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Wales’ backroom team under pressure as Stephen Jones faces questions over ‘inexcusable’ decline

When Clive Woodward coached England he tried to cover all bases to the point where his back-up team even included a visual awareness coach. Cut to Wales heading for the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. They had the visual awareness side of things covered only in the sense that head coach Tony Gray wore glasses.

Woodward knew that nothing could be left to chance if England were to realise their potential. His back-up staff also included goal-kicking guru Dave Alred, acknowledged as one of the best on the planet at what he did; Simon Hardy contributed expertise at the lineouts; Phil Larder looked after the defence, with the visionary Brian Ashton and Andy Robinson acting as the head coach’s frontline assistants.

One pundit at the time said Woodward had gone for gold in bringing together such individuals. The same individual was less than flattering about some of those around Graham Henry 30 months earlier, referring to them brutally as second-raters and nodding dogs. That was harsh because Wales had beaten Argentina, South Africa, England and France in the Henry era. The problem at the time was the club game was in a state, with too many professional clubs and talent and resources spread too thinly.

Read more: Wayne Pivac’s potential Wales replacements if WRU did decide to pull trigger

But quality coaching support is ultra-important important. How have front-line members of Wayne Pivac’s backroom team performed in this Six Nations? Let’s be generous and say they have enjoyed mixed fortunes. Rugby correspondent Mark Orders takes a closer look:

Stephen Jones (attack coach)

The former Wales fly-half made his name as a coach when he and Pivac guided the Scarlets to the PRO12 title in 2017. The success was notable for the style with which the west Walians played, with moves executed with boldness and skill as the team proved devastating off turnover ball.

Players were comfortable with ball in hand and were prepared to attack from anywhere on the pitch, highlighted in the wins over Leinster (27-15) in the semi-finals and Munster (46-22) in the final. Some of the rugby produced in those games was the best dished up by a Welsh team in the professional era.

As backs coach, Jones played a key role in the success and was deservedly feted for his input.

Few quibbled with his appointment as Wales attack coach in 2019. Nor were there too many moans when Wales scored 20 tries in the Six Nations last term.

But in this season’s championship Wales’ attack has been dreadful. The team have managed only eight touchdowns, with the tally of just four assists the lowest of the six teams. By contrast, Ireland bagged 24 tries with 18 assists, France 17 maximums and 15 assists.

Wales haven’t been clinical, blowing countless opportunities over the five rounds of rugby. Against Italy, four golden chances were spurned and one lineout in a decent attacking position went awry, interestingly not the fault of the hooker Dewi Lake but the result of the lift being missed.

“The thing with Wales is from their own line up until the opposition 22 they are very good,” said Sam Warburton in his analysis for Six Nations Rugby Special. “They are good at the kicking battle – Dan Biggar’s been brilliant there – and they can get the territory. But when they get into the 22 they don’t capitalise.”

There followed five examples of Welsh entries into the Italian 22 which yielded nothing. “Against the All Blacks that’s still not a good stat,” Warburton added. “Against Italy, it’s inexcusable.”

In the first three rounds of the championship, Wales had the fifth slowest rugby speed in the championship, with only Italy below them. By contrast, France showed how to be clinical against England, spending just 46 seconds in the opposition’s 22 last weekend, compared to the visitors’ seven minutes and 29 seconds, yet still ran out comfortable winners. The analytics people Opta revealed that 39% of Les Bleus’ attacking rucks were completed in less than two seconds. That isn’t just quick. It’s blindingly quick.

Some of Wales’ build-up work against Italy seemed slow by comparison. Once or twice, it seemed slow as inching forward slow, setting up camp, erecting tents, having a meeting, sending out someone on reconnaissance then edging another inch or two forward before going through the same routine all over again.

Passes were imprecise at key times, and how Wyn Jones failed to score, barely a metre from his line and Taulupe Faletau assisting him and only Braam Steyn directly in front of him, remains one of the mysteries of our time.

“Look at how pedestrian Wales are,” lamented Sean Holley when analysing on BBC Wales’ Scrum V Six Nations Special. “You are not going to break down Cwmavon Under-13s, let alone Italy, let alone France.” It’s an understatement to say not everyone appeared on the same page. Some didn’t appear to be reading the same book.

Wales have also lacked creativity at times and have chopped and changed in key areas in selection.

Jones will know their attack has often been ugly and ineffectual. Much work to do, then, and, ultimately, the buck stops with him on this one.

Neil Jenkins (kicking/skills)

Wales goal-kicking has largely been very good. In three games they have returned a 100% in front of goal. It makes you wonder why they don’t aim for the sticks more often from penalties. Frequently, they have spurned opportunities of three points, only to see their subsequent attacks from lineouts come to nothing.

They didn’t attempt a single penalty shot at the posts against Ireland, England or Italy. That just seems odd when they have one of the best goal-kickers in the world in their side in Dan Biggar. It’s a statement of the obvious to say a succession of three pointers adds up. Certainly, it could have been a means of discouraging Italy last weekend.

