When Eddie Jones starts trying to unsettle you with mind games in the build-up to a pivotal 6 Nations test match, the chances are that you’re doing something right.
Yesterday, it was Rhys Patchell who found himself in the crosshairs. Jones, as he tends to do, lobbed a few grenades into the buildup for his side’s Saturday encounter with Wales by claiming that Patchell might lack the “bottle” to succeed in a game of such gravity, pointing out that the Scarlets man was only his side’s “third choice” fly-half, and suggesting that he would be specifically targeted during the game.
Of course, Jones clearly deems Patchell a player worth unsettling; this actually reveals that he sees him as a pretty important cog in the Welsh machine. Jones, like so many others, will have noted Patchell’s performance in Wales’ demolition of a poor Scottish side last weekend, and knows that throwing him off his stride will dramatically increase England’s chance of a victory.
Patchell may well not be Wales’ first choice but, when Dan Biggar was struck down by injury a few weeks before the start of the Championship, my initial instinct was that it might have been a blessing in disguise for them. It’s no secret that Wales want to play a new brand of fast, flat, Scarlets-inspired rugby and, while Biggar is an excellent game manager and distributor, the depth at which he stands in attack makes him an imperfect fit for such a system.
On the contrary, it was Patchell’s composure and execution right up on the tackle-line that repeatedly opened up Scotland last weekend. In this piece we’re going to take a look at some examples of this, and ask, if England remain intent on rushing up to blitz him on Saturday, whether this might play exactly to his strengths.
Playing the defence you’re dealt
One of the things for which the Scarlets have become known is their willingness to play what is in front of them, attacking from all areas with an insouciant, ad hoc enjoyment. Patchell is crucial to this, and he was so for Wales after just 8 minutes against Scotland, when he put Aaron Shingler through a gaping whole for what should have resulted in a try:
Before we go on to examine this in more detail, however, let’s look at how the opportunity came about. We join the play as Wales, having fielded the restart from their first score, look to exit via a Gareth Davies box-kick:
We can see above that Scotland expect him to do just this, with six players clustered very close to the ruck, jostling for a potential charge-down.
Patchell, standing at first receiver, clearly notices this: just as Davies is preparing to box, he clearly gets a call from his fly-half that a wide play is on the cards. So ready is Davies to kick that he actually ends up turning a full 180 degrees and throwing the pass with his left hand:
The pass is a beauty. As Patchell takes it, we can see the opportunity unfolding:
Patchell travels forward with the ball in order to hold John Barclay (white), while Josh Navidi runs a short line targeted at the gap between Huw Jones and the Scotland skipper (red). This line has clearly been effective, since we can see above how Jones plants his right foot, stepping inside in anticipation of a tackle on the Welsh openside. Jones’ move to plug this gap, in turn, leaves space for Leigh Halfpenny to arc around behind; this is the option Wales take, and they make good ground down the left-hand side.
When Hadleigh Parkes is eventually scragged near halfway, Wales recycle well. If we freeze the play as Davies distributes to Patchell, we can see that the speed of ball, coupled with Scotland’s retreating defence, have left Gregor Townsend’s men with some alignment issues:
Given that Leigh Halfpenny is stationary and uninterested, the alignment of defenders to attackers should be according to the numbers above. But Gordon Reid, as the first man out from the ruck guard, has found himself too narrow to pressurise the first receiver of Patchell (yellow); as a result, Scotland are actually outnumbered in the channel just inside the 15-metre line.
Consequently, an aggressive blitz is really not on. In fact, they should easily be able to absorb a few phases and regroup, since Wales are not really in a position to attack wide: as we can see above, all six of their numbered attacking players are forwards, with four the proud owners of tight-five membership cards.
But Scotland fly out of defence regardless: Toolis rushes out to nail out the corresponding third man out from the ruck (red above), while McInally, seeing that Reid is too narrow, switches his focus to Patchell and shoots recklessly out of the line (blue).
As Patchell takes the pass, we can see the effect of this decision:
The divergent lines of Toolis and McInally have created a huge gap through which the now-unmarked Shingler can stride (red). But look at Patchell here: knowing that McInally is flying out of the line to close the gap between them (yellow), he has planted his feet and is almost leaning backwards, tempting the Scottish hooker into a dominant hit. He is letting the speed of his forward and the speed of the defender do the work for him: it is such simple rugby, but executed really deftly under intense pressure.
Here is the break from the rear camera, where we can really see just how this gap opens up:
Toolis took a lot of blame for this defensive lapse, but I think McInally is equally culpable. In operating a blitz defence, knowing when not to fly out of the line is just as important on knowing when it’s on, and, at times like these, sometimes a few extra metres need to be sacrificed in order to allow your defence time to transition effectively. What’s impressive, however, is how well Patchell encourages and manipulates this defensive aggression to his advantage: if Eddie Jones’ England are to pressurise him, they will have to do so far more intelligently than this.
Finding the edge
One of the most familiar attack patterns used by the Scarlets (and now by Wales) is to subdue a defence’s front-foot blitz by loading the blindside with a high number of players in order to generate easy momentum. Having sucked in as many defenders as possible, the attack side will then bounce back to the openside, hoping to get around the “edge” of a narrowed defensive line.
