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How keeping hold of Shaun Edwards will enable Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones to expand Wales attacking game

When it was revealed on Sunday that Shaun Edwards would be staying on as Wales defence coach, the first reaction was one of overriding joy amongst the Welsh public.

Losing Edwards had proven to be a unbearable thought in the wake of another Grand Slam built on defence. So unbearable that he has been snatched back from the hands of Wigan and retained by incoming head coach Wayne Pivac.

But just what does keeping Edwards mean for Pivac, Stephen Jones, Byron Hayward and Wales?

STRENGTHENING FOUNDATIONS

It’s no secret Wales already have fairly strong foundations in place tactically as Warren Gatland comes to the end of his lengthy reign.

As such, Pivac was never going to be starting from scratch.

Gatland has laid some fairly strong foundations; bringing on the ball-handling skills of the forwards and blooding a raft of new young faces who have been brought up to speed when it comes to Test rugby.

They will prove useful when it comes to Pivac looking to lay down his marker as new head honcho.

But perhaps the strongest of those foundations left to Pivac is the defence.

 

Under Edwards, Wales’ defence has been rightly lauded as possibly the best in the world and it’s the area Pivac would certainly have wanted to carry forward from the previous regime.

While there might naturally be a turnover of some players after the World Cup, having a defensive system in place is some boost for an incoming coach.

And having Edwards there to carry on working with the defence only strengthens that foundation.

Much of Pivac’s success at the Scarlets was from transitions – turning defence into attack – and Edwards’ aggressive and breakdown savvy defence could force turnovers and create counter-attacking opportunities which Pivac will encourage his Wales team to take.

For Pivac, it’s a no-brainer keeping him on.

TIME FOR ATTACK TO GROW

Wales’ attack in the last year has been clinically efficient without being spectacular on the eye.

You still feel there’s more to come from Rob Howley’s attack in the coming months as he gets more time with his players ahead of the World Cup, but the introduction of Jones could really kick Wales’ efforts with ball-in-hand up a gear or two.

However, Jones is an inexperienced coach at this level and will need to learn how to adapt to Test defences that are more aggressive, more watertight and, most crucially, more prepared.

One reason things have been difficult for the Scarlets this season has been that teams have worked out ways to stop them.

Bath admitted to only spending 20 minutes of training preparing for how the Scarlets would attack ahead of their European mauling at the Rec last season, but teams this year have got wise to the Scarlets’ offload-heavy game. They’ve struggled in games where they’ve been starved of ball and field position.

Anyone who has watched Wales in their 14-match winning run knows they have continually chiselled out victories despite being second in the possession and territory stakes.



Scarlets Head Coach Wayne Pivac with Stephen Jones

Scarlets Head Coach Wayne Pivac with Stephen Jones

The Scarlets haven’t been able to adapt and evolve as easily to their new-found target on their back thanks to a raft of injuries, but it’s all good practise for Jones as he’ll need to be willing to adapt his philosophies to work out Test defences.

There are a few factors in his favour however when it comes to succeeding in international coaching. First of which is that Jones is a student of the game. He’ll leave no stone unturned to figure things out.

Second is that much of the expansiveness Wales have accrued in the past few years have been borne out of what Jones has been doing with the Scarlets. He’s the original architect and has coached a large group of this current Wales team.

And the third reason is that Edwards staying on and working with the defence gives him the time and freedom to really put some work into the attack.

 

Wales have identified efficiency as being the best form of attack in the last year, often attacking pillars and going through pick-and-goes to rack up the phases, but Jones will look to add more than just that when he comes in.

And with defence more of a continuation of what Edwards has already been preaching, he’ll have the time on the training paddock to hone those ideas and put them into practise. The Scarlets work hard on attack in training so that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them in their helter-skelter playing style come matchday.

So with Edwards in tow, expect Wales’ attack to carry on evolving once Jones comes in. The efficiency that brought them a Grand Slam will surely remain, but Jones may have the time to add more intricacies and variances to a more cohesive attack.

That could be the introduction of more multi-phase strike moves or ensuring that every option in the backline is open – allowing Wales to move towards the 15-man, all-court game that we saw glimpses of against Scotland at the start of last year’s Six Nations.



Last year’s Six Nations win over Scotland was straight from the Scarlets playbook

We may even see Jones chose to vary how Wales’ forwards move around the pitch with that added time to work on ideas. Under Gatland, Wales have largely used a 1-3-3-1 forward formation for a long time.

Two pods of three in the centre of the pitch allow for quick ball off the half-backs, with a forward lurking in the wide channels on either side of the pitch.

The Scarlets under Jones and Pivac have tended to flit between a 1-3-3-1 formation and a 2-4-2 – with two forwards moving towards each touchline, creating different opportunities in those channels.

That could certainly benefit the back-row talent Wales has on offer, but we’ll just have to wait and see what Jones chooses to do with the Wales attack.

What is certain is that Edwards’ aggressive defence is certainly suited to Jones’ attacking philosophies on the pitch when it comes to creating attacking opportunities from turnovers.

But it’s the work – or lack of it – Edwards needs to do on the training pitch that could really see Jones thrive.

SUCCESSION PLANNING

A few weeks ago, it looked like Byron Hayward was set to be the main man when it came to Wales’ defence.

Now, he’ll play a secondary role to Edwards.

You could argue that might feel like a kick in the teeth for the 50-year-old, but learning from Edwards will only do the former Scarlets defensive guru the world of good.

In his role with Edwards, he’ll scout out how to shut down opposition attacks before Edwards puts that work into practise with the players.



Byron Hayward will be working closely with Shaun Edwards in the new Wales set-up

As far as instilling defensive plans into players, Hayward could hardly choose to shadow a better coach than Edwards.

Few defence coaches last more than a couple of years in the job such is the nature of repeating largely the same messages to largely the same group of players over and over again.

Yet Edwards has been with Wales for 11 years. He knows how to get a message across effectively.

Hayward has proven his worth as a defensive coach with the Scarlets on their way to the Champions Cup semi-final last season.

But he’ll only improve under Edwards’ wing in the coming seasons.

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