It’s not often a team’s style of play is named after their coach, but Warren Gatland’s success with Wales quickly saw that become the case.
Sadly for the New Zealander – despite Six Nations titles, Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final – so-called ‘Warrenball’ didn’t always create positive headlines.
The argument put forward by critics of Gatland’s approach was Wales’ way of doing things was dull, unimaginative and based purely on the need for raw power to cross the gain line.
And while it’s undeniable Gatland led his team to a period of unprecedented success using exactly that formula, it’s also true to say Warrenball is now if perhaps not totally dead and buried, then certainly in the rear-view mirror. As rugby and other sides have moved on, so too have Wales.
Under the guidance of interim head coach Rob Howley, the men in red have realised they must evolve their attacking game, play with more width and rely on more than one one-off ball carriers crashing into the opposition defence.
Wales’ commitment to a wider game was first in evidence under Gatland on last summer’s tour of New Zealand. So, as another Six Nations approaches, what will it mean for their hopes of a first title since 2013?
Time will tell, but to analyse the changes Wales are looking to implement it is at first necessary to examine their series against the All Blacks, one which ended in a 3-0 defeat.
The nature of the scoreline was no surprise, but what did shock was Wales’ ability to play with width and tempo. With Rhys Webb prompting at scrum-half and Liam Williams thriving at full-back in the first Test, Wales led 18-15 at half time of the opener at Eden Park.
That 40 minutes in Auckland was the first sign Wales were willing to shake things up behind the scrum and while the November clashes in Cardiff saw more criticism directed at Howley over a perceived lack of flair, the commitment to a new style remains.
The introduction of Howley’s ex-Wasps team-mate Alex King as interim attack coach is also designed to quicken that transition with it more than clear the former Wasps fly-half is already having a big impact.
“Kingy has had his own stamp and it’s about getting used to that now,” said Justin Tipuric, one of Wales’ most creative players and a running threat who could benefit hugely from a change in game plan.
“Everyone is trying to learn where we want to be and the structures we’ve got to be into. It’s a little bit new for everyone, but hopefully we can start with a bang and can play some nice rugby.”
Howley continually talks about the need to earn the right to go wide, but the selection of Scott Williams in the No 12 jersey points to his determination to do that earlier than in the past. For so long Wales have selected the giant Jamie Roberts at inside centre, relying on him and their forward pack to blast holes in the opposition and create space for their back three.
Williams, who is the form Welsh midfielder, has that ability but is much more of a runner and distributor at second receiver, offering Howley the kind of axis England head coach Eddie Jones has used to such great effect with George Ford and Owen Farrell.
It will be Williams’ job, as well as Dan Biggar’s at fly-half, to bring the most out of the talented Welsh back three, so expect the Scarlets ace to look to spread the ball wide much earlier in phase play in the weeks ahead.
There will be times when Wales need to revert to raw power, but it’s Williams and Biggar who hold the key to switching play from side-to-side. That’s what Wales have been working on in the last few weeks, with the utmost importance placed on delivering skills under pressure and fatigue.
It all points to a potentially exciting period for a Wales side who have hardly failed to entertain in recent Six Nations campaigns. With 17 tries in last season’s tournament and George North, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny in his back three, Howley doesn’t lack for talent.
A closer look at the numbers also suggests Wales positively thrive off the chance to play in open spaces, scoring the most tries from turnover ball in last year’s championship with five, and boasting a points-for total of 150, the most of any team.
That was all before Wales’ change of emphasis so if those numbers – ones albeit slightly skewed by a thrashing of Italy – were being recorded last year, what could happen this?
“There’s a certain part of rugby in Wales that means you need to play in a way that excites supporters,” King said in the run-up to the tournament.
“That’s the duty of the Welsh team. The bonus points system adds a new incentive for attacking rugby and if we attack well, we’ll get those rewards.”
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