The former Welsh skipper says he is already ’emotionally exhausted’ from watching Wales do battle in this nightmare World Cup group
This really is a brutal group. We are barely halfway through the pool matches and I am emotionally exhausted from just watching.
Somehow, the players must gather themselves for a very different challenge against Fiji, but it’s far easier to do that after a win.
Last Saturday was a tactical master-class by the Wales coaching team. They provided the template for the victory, and with endless tenacity the players delivered that strategy.
Warren Gatland has been criticised in the past for being predictable and inflexible. But it is likely that Wales will play a very different kind of rugby against Fiji than what we saw against England.
Wales needed to break the game open against England and managed to change the shape of the encounter. The quick tap penalty taken at the start of the second half and the novel lineout throw over the top to Taulupe Faletau gave Wales the initiative despite being behind on the scoreboard.
However, the most impressive tactical change that Wales enacted was the way they succeeded in isolating the English centres throughout the game.
The Welsh backline deliberately stood much wider going forward than usual. There were big gaps between Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams in midfield.
It was striking how often we saw deep passes moving the ball from one side of the pitch to the other. It was not ‘Warrenball’ as we know it, punching the ball up after a pass or two from the ruck.
This exposed Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt to open spaces and, as predicted, Burgess turned inwards looking for a big hit leaving Barritt alone. He looked hesitant and outpaced in the unfamiliar wider channel.
It was a game plan that worked perfectly, creating one try and putting Williams clean through on another occasion. Had the set piece been more secure it would have carved open many more Welsh opportunities.
However, Wales will want the opposite of this unstructured open game against Fiji. Wales will hope to be dominant in the scrum and lineout on Thursday afternoon. Ideally they will want to get penalties from the scrum which they can use to set up offensive lineouts.
With Fiji having conceded three tries from driving lineouts in their first two games Wales will put their defensive maul to the test again. Fiji have several vulnerabilities in this area, firstly, they don’t compete for the ball putting no pressure on the throw, the jump or the setting up of the ensuing maul.
Secondly, Fiji are passive in responding to the threat. Only those players directly opposite the maul commit to defending the drive, and that means that frequently we see only three or even four Fiji forwards trying to repel an eight man maul.
Finally when Fiji’s fringing forwards do join the maul, they often do so as haphazard individuals and with upright body positions.
Compare that to Wales’ fully committed aggressive and organised defensive of ‘that lineout’ in the closing minutes against England.
Defensively Wales will be very wary of Fiji’s remarkable offloading skills. There are different ways of combating this particular threat from double tackles to aiming for the ball in contact.
But when Wales play against the master of offloads, New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, they use a different strategy. When Williams hits contact, Wales flood the area looking to block off his passing lanes. It’s easier to cut off the options by picking up the support runners than it is to prevent him getting his arms free in the tackle.
This tactic works especially well when you target one individual who is the main offloading threat. Unfortunately Fiji have a team packed with players keen to get the ball away and so it will be harder to react to the lot of them.
Teams can sometimes be intimidated by Fiji’s counter-running and choose not to kick to their back three. In doing so they often put themselves under pressure by playing deep in their own half and on the back foot.
But this only provides Fiji with targets to be lined up for thunderous tackles. Wales will have to kick, but they must kick to compete and get off the ground to challenge for possession.
With a quarter-final within touching distance I am more nervous ahead of this match than I was before England. But if Wales can remain patient and resist getting tempted into an open game they should be the better team.
Wales must stick with the driving lineout, they must run hard direct lines and they must keep control of the ball in contact. If they do this, they will win.
Forget the bonus point, kick the penalties that come our way and keep the pressure on Fiji … and we will be tantalizingly close to coming through this most nightmare of World Cup groups.
* Gwyn Jones is former Welsh skipper and part of S4C’s rugby presentation team for Rugby World Cup 2015. S4C has coverage of Wales v Fiji on Thursday night. And don’t forget our S4C roadshow every Wednesday. More details on s4c.cymru