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Six Nations analysis: Five ways Ireland can beat Wales

Tactical areas that can give Ireland an edge include Wales’s inability to scramble in defence and a poor kicking and territory game

Given their recent record — Wales have won just once in their last 10 Six Nations matches — little was expected of them in this Six Nations. Head coach Warren Gatland doubled down on this expectation somewhat, opting for an injection of inexperienced players into this year’s squad.

However, having just lost to Scotland and England by a combined three points in their opening matches, the mood music across the Irish Sea has not been as negative as anticipated.

Regardless, what we have seen of Wales so far this year still paints a picture of a flawed team with several weaknesses that play into Ireland’s hands. Here are the five tactical areas Andy Farrell’s side can best exploit to secure victory.

Play keep ball

Ireland’s favoured ploy of holding on to the ball could match well against Wales’s defensive frailty.


Tackle success is a flawed statistic which doesn’t offer a lot of context, but here it is useful. In their round-one defeat to Scotland, Wales’s successful tackle rate of 92 per cent was the highest of any team that weekend. However, when they did miss a tackle, things went to pot. Of the tackles they missed, a staggeringly high 23 per cent led directly to tries.

After the England game, that number dropped to 17.1 per cent, but it is still the worst figure in the competition. In other words, Wales’s ability to make one-off tackles is good, but their scramble defence is poor.

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Ireland, a side that looks to patiently build phases in attack, have an average possession figure of 60 per cent over the first two rounds. Ireland’s attack under Mike Catt is renowned for holding on to the ball for long periods, manipulating a defence into conceding a line break.

Warren Gatland’s side may well repel the first initial wave of attack, but if Ireland can avoid being turned over and patiently open up a gap, they should capitalise on Wales’ inability to scramble.

Power outage

Wales have received plenty of praise for their wide attack so far in this year’s Six Nations. However, the numbers tell us they don’t go wide that often. This year, Wales move the ball more than 10m from the ruck 45 per cent of the time, the lowest of any team in the championship. They play wider than the first receiver just 18 per cent of the time, the second lowest figure in the Six Nations.

While their better attacking moments have come in the wide channels — think of Alex Mann’s try vs England — Wales appear to be sticking to the unwritten law of earning the right to go wide, reflecting the importance of first softening up the middle of the defence. They have had little success, reflecting a truth that has been evident for some time now: Wales do not have the heft to carry through teams up front.

Last year, Wales had the lowest dominant carry rate of any tier-one nation — 15 per cent. In this year’s tournament, Wales have crossed the gainline on just 36.5 per cent of their carries; only Italy have a worse number.

While they have shown the threat of their back three out wide, Wales do not have the bulk of previous Gatland sides to open up space for them. Against an Irish side featuring significantly more power, this trend should not change.

Kicking woes

Wales’s game management has been substandard so far in this Six Nations. The headline number from their defeat to England was territory, with Gatland’s side securing just 39 per cent.

The Welsh figure against Scotland was better (54 per cent), but was largely on the back of a madcap second half where the Scots were at one stage down to 13 men.

Given the importance of kicking for territory in today’s game, Wales have not impressed of late. Against Scotland, they averaged 29.2m per kick, lower than the opposition figure of 32.8. Similarly against England, Wales kicked more (33 times vs 32) but for significantly less distance (703m vs 883).

In that match at Twickenham, Wales were often forced to kick by poor attacking phase play, rather than setting up to pin England back in their own half. The results of this were twofold. First, the quality was poor, meaning negligible territorial gain. Second, the kick chase was disorganised, allowing England to wreak havoc.

Twice in the first five minutes, England broke through while returning a kick. With chasers not linking together in the defensive line, England found it far too easy to identify gaps.

If Wales continue to kick under pressure and with a poor chase, Ireland will miss Hugo Keenan and his running ability when breaking from deep. Regardless, with the likes of James Lowe still present, Andy Farrell’s side should still win the kicking/territory battle.

Set piece

As always, the set piece will be a key area given the platform it can provide an attack. At the scrum, Wales won a quarter of their scrums via a penalty, with only England and France ahead of them. Bear in mind one of Wales’s games this year was against England, a side widely backed to cause Ireland scrum problems when they meet in Twickenham in a fortnight.

Conversely, while Wales might look at the Irish scrum as an area of potential dominance, their depth in that area does not look strong. Against England, when the replacement Welsh front row came on they gave away multiple free-kicks and penalties for instability. By contrast, Ireland will back their depth even if they have a debutant prop on the bench in Oli Jager.

Where Ireland have a clear statistical advantage is the lineout. Wales’s success rate of 77.8 per cent is the second lowest of the tournament ahead of only Italy, while Ireland are top of the pops.

Another intriguing area will be the maul. Wales make a lot of ground with their rolling maul, averaging the second-highest metres per game (16.5), but this comes at a cost. Just 71.4 per cent of Welsh mauls result in the ball coming back on their side, the worst figure in the competition.

Where’s Tommy?

The shining light of Wales’s campaign so far has undoubtedly been Tommy Reffell. The backrow has been a menace at the breakdown, winning five turnovers in just two games. The next best in the Six Nations is Gregory Alldritt with three.

Equally, Reffell’s arrival at 24 defensive breakdowns is second only to Ben Earl of England. The Welsh man has been effective at slowing the ball down or turning it over at 29.2 per cent of those arrivals — no one who hit at least 10 defensive rucks ranks better.

Leinster played against Reffell’s club, Leicester, in the Champions Cup last month. There, Reffell went off after 30 minutes with a head injury. While he was on the pitch, his impact was somewhat nullified. Consciously or otherwise, Leinster forced Reffell into making several tackles — it’s hard to win a breakdown steal if you’re the one making the tackle.

Something else to note is Saturday’s referee. Italian Andrea Piardi will be in charge at the Aviva and he was the man in the middle at Welford Road. At the one breakdown where Reffell did threaten a turnover, he was penalised for having his elbows on the floor.

He was not the only one penalised for such an offence. If Piardi continues to be very strict on poachers on Saturday, that could work against Reffell and in Ireland’s favour.