Graft, opportunism and targeting Elliot Daly: How Wales made their own luck to beat England

Charlie Morgan
·8-min read
Liam Williams - Graft, opportunism and targeting Elliot Daly: How Wales made their own luck to beat England - Getty Images
Liam Williams - Graft, opportunism and targeting Elliot Daly: How Wales made their own luck to beat England - Getty Images

Midway through the 2019 Six Nations campaign, while Wales were grinding their way towards the most bloody-minded of Grand Slams, a senior Welsh Rugby Union staff member described Warren Gatland’s men as a “dogs--- side”. He paused, grinned and then added: “You just try to get us off your shoe.”

That stubbornness has resurfaced after the tricky year that began Wayne Pivac’s tenure. A 40-24 win over England, their third consecutive triumph of 2021, has kept them on course for another Grand Slam.

There is a template to beat Eddie Jones’ side. When opponents stay patient and organised in the kicking exchanges, compete hard at the breakdown, work hard defensively and take try-scoring chances, they tend to trouble England.

Wales followed that method. They kicked 36 times, keeping most of them in-field so that the visitors only had five lineouts in the entire game. Their controlled aggression and nous caused England to lose seven of 77 rucks, too. There were moments of fortune, but Wales deserve immense credit as well. Here are three themes of their performance on Saturday.

Pushing limits

This moment, from the second minute of an enthralling game, represented a microcosm of the contest as a whole. Attempting to stretch Wales, England move the ball wide via Owen Farrell to Jonny May.

George North drifts on to the ball-carrier, with Louis Rees-Zammit initially pushing out as well to cover Henry Slade:

Wales
Wales

Rees-Zammit eventually turns and tackles May with the help of North. The latter jackals straightaway, and is awarded a penalty after May is collared for rolling on the ground:

North
North

Now, there is an argument that North commits the first offence. He does not support his bodyweight when flopping on to May. You can see his left arm on the floor:

Rugby
Rugby

Even so, this is a pretty safe area of the field – out of kicking range, close to a touchline – from which to gauge Pascal Gaüzère’s breakdown interpretation. North’s conviction encourages May to roll. That gives Gaüzère a decision to make, and he rewards the defending team.

After two penalties conceded in quick succession by Maro Itoje, Wales went 3-0 ahead.

Staying in the back three, this was a superb piece of scramble defence from Liam Williams on the verge of half-time:

Williams jackal
Williams jackal

It is a jackal turnover reminiscent of his effort for Saracens in the 2019 Champions Cup final against Leinster. North does well again, drifting on the pass of Slade to tackle Elliot Daly.

Williams changes direction, with Anthony Watson over-running his team-mate, and eyes the ball:

Wales
Wales

Although one could argue that his hands scrape the floor, this is as clean a steal as you are likely to see:

Wales
Wales

Rees-Zammit’s electric chase back to down Daly just before the break allowed Wales to stay three points up, rather than potentially surrendering the lead.

Alun Wyn Jones, Wales’ captain, epitomised their perseverance during this second-half passage. First, he leads the chase of Josh Adams’ clearance from a free-kick as it stays in-field:

Wales
Wales

Jones arrives first, and helps Cory Hill to fell Billy Vunipola after a withering collision:

Wales
Wales

By the time England have recycled, and Ben Youngs has fed first-receiver Mako Vunipola, Jones is back on his feet:

Wales
Wales

England’s next carry is dominant. Jones follows the attack, bounding over the breakdown…

Wales
Wales

…and tracks play as the ball is spread to the near touchline:

Wales
Wales

England breach the 22, but Jones is there to confront their narrow carriers. As it happens, Youngs’ pass goes behind them to George Ford. Watch Willis Halaholo:

Wales
Wales

After a midfield carry from Kyle Sinckler, Youngs spins back and feeds Slade. Halaholo makes a perfect lasso tackle and Jones is on the spot with a jackal that prompts Tom Curry to bundle in at the side:

AWJ jackal
AWJ jackal

Jones earns a penalty for 35 seconds of exhausting work.

Another telling factor in Wales’ victory was Pivac’s proactive use of his replacements and the impact they made. Callum Sheedy’s lively break invigorated them at 24-24 and he kicked 13 points in total. Elliot Dee’s jackal forced an important penalty and Hill directed a lineout operation that troubled England before completing the win with a close-range try.

