Rugby Welsh Back Row for the World Cup And Who They Will Bring To Japan

Wales have one of, if not the most competitive, back rows in the world with some Lions struggling to make the matchday squad. Slimming it down to five or six players for the World Cup Squad and four or five for a matchday 23 will be Warren Gatland’s biggest challenge. In this article we will be looking at which players will most likely go to Japan and which ones will make a full strength Wales matchday 23.

First we will look at number 8. The reason we are starting here is that it’s the most straightforward. Wales’s starting 8 man will be Taulupe Faletau. He will be selected because he is a world class number 8. The reason he is world class is because of his work rate and he is very well rounded. His carrying is strong and makes his tackles. He is good at the breakdown both defensively (for not being an openside) and offensively. People normally don’t notice his work at the breakdown defensively because all he does is slow the ball down and rarely gets turnovers. Slowing the ball down is not as good as a turnover because the other team still has the ball, but it gives his team time to realign and get into optimally positions to defend.

Besides Faletau, Wales have a few other options at 8 but their other options are more like converted flankers in Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty. They are good options, but are more like cover in case of emergencies, which with Faletau being continuously injured, has been happening too much.

Next we will look at openside. Many consider it to be the most competitive position in this back row, but there can only be one option. Its Justin Tipuric. He is second best in only a few facets of the game compared to the others and the best in the rest. If it weren’t for Warburton, Tipuric would have many more Lions and Wales caps. His work at the defensive breakdown is world class with him comprehensively beating both David Pocock and Michael Hooper here in their recent encounter. He is also a good lineout option and is probably the most skillful flanker in the world. He is just behind Dan Lydiate at being the best tackler on the Welsh team. While there are other very good options, but because of how good Tipuric is, if another one of the 7s hits good form, they will most likely play along side Tipuric.

Now to do a quick rundown of each of the other opensides. James Davies (Jonathan Davies younger brother) is a convert from 7s. He is quick (because of being a convert from 7s), skilled, good at the breakdown, and plays like another back. He can even play on the wing if needed, but would not be anywhere near international quality there. However, I don’t think Davies has enough size and if played would make the Welsh back row too light. Because of this I don’t consider him an option.

Next there is Ellis Jenkins, who is basically Sam Warburton 2.0. The reason I wrote earlier that Tipuric is second best in a few parts of the game is partially because of Ellis Jenkins. Jenkins is better at the breakdown defensively.  While Tipuric still makes more turnovers in a combination of tackling, stripping the ball in tackles, lineout steals, and other tricky plays, they are neck in neck in the amount of breakdown turnovers, but Jenkins slows down more of the oppositions rucks. This is what makes him barely better than Tipuric at the breakdown. He also has the rest of the classic openside traits like quickness, good tackling, good hands, a smart rugby brain, and so on.

Josh Navidi is the most physical of all these options, being a player that can cover all across the back row the best. He is good at the defensive breakdown but maybe not quite as good as the others. He is however a better carrier than the others which could help the balance of a team. He also has a very high work rate like the others.

Now for the big decision. Who partners Tipuric? Who besides the other players we already discussed? There are 3 other options. First there is Ross Moriarty. He has been playing a lot of 8 because of the constant injuries to Faletau. He is the best ball carrier out of all the options for blindside including the possible converted openside. He is a very strong tackler and is probably the most likely to make a huge tackle (like knocking a player back a few feet). He is ok at slowing the ball down, but is the worst out of all the viable options. He is the most tempered out of all these players and plays his best right on the edge. Just watch his against England in 2017.

Dan Lydiate is the best player in the world at the chop tackle. He has been out of the game for awhile with injuries (and is currently injured). Lydiate is not a very good carrier, but is one who will consistently go forward and is skilled. He is good at the unseen work. He rarely ever misses a tackle (he went through an entire Six Nations without missing one) and always makes quite a few (tackle count normally around 20). After Moriarty, he is the most likely to make a dominate tackle and will always make a good tackle. He is the second or third worst out of all the options at the defensive breakdown (depending on how you weigh a turnover versus slowing ruck ball down). He is good at slowing the ball down for not being a 7, and might make a turnover once every few games. He is also the worst choice for a bench player; because of the way he plays he doesn’t add a big impact off the bench.

Finally there is Aaron Shingler. He is the most skilled and fastest of all the options. He will make more turnovers than Lydiate but won’t slow the ball down as well at the breakdown. Shingler will tackle well and is a good carrier. He is by far the best lineout option including Tipuric (he is also lock cover if desperately necessary). However I would only pick him if you need to loosen the game up and get a bonus point or need a very good lineout option. Because of this he drops below the other options.

Now for the verdict. With Faletau’s and Tipuric’s spots assured it’s only a matter of adding the blindside. Because of how good all the options are they can all be useful. However there are different styles of play that would play to each of these players strengths. Lydiate is the choice if Wales mainly need its blindside to stop the opposition behind the gainline and stop big carriers. Moriarty is the choice if Wales need another big ball carrier to break the defence and someone to make big hits or get in the face of the opposition 10. Jenkins is the choice if Wales need to slow the other teams ball down and/or target them at the breakdown. Navidi gives them a mixture of the other three with good carrying, tackling, breakdown work, and skills.

