Shingler are included as that may indicate which way Gatland, Howley et al plan to play.
The contrast came in Saturday evening’s Ospreys game against Saracens with the Ospreys playing a slightly more ‘English’ game against the European Champions.
Three Play-makers in the Back Line
Players such as Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric will obviously be seen as pivotal to Wales’ chances in the coming weeks with the latter well placed to fit into a more open and expansive game plan. They may also elect to play three play-makers in the back line utilising Rhys Patchell at Full Back alongside Biggar and Owen Williams at 12.
Fitness will be pivotal and the plan should be to run England’s pack around the Twickenham pitch. The same front row that was superior against Bath will go into the contest with confidence, particularly if they can back that performance up against the Toulon forwards next week and top the group.
It is time to back their instincts and return to a more ancestral game so beloved of the great Welsh teams of yesteryear. That will be the way to succeed at HQ!
Main Photo Credit: