How It Was Scored: What Liam Williams’ Try vs England Might Mean for the Lions

liam-williams-dive

Hello again, everyone! In this series of posts, which I’ve rather unimaginatively called ‘How it was Scored’, I’m going to be taking a really close look at how great tries are, well… scored. I’ll be picking apart how certain moves are planned, engineered and executed, hoping to give you an insight into how they function.

The first one I’m going to look at is Liam Williams’ superb first-phase score against England in the last round of the 6 Nations, which could have been pivotal in the match had Wales taken their chances. I’m going to have a look at how the move works, why it was successful and, perhaps most interestingly, whether it offers a clue as to how the British & Irish Lions might play this summer.

So here it is, in all its glory, from the main camera:

williams-try-main-camera

To any set-play boffins out there, this will be instantly recognizable as an “X” move: a play in which the two centres’ running lines cross before a short pass is given behind the dummy crash-ball option to the winger. It’s true that this is play is not uncommon, but there are a few points to this specific example that make it even more intelligent.

First, however, a step-by-step explanation of this great little move, in regular English.

As the ball comes back the feet of Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb scuttles away from the scrum to take the pass from his Number 8. At the same time, we can see that Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph (the two circled players wider of the scrum) have numbered up on Wales and are rushing up hard on Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams:

Wales Initial Line Setup.jpg

Webb’s little dart is actually essential to the move, as he needs to fix George Ford (the circled player first out from the scrum) to leave Farrell one-on-one with the next attacker out.

As we move the play on a few frames, something is clearly happening in the Welsh centres. At full-tilt, S. Williams has crossed in front of Davies, running a really aggressive line aimed at 10/12 channel (that is, the gap between Ford and Farrell). But for the moment, look at how Davies and Dan Biggar are arcing round behind him to offer Webb wide passing options:

joseph-goes-wide

It is important here that Biggar and Davies remain viable options for Webb. The screened-pass move, where a crash-ball runner acts as a foil for a wider one, is now ubiquitous in Rugby Union, and Joseph clearly reads that there is a real risk of England being caught on the outside. Consequently, he jockeys towards the touchline (as indicated by the arrow above), and this half-creates the gap that will lead to the try.

Turning to S. Williams, the function of his line is to widen that gap by occupying Farrell. In this, he very clearly succeeds; look at how the England centre plants his yellow left boot, committing to step in and support Ford in any coming tackle:

Farrell Checks His Run.jpg

This is one aspect of the move that is much cleverer than it first appears. Anyone who watched the game saw how the diminutive Ford was repeatedly targeted from the first whistle, as the powerful Welsh ball-carriers were habitually sent stampeding down his channel. This would have put Farrell on high alert for exactly the kind of line that S. Williams hits here, and, worried about Ford being smashed again, he makes the early decision to step in and protect his fly-half.

Of course, S. Williams’ line is on this occasion a dummy one, and this is really intelligent variation of play from Wales: a terrific example of how set-play moves must be devised to work within a coherent game-plan.

With the two dummy options having split the Englsh centres, then, Webb’s pass goes behind the charging S. Williams to his namesake Liam, who finds himself in front of a gaping hole in the defensive line:

Williams Take the Pass.jpg

This is a brilliantly polished play, and multiple players fulfill their roles expertly. But the main challenge in executing it effectively is that the scrum-half’s pass has to be perfectly timed. If Webb gives the ball too early, Joseph and Farrell step in and nail L. Williams with a crunching two-man tackle; if he holds onto the ball for too long, he is wrapped up by Ford and Jack Clifford is presented with a prime turnover opportunity.

From the overhead camera, we can observe all of the above taking place, as well as admire the immaculate timing of the pass from Webb. See how he clings onto the ball for that extra split-second, sucking in Ford and allowing the gap to widen as much as possible:

williams-try-top-camera

This is the kind of footage that will have Rob Howley, Wales’ current Head Coach, grinning from ear to ear. And to finish, I just want to take a quick look at where we have seen variations of this move from Howley in the past. He was the Lions’ Attack Coach on their 2013 tour of Australia (a role, of course, that he will of reprise in New Zealand this year), and as a result will have had a major say in devising the plays for that side. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at Alex Cuthbert’s score in the first 2013 Test against the Wallabies:

Cuthbert Try Main Camera.gif

This play might look very different from L. Williams’ recent score, but it isn’t. The principle is exactly the same: the only differences are that a) the play is executed off 10 rather than 9, and b) that it is run off third-phase rather than first-phase ball.

If we freeze the footage as Tom Youngs carries soon after a lineout, we can clearly see Johnny Sexton calling the pre-arranged play to his backs:

sexton-calling-the-play

By the time the ball is recycled, Cuthbert has clearly followed Sexton’s orders and tracked round from behind the forwards into the backline, ready to receive a pass he knows is coming. The similarities between these two tries are even more obvious if we roll the footage from the front camera:

cuthbert-try-front-camera

Davies plays exactly the same role in the Lions move as he does in the Welsh one nearly four years later. As he moves behind Brian O’Driscoll to drag Michael Hooper wider, the Irish centre’s hard, short line fixes James O’Connor, before Sexton’s beautifully-timed pass allows Cuthbert to glide through the split-open Wallaby defence. It’ s a beautiful try: one worthy of the stage it’s scored on.

This is of, of course, just a pair of similar moves, and we should be wary about reading too much into such observations. But Howley’s ideas that influence how the Lions attack the All Blacks this coming summer will not be worlds apart from how he instructs his Welsh backs to play for the remainder of the 6 Nations, and we should bear that in mind.

So, although we may well criticise Wales for an attack that is too frequently blunt and unimaginative, Lions supporters should pay close attention to its patterns: after all, there’s a decent chance we’ll be seeing them again in New Zealand.

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