None of which is Jenkins’ fault, though it might be worth him asking why Wales don’t take points-scoring opportunities as they arise.

Jenkins would have been seething at the miserable kick-chase which allowed Ange Capuozzo the time and space to slice open Wales late on last weekend, with Edoardo Padovani’s try resulting. The coach can do nothing about that one, but he will doubtless have pointed out to the slow, sometimes non-existent, chasers who failed to do enough to stop Capuozzo that their efforts were simply not good enough.

If Wales’ skills have been deficient in certain areas, their kicking has been very good. Against France it was world-class. Jenkins is a coach who finishes the tournament more in credit than not.

Gareth Williams (assistant coach, breakdown)

Warren Gatland reckoned one of the most invaluable pieces of advice he ever received in rugby was from Ireland great Paul O’Connell, with the lock telling the Lions squad: “Let’s be the best at everything that requires no talent.”

“It’s a piece of advice I use to this every day,” Gatland declared. What would he have felt, then, about players failing to kick chase and, more relevantly for this section, failing to win races to the breakdown?

Against Italy, Wales saw several breakdowns going haywire because players didn’t arrive before opponents who were hungry and fired up from the start. Occasionally, the clearout technique of certain individuals was not of Test standard – perhaps not of Welsh Premiership standard in one or two instances. Again, the Italians were superior in many respects, driven by a seeming desperation for victory. When they attacked rucks the likes of Daniel Fischetti seemed to believe he wasn’t going to lose. The odd Welsh player seemed to have the attitude he wasn’t going to win. We can exempt a few from this, notably Josh Navid, who won three turnovers on the day.

And maybe Williams could remind every player in his squad it isn’t just the job of the back row to contribute at the breakdown. Perhaps he could show them footage of a late-career Brian O’Driscoll. It wasn’t just dashing breaks and determined tackling that made him so invaluable to Ireland and Leinster. As his career unfolded, O’Driscoll also became an exceptional jackaller. In fact, he became as good over the ball as some world-class sevens. Wales need players from every department of their side chipping in at the breakdown.

Undoubtedly, they have missed Jake Ball with his torpedo-like clearouts. How invaluable were those during the last World Cup?

Discipline has also been a problem at the breakdown, with the England game seeing a spate of penalties conceded by the team in red. Carriers were often left isolated, with clearouts not up to standard and Wales sometimes not lacking the power and physicality to do the job. Some penalties were inexcusable for international players.

Wales have missed the rugby intelligence and organisational skills of Justin Tipuric, as well. For Williams, there is plenty of work to do.

Jonathan Humphreys (forwards)

There have been some positives here in this campaign. Wales’ scrum hasn’t been shoved around, not even by France or Ireland. Tomas Francis had a fine campaign, not conceding a single penalty according to the official figures, while Gareth Thomas and Wyn Jones have banged in decent setpiece efforts.

Despite the lineout going wrong at key points, with Wales lacking composure and precision, matters have picked up in this area, too, with Adam Beard making a decent job of calling and Will Rowlands pinching more lineouts than anyone else in the competition and also proving safe on his own ball.

When Seb Davies started against France, Wales had all areas of the lineout covered and the French setpiece didn’t function as expected. Wales’ driving maul has been a useful weapon, too, with a couple of tries resulting.

But it’s not pluses all the way. Wales still don’t boast enough forwards who carry ball.

The stat which saw starting props Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis fail to make a single metre between them as carriers against England was startling. Gareth Thomas has come into the run-on XV not least because he can take the ball forward as well as scrummage, but all Wales’ props need to look at Ellis Genge’s figures in the loose this term. He has carried the ball more times than Antoine Dupont and made more metres as well. Let’s say from somewhere he’s turned himself into a thoroughly modern prop, even if his scrummaging still needs some attention.

The two hookers have scored well in the running part of the game, with both Ryan Elias and Dewi Lake having fine tournaments, while Rowlands has been up to scratch here, too. Taulupe Faletau remains imperious in this and other areas.

But there’s scope for the Wales pack generally to improve. A number of players need to work at their handlings and carrying skills while improving their work at the breakdown.

Picking players in specialist positions might help, too. Humphreys will have identified all this.

Now he has to act on such information. If you were compiling a school report, he’d probably find ‘could still do better’ next to his name.

Gethin Jenkins (defence)

After the opening weekend pummelling from Ireland in Dublin, when they conceded four tries, Wales’ defence tightened up considerably. They had their line crossed just four times over the rest of the tournament, with their effort against France particularly impressive.

It’s still a fair way from the Shaun Edwards-inspired rearguard of 2008 which saw Wales leak just two tries throughout the tournament, but the class of 2022 has worked hard under Gethin Jenkins, making 766 tackles — more than any other side in the tournament bar Italy.

They have also made 30 dominant hits, the third highest tally in the tournament this year, with Owen Watkin supplying four of them.

Jenkins will want to lower the number of tackles his players are missing because it’s still too many, not least because opponents are pressuring Wales and forcing them to pile up so many defensive actions.

But Jenkins seems to be settling into his role. In credit, then.

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