Brian Ashton: Wales can create genius from chaos and beat French at their own game
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 15 October 2011
While the England players will be watching events unfold from the comfort of their sofas, perhaps before playing for their clubs in low-key Anglo-Welsh matches – jet-lag? what jet-lag? – our near neighbours from across the bridge will be involved body and soul in the maelstrom of a World Cup semi-final.
And deservedly so, for they have been superb. Much has been said and written about the England campaign but ultimately, when it counted on the field against France last weekend, they were not remotely good enough. Out-muscled and out-thought, especially in the first 40 minutes, they surrendered the game early and then found it impossible to claw back enough points after regrouping at the interval.
Matt Stevens looked in difficulties at scrum time, the French challenged the England line-out in unusual areas of the pitch and their back row had far more fight and purpose about them in the tackle area. Technically speaking, there were far too many simple errors: indeed, the handling was way below par for an international side. There was a sharp contrast later in the day when I watched the Super League Grand Final between St Helens and Leeds, where, despite pretty poor conditions, the passing and receiving of the ball was spot on and done at pace.
England didn't adapt tactically to a French game based on narrow-channel physicality and variety; smart, late-hitting strikes down the blind sides of the field; and astute aerial kicking from Dimitri Yachvili. Toby Flood, the England midfielder, was right when he remarked after the match that too few players engaged their brains sufficiently to handle the situation. And as Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, pointed out, why would anyone ever write off the French having digested their playing record over the past 10 years?
Whatever emotional state Les Bleus may turn up in, they have a greater innate understanding of the game than most, simply because of the way they are taught to play from a young age. Their game can appear to be based around the creation of chaos, but from this they so often recreate their own particular type of order and gain the upper hand. It's a concept rarely understood or practised by coaches in England: in fact, because of the apparent lack of coach-control associated with such a philosophy, people actively shy away from it. I have never understood this. Of course, all teams require a good conditioning base and the full set of technical equipment if they are to play well under pressure, but more important is the need to comprehend the when, the where and the why in terms of using the available tools.
From the outside, Wales appear to be on a journey down this very road. Not long ago their attacking game came under severe criticism for its sideways meanderings and aimless/thoughtless kicking. They have undergone a dramatic reformation, partly through the introduction of some very bright youngsters who seem to have a no-fear approach, encouraged by the management. This has rejuvenated the older generation and driven them to produce a game good enough to trouble all three of the other teams left in the tournament.
Crucially, conditioning levels have shot up. For years in the professional game, fitness has been the Welsh Achilles heel. Not this time round. The pain and sacrifice of the Polish pre-season camp laid strong foundations on which to build a team capable of thriving amid the attritional physicality of a World Cup. Add to this the emergence of a player-led environment off the field, in which people have accepted the imperatives of high-level performance, and it's no surprise that we're seeing this style of rugby from them. I've never doubted that the Welsh possess the wit, imagination and creativity to underpin a quest to match the world's best. Their downfall has been one of endurance. This issue has now been firmly put to bed.
One of the major beneficiaries is the scrum-half Mike Phillips. His star had waned considerably in the months leading into this competition, to the extent that he had become a shadow – sometimes petulant, sometimes merely innocuous – of the player he was on the last Lions tour. Suddenly, he looks like the aggressive game-breaking player we all remember. The other plus is the emergence of the young captain Sam Warburton. Bright and articulate, Warburton deals with the media in an intelligent yet humble manner. Young in years he may be, but he plays the No 7 game like a veteran and is the glue that cements the eclectic young/old mix in the Wales camp. If they win today it will be fantastic to watch him competing against either David Pocock or Richie McCaw in the final tomorrow week.
If? Beware the French. While other teams gather momentum over a period of time, they can do it off the back of a single performance. But how will they vary their attacking game in the face of an aggressive Welsh defence? While Les Bleus are past masters at playing from centre field drives and attacking the short side, I have no doubt that Yachvili's kicking game will have been noted by the men in red. Wales must look to set and maintain a high tempo, so the ability of their line-breakers to force their way on to the front foot and their back row to generate quick ball will be vital. They will certainly need to engage their brains to find a way through, over or around a French defence that varies itself with great subtlety within the context of an unfolding contest.
The other semi-final throws together those arch-protagonists Australia and New Zealand. There is no love lost here, especially with the additional combustible ingredient of a Kiwi coach in Robbie Deans taking on a Kiwi coach in Graham Henry. The Wallabies mounted a remarkable defensive effort against the Springboks last week. Can they possibly repeat this? Much will depend on the willpower of the Aussie forwards and the ability of the backs to pull a few improbable rabbits out of the hat. They have done it before.
All the New Zealand talk has been about the No 10 shirt and there are now two outside-halves in the squad – Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald – who, just a few days ago, were skateboarding and whitebait fishing respectively. Who knows? Maybe this is the ideal preparation at this stage of proceedings. When he played against the Pumas last weekend, Cruden seemed sharp, fresh and wholly unfazed by occasion. But it is essential that the All Blacks offer him strong leadership and support, both off and on the field.
The finalists? There are no easy calls to be made. I'm going for a New Zealand-Wales final, which means those Australians and Frenchmen who have followed my predictions will be delighted.
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