If Lydiate or Moriarty starts at 6, Navidi or Jenkins will be on the bench depending if Wales will need more of a blindside type impact off the bench or more breakdown work. They can both cover 7 and 8 in case of injury. If Navidi or Jenkins starts at 6 it will be either Moriarty or the other of Navidi and Jenkins off the bench depending on what Wales need for that game, but more likely Moriarty because if Faletau gets injured it keeps some size in the back row. If Ellis Jenkins were to play alongside Tipuric it would not matter which who went on which side of the scrum, but if Tipuric were to play with Navidi, Moriarty, or Lydiate he would be on the openside. All these selections are also heavily dependent on who Wales pick at loosehead (Nicky Smith or Rob Evans), Lock, or centre.

So that’s who Wales will take to the Rugby World Cup: Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, and Dan Lydiate. My current combination would be Lydiate, Tipuric, and Faletau with Navidi off the bench, but that is not accounting who Wales will play and the rest of their team.

World Cup Preview: Russia

Russian sides have been various shades of interesting over the past decade. The group that they sent to the 2008 Euros had Yuri Zhirkov bombing forward from left back and Andrei Arshavin impishly darting around as a roaming second forward behind a more permanent central striker (in qualification, Pavel Pogrebnyak, and in the tournament itself Roman Pavlyuchenko). Igor Akinfeev was a young prodigy in goal. These were all genuinely talented players and the team as a whole defeated the Netherlands in a highly memorable game in the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champions Spain in the semis.

The 2012 Euro squad called on the core of the excellent Zenit St. Petersburg side of the time, including Aleksandr Kerzhakov up front and the fluid midfield of Igor Denisov, Konstanin Zyryanov, and Roman Shirokov behind. That team thrived on space and counterattacks. Kerzhakov was built more like a traditional winger than a front man and pulled wide into the channels and even all the way out to the flanks rather than waiting up front for service or dropping deeper to connect midfield to attack. This, in turn, opened up central areas for attacking midfielders to charge into, especially Shirokov and Alan Dzagoev, who was earmarked for bigger and better things after netting four goals at the tournament. Their utter destruction of the Czech Republic was one of the best displays by any team. Their loss to Greece, where they struggled to break down a more resolute side willing to play without the ball, one of the more abject. Both games were symbolic of their identity: Russia were usually tactically interesting, though struggled to break down defensive teams because of their reliance on the counterattack. The loss to Greece caused them to limp out of the tournament rather sadly, given the spectacular start.

The 2014 World Cup squad was basically the 2012 Euro squad with a little less fluidity and joy. They were more one paced, with fewer players capable of dribbling past an opponent or making quick darts to open up space. The 2012 team had been coached by the former Zenit head man Dick Advocaat. He and the majority of the team knew each other. They fit together. The attack was largely Zenit based and the defense was largely from CSKA Moscow. In 2014, the Zenit core was fractured. Getting older. Roman Shirokov, and his ability to make excellently timed goalscoring runs from deep, was missing due to injury. Advocaat had been replaced by highly priced Fabio Capello. Kerzhakov was just a little slower and less lively in his false nine role. Aleksandr Kokorin and Alexandr Samedov were less dangerous as the goalscoring wide players than Arshavin and Dzagoev had been in the Euro 2012 side. The team bowed out meekly at the group stage, looking rather similar to Japan. Decent quality on the ball – no cutting edge.

All of this is to say that this Russia side is in a similar vein, though it is also in a bit of a state of arrested development. There is no longer a club side like those previous Zenit teams to base the national team around. Akinfeev’s long promised move to a higher profile club outside Russia never materialized – the once young prodigy is now an old veteran. Alan Dzagoev never became a worldwide sensation. And so on and so forth. Russia may even very well trot out a near 40 year old at center back. They are still decently tactically interesting – largely in the way that they have attempted to make use of three relatively similar players in Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Golovin, and Alexei Miranchuk (filling in for the injured Aleksandr Kokorin) all in the same lineup. All are attacking midfielders that are skillful on the ball and all would prefer to operate in central areas of the pitch, because each is a little too slow to make a living out wide. In the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, Russia have settled on a  5-3-2 or 5-1-2-2 shape that is rigid in defense and fluid in attack and allows them to use all of their more offensive players close to their preferred positions. Fedor Smolov is a prolific striker up front who likes to run the channels and is more of a poacher than a target man or a false nine, making runs primarily to get himself into goalscoring positions (and only tangentially distracting the defense for the positive trio behind). Of that trio, Dzagoev and Golovin are given the responsibility of falling back into the midfield line to screen the defense and Miranchuk is given the responsibility of tracking the opposition’s holding midfielder before becoming a second forward when the team is in possession. Gazinsky will probably be the sole holding midfielder. The three central defenders will be functional and solid in the air but will be rather lacking in pace and occasionally understanding with each other, regardless of which three Russia end up settling on.

This Russia will want to counterattack. They may occasionally do so well, though the loss of Kokorin has hampered this aspect of their game in recent matches and left them more pedestrian. They will attempt to defend solidly (but might not be very good at it). They will be dangerous at set pieces. They will struggle to break down defensive opposition and be vulnerable to counterattacks behind their aging defense. They will almost certainly benefit from a few absurd refereeing decisions. And they just might make it out of the group stage.

Russia - Football tactics and formations

Key Players – Fedor Smolov. He has to continue his excellent national team goalscoring record and be the focal point of the attack.

Key Tactical Question – Will they allow their fullbacks/wingbacks to push forward more against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Otherwise, the team will lack attacking width against sides that it wishes to break down and will fail in a similar manner to previous Russian teams.