That score starts with Sheedy’s interception. Note where he, Hill and Dee begin as Dan Robson feeds Ford behind three England forwards:

Wales
Wales

Dee and Hill combine to shackle Ellis Genge…

Wales
Wales

…before Robson zig-zags towards the near side. You can see how the integrity of Wales’ defensive line remains intact. Although he has Billly Vunipola, Max Malins and Luke Cowan-Dickie running at him, Sheedy watches Robson…

Wales
Wales

…and slips in front of Malins to snare the pass:

Wales
Wales

Around a minute and a half later, Hill shunts over. The carry from Halaholo, and the recycling of Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric generates ruck-speed that England cannot deal with:

Critically, Wales were often quicker in thought than England.

Always alert

Thanks to his stint at Saracens, Liam Williams will know better than most about the disruptive defence of Maro Itoje. Early on, Wales’ full-back cleverly moves to back up Kieran Hardy’s clearance:

Rugby
Rugby

When Itoje blocks the ball…

Rugby
Rugby

…Williams is on hand to dot down:

Rugby
Rugby

From there, Wales readjusted and added more players to rucks when they were box-kicking:

Rugby
Rugby

Although undoubtedly questionable, the hosts’ first try was borne out of opportunism:

Adams was waiting on the touchline for a while before Dan Biggar struck the decisive cross-kick:

Rugby
Rugby

Eddie Jones has spoken publicly about how England spend quiet moments in games, while the ball is out of play, to regroup. Biggar and Adams have caught them out before, though.

During a Rugby World Cup warm-up Test in August 2019, also overseen by Gaüzère, Willi Heinz headed off the field for a head injury assessment just before Anthony Watson was yellow-carded following a frantic passage of play:

Rugby
Rugby

Biggar hit a cross-kick to Adams while England had 13 men on the field:

Rugby
Rugby

And North scored a phase later:

World Rugby quickly moved to amend the law to state that referees should not be allowed to restart play before a player has been replaced for a head injury assessment or because they are bleeding.

However, that did not apply this weekend. The water-carriers mentioned by Farrell in his protestation to Gaüzère are a red herring. As former Test referee Nigel Owens has stated, Gaüzère’s actions did give Wales an “unfair advantage”. But you cannot blame Adams and Biggar for chancing their arm.

And England did not even heed the warning of Adams’ try. They conceded another from a quickly-taken penalty:

This screenshot, showing Daly with his back turned as Hardy taps, is damning and indicative of England’s carelessness:

Rugby
Rugby

Daly is so important here because he is already back 10 metres. If any other defender, Tom Curry for instance, had touched Hardy before the scrum-half had travelled 10 metres, Gaüzère would almost certainly had sent them to the sin bin. England’s full-back was not engaged, though.

Wales also implemented a strategy that helped them target him with their kicking game.

Flooding the 15

On a few occasions during the game, Wales’ back three of Adams, Liam Williams and Rees-Zammit grouped together in the same 15-metre channel.

Here, Adams has moved across the field from left flank to right to gather a pass from Josh Navidi. This flooding causes England’s wings to press up flat – as Slade and May do in this case:

Rugby
Rugby

That leaves space in behind them, which Daly must cover, and Wales aimed a number of cute kicks towards these pockets. Liam Williams’ try, albeit another one that was awarded controversially following a spill from Rees-Zammit, came from the same tactic.

A Wales lineout move is disrupted by England lock Jonny Hill, who tackles Faletau…

Rugby
Rugby

…but Rees-Zammit helps move the ball towards the near touchline…

Rugby
Rugby

…and stays there with Liam Williams and Adams for company.

Wales zig-zag again, with beautiful passes from Biggar and Adam Beard sending Faletau charging into the 22:

Biggar and Beard passes
Biggar and Beard passes

Two phases later, a grubber from Adams slides into the pocket of space behind England’s defensive line and in front of Daly. Rees-Zammit arrives first, with Liam Williams backing up to score following the approval of television match official Alexandre Ruiz:

Rees-Zammit’s electric pace over the ground enhanced Wales’ kicking game. Here, he speeds through to pressure Daly from Hardy’s box-kick. An England knock-on falls into Mako Vunipola, and Wales have another penalty that led to Hardy’s try:

LRZ pace
LRZ pace

Here, in the 73rd minute, Gareth Davies goes to the air. Dan Robson is wary of Rees-Zammit…

Wales
Wales

…and is too obvious with a blocking line intended to protect May:

Rugby
Rugby

This is very similar to the penalty conceded by Watson during the final of Rugby World Cup 2019 against South Africa.

Twelve of England’s 15 starters on Saturday in Cardiff also started that loss to the Springboks.

Wales tailored a gameplan to familiar foes, put it into practice and came out on top. For all the debate about refereeing decisions, nobody should forget that.