Wales’ gameplan is too predictable and leaves no room for spontaneity | Paul Rees

'Warrenball' has not suddenly become Warrenballs in this Six Nations because every top side has power as its base – but there is a crying need for some of the improvisation of old


The greatest indictment of Wales at Twickenham on Sunday was the performance of the England full-back Mike Brown who, when he received the ball in his own half, assessed his options before deciding whether to run, pass or kick. Had he been wearing red, he would have used his boot a whole lot more.

In the buildup to the match, Wales talked about the need to ensure that players did not overthink. Particular reference was made to the outside-half Rhys Priestland whose instructions were clear: take no risks inside your own half and kick, but not to touch. The result was a series of clearances Brown took without the inconvenience of chasers forcing him to hurry and a gradual meltdown of a player whose first start at 10 for Wales had been at Twickenham before the 2011 World Cup when Wales were not so tactically rigid.

They could not be accused of overthinking at Twickenham, only underthinking. It was not as if their opponents were as impressive as they had been against Ireland two weeks before when their discipline restricted Jonathan Sexton to one kick at goal. Their defence was excellent, chopping down Wales's big ball-carriers before they had a chance to break into a stride and threaten the gainline, and they showed some wit, but they left a gate open. Wales, though, were in the wrong field.

Wales have been rumbled by their two main World Cup group rivals this season, Australia and England. Their kicking and power game has not worked and against both teams, along with South Africa and Ireland, they have struggled to chase matches. Wales, risk averse, are at their most effective when they have a lead to defend.

The message from Wales's players this week has been that the problem at Twickenham was not the gameplan but the execution of it. They point to two opportunities they should have turned into points, George North and Jamie Roberts kicking to the line in England's 22 when they had support outside them.

They have a point, but England also wasted chances and were only denied a third try by a superb tackle from Leigh Halfpenny. Wales have become so melded to their gameplan that they have become slow to react. There was a sense of helplessness in both Dublin and Twickenham: when they won at Twickenham in 2008, recovering after trailing at half-time, a turning point was the try scored by Lee Byrne that was created by James Hook creating room in a tight space.

Hook was once described by the Wales head coach Warren Gatland as a player a place had to be found for, whether at 10, 12, 13 or 15, but he did not even make the bench at Twickenham. He is regarded as a maverick, someone who goes off script. He may be deemed to be too flexible, but is that because the tactics are too prescribed?

The former New Zealand scrum-half Justin Marshall made the point this week, talking about some of the country's Super 15 teams, that while gameplan failure can sometimes be put down to poor execution, there are also occasions when it does not suit the talent in a team. Talking about the Crusaders, he said: "What worries me is not the lack of a suitable gameplan, but a rigid adherence to it.

"There is no spontaneity, the players are not reactive. The Crusaders have their structures and they look like a team that will do anything they can to stick to them, even if it means ignoring opportunities. They have become far too predictable. We know what they're going to do and how they're going to do it from most situations. They have players in that team who would benefit from having the handbrake taken off, allowing them to be a bit more instinctive."

Marshall could have been talking about Wales when he pondered whether instinct was being coached out of players. The artistry the country used to be known for has given way to a scientific, forensic approach that has been successful in Europe in recent years.

When Wales held sway in Europe in the 1970s, their ability to improvise and think on the run compensated for a lack of size, but now they have one of the biggest back divisions ever seen and a pack that is overtly physical, even if their struggled in the tight five in Dublin and Twickenham. They do not do subtlety any more, but the trend in international rugby is moving away from them.

Even South Africa have developed a running game under Heyneke Meyer. England and Ireland – sorry, France – are contesting the Six Nations title because they have been the two teams in the tournament who have consistently shown a capacity to think under pressure, a facility that enables them to chase games. New Zealand and Australia have long trusted skill.

Warren Gatland has a lot to mull over, but "Warrenball" has not suddenly become Warrenballs because every top side has power as its base. If some of his players look to have dropped a bit physically this season, and having more and more playing in France and England is diluting the club environment he built up as well as putting more conditioning emphasis on their clubs, they look in need of mental stimulus.

Fly-half is the dilemma he needs to resolve. When he was at Wasps, he had Alex King at 10, a pivot able to executive a gameplan but also react when it was going wrong. With Hook not trusted, Priestland a gifted player who gives the impression that he does not think he belongs at Test level and Dan Biggar steady but not a schemer, Gatland could do with a King.

Outside-half was the only position when the squad was announced in which a Welshman was not competing for a Test place on last year's Lions tour to Australia under Gatland. A lot has been asked of Priestland, especially with no second-five outside him, and the player who in the 2011 World Cup and into the following year's Six Nations, acted on what was in front of him is taking too literal an interpretation of the gameplan.

Gatland said a few years ago that Welsh players were more comfortable being told what to do than being given responsibility, something Nigel Davies had noted in his capacity as assistant coach in the previous regime. It did not used to be like that in Wales and a group of experienced, title-winning players needs to accept co-ownership and think for themselves.

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