As shown in this excellent little video, Wales looked for this “edge” all afternoon against Scotland:
In the 52nd minute, however, we got a superb example of how exactly how Wales worked these opportunities within their phase pattern. We join the play where, having run a number of phases to the blindside, Davies thinks about playing that way again:
But look at Jones here: he is telling his teammates that the right-hand side of the ruck is already well-resourced, and that no more players need to fold around in support. Davies accordingly decides to play the other way.
As the ball is recycled, it becomes clear why:
As we can see, Wales have succeeded in drawing four front-line Scottish defenders to the far side of the ruck, where only two Welsh attackers are standing. The arithmetic here is clear: there must be space on the openside. Once again, therefore, this is not the time for a Scottish blitz: clearly outnumbered out wide, they need to jockey laterally as much as possible and buy their inside defenders time to cover across.
On the referee’s microphone, however, we can clearly hear a Scottish cry of “Get up!”, as they seem determined to fly out of the line regardless (red). Wales, however, have a established a clear punch pod of three forwards who are ready to hold these inside defenders: the chance is very much on.
As Davies passes, Wales’ intentions become clear:
As he runs past referee Pascal Gauzere, Davies can clearly be heard telling his team-mates to “Get to an edge!” Wales have clearly focused in training on finding the “edge” of any Scottish blitz and, as Wyn Jones aims a good pull-back pass to Patchell, we can see exactly how they go about doing this. Navidi’s line (red) has been enough to lure in Ryan Wilson, and this allows Patchell to arc around behind to target the space between Wilson and Barclay (yellow).
As he takes the pass from his replacement prop, Patchell surveys the situation:
With Wilson rushing up as he has, Barclay has had no choice but to go with him, since- had he remained near the blue circle above – he would have left a cavernous “dog-leg” gap through which Moriarty could have strode (black). Barclay, then, is now the “edge” that Wales have been seeking. Seeing that the Scotland skipper has flown up, Patchell recognises that Cory Hill is headed for the clear space outside him (yellow), and so fires a perfect flat pass to his second row. Hill strides between Barclay and the hopelessly-out-of-position Byron McGuigan and, again, Wales should probably have scored.
Below, we can see all of these elements combine in what was a very stylish attack:
Again, the Scottish attempts to pressurise Patchell and Co. were hopelessly disorganised. Once more, however, Patchell’s ability to locate the “edges” and gaps of their aggressive blitz, all while under serious pressure, will be hugely encouraging for Welsh fans heading into the weekend.
It is never nice to hammer sides who have taken heavy beatings. This viewer has also been hugely positive about Scotland in the recent past, when they played so well against the All Blacks at Murrayfield. It really needs to be stressed, however, that Scotland were defensively woeful against Wales, and this was proved again in the 70th minute; even after Patchell had done off, they still managed to replicate very similar errors to those detailed above.
We join the play as Gareth Anscombe (who replaced Patchell) takes a pass from Aled Davies:
Again, Scotland try to blitz, this time led by the shooter of Murray McCallum (blue). But, as we can see, McCallum and Peter Horne (perhaps as more energetic replacements) have charged up ahead of their teammates (yellow). This creates a textbook “dog-leg” gap between Horne and Barclay, which Alun-Wyn Jones targets with a very intelligent line (red). Initially angling outwards, he drags Horne towards the touchline, before arcing back in towards the Scotland man’s inside shoulder.
The delay on Anscombe’s pass is exemplary, as he releases the ball milliseconds before contact…
… and, as we can see, Horne’s eyes are fixed firmly on the ball (blue). This means that he does not see Jones’ late change of direction, and the Welsh skipper steams through the gap:
Once more, Wales fluff their lines, and you could argue that Scotland were lucky to escape without a more severe hiding. For me, though, this example indicates what Wales gain without Biggar in the side: in Patchell and Anscombe, they have two fly-halves who are comfortable playing right on the tackle line, and that combination really suits the new style of rugby that they are trying to implement.
So, why has this worried Eddie Jones? Well, a quick look at Italy’s 20th-minute score against England on Sunday actually highlights some defensive frailties similar to the ones exploited above.
As Italy recycle the ball, England are not set defensively: there is a vast gap between Owen Farrell and Jonny May (red) and, as we can see, Danny Care is only just covering around to plug it (blue). Look at Negri signalling to his scrum-half: he knows a chance is on.
Given their disorganisation, England shouldn’t blitz here. We can see above, however, that Farrell is already pumping his legs to rush out of the line. Italy execute a simple pull-back play, with Andrea Lovotti passing behind the “screen” of Leonardo Ghiraldini to his fly-half Tommy Allan on the loop (yellow).
Allan takes the pass and, as Farrell rushes up, Care has to go with him…
… and, as we can see, Jonny May must now rush in off his wing to shut down the immediate space to the right of the Italian fly-half. The consequence of this is that he leaves a space (the blue circle) into which Allan can fire a loopy pass to put his winger over.
He produces the goods, and it is a super score by Italy:
It is interesting that, when talking about Patchell, Eddie Jones specifically said that “he is going to have [Chris] Robshaw at him, Farrell at him”. Wales fans will surely be hoping, then, that they come “at him” in the manner above, deciding to fly out of the line when it is not necessarily advisable.
To be clear: England will certainly defend better than Scotland. But if they are instructed to target Patchell from the first minute, they will have to do so intelligently and with restraint. This is because, if his performance against Scotland is anything to go by, a constantly onrushing defence might suit him right down to the ground.