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How Wales' defence has silenced those pining for Shaun Edwards as eye-opening South Africa stat is revealed

If you wanted to sum up Wales' defensive efforts on the weekend, then there's one statistic that tells the tale far better than anything else.

For the first time since Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber, the men who masterminded World Cup and Lions series victories, joined the Springbok coaching staff, South Africa were kept tryless in a match.

The run of crossing the whitewash stretches even further back than the arrival of Erasmus and Nienaber, back to November 2017 when Ireland held them out. That's a run of 43 consecutive games in which they've scored a try.

READ MORE: Wales' remarkable turnaround down to crunch meetings and a change in attitude

Rugby stat outlet Opta report that it's second only to their all-time record of 44, set between 1995 and 1999. The bunting probably wasn't already on display in Cape Town, but many Springbok fans and pundits, were they aware of the record, would have been confident of this current crop surpassing it.

For Gethin Jenkins, the statistic - along with a first victory over the Springboks on South African soil - would surely be reward enough for the job he's doing. Many still pine for Shaun Edwards, but Jenkins is doing a fine job in making Wales' defence formidable again.

Of course, it's debatable whether Jenkins would really be satisfied. He's not the type to settle for anything less than exactly what he desires.

“I don’t see making 200 tackles as a positive, it’s more a negative,” he declared last year. “If we’re making 200 tackles, it means stuff isn’t going right in other areas."

Thankfully, Wales didn't make 200 tackles in Bloemfontein. They were made to attempt 125, just 25 more than the hosts, and completed 117 of them.

But it was the tackle choice and application that really set the tone for Wales' fine defensive turnaround. Defence can become a convoluted thing, as was demonstrated by Byron Hayward's time in charge when the former Scarlets coach looked to place more responsibility on the players in terms of breakdown decisions.

But at its very core, it's just about stopping big men and stopping them effectively. Jenkins gets that and it was exactly what Wales did last Saturday.

As one current international explained to us earlier this week, if you can stop South Africa's momentum in the first three phases, "you're looking good to winning the set or forcing a kick". How Wales have managed to do that is through doubling up in defence, choosing the right tackles and trusting their jackal threats to slow down ball.

As strong as South Africa's carrying is, there's not a great deal of variation or ball movement so if you can stand up to them, which isn't always an easy feat, you can frustrate them and slow them down. In that sense, Wales' intentions in defence were clear from the start.

South Africa's first attacking set of the match might have resulted in an easy three points from the tee for Handre Pollard, but Jenkins would have been pleased with how Wales buckled, but never broke down. The Springboks managed to get around the Welsh edge off first-phase from a lineout, with a move out the back standing up Dan Biggar and Nick Tompkins, while threatening to bring in George North and Alex Cuthbert.

However, Wales scramble well - with Louis Rees-Zammit tracking across to help out the retreating Cuthbert with stopping Kurt-Lee Arendse short of the line. But, with momentum on their side, South Africa achieve a one-second ruck to transfer the pressure elsewhere, with Evan Roos' quick carry sucking in four more Welsh defenders.

Ruck speed and, in particular, achieving quick breakdowns close to one second, is crucial in the modern game, where defences are so unforgiving. As the same international said to us: "It's so important that the collisions and pressure on the ball is huge.

"You can see that with Ireland's win over the All Blacks at weekend, with Ireland operating at one second speed of ball. New Zealand didn't compete at the ruck and they couldn't live with that speed."

But Wales, even under intense pressure on their own try-line, do a really nice job of slowing down South African ruck speed over the next six or seven phases. After that initial one-second ruck, the Springboks' ruck speed for the next seven breakdowns sit somewhere between 2.5 and 5.5 seconds - allowing Wales more time to reset in defence.

How Wales do that is largely through tackle choice. That's been a quietly impressive factor of Jenkins' time in charge with Wales.

When Wales perhaps haven't had too many jackal threats in their team, as was the case against Ireland in the 2021 Six Nations opener, they made really good use of holding up Irish carriers in the contact - affording the defensive line to reset.

Wales now, in Tommy Reffell, have a real jackal threat and so the tackle choice was tailored more to giving him chances. As a result, the chop tackle, first brought into fashion by Dan Lydiate against South Africa 11 years ago, was the go-to on Saturday.

In that first attacking set, Wales double up on South African carriers for six out of the eight phases - with one tackler going low to bring them down immediately and another staying high to keep track of the ball and potentially look for any turnover opportunities - with Reffell just working from breakdown to breakdown.

Granted, Wales were a little eager at the offside line - resulting in a penalty this time - but they brought the physicality, were smart in their tackle choice and, as a result, South Africa didn't generate too much momentum. How Wales scrambled back from the initial break was typical of the Welsh defence under Edwards.

While most of Wales' pack employed the chop tackle, it's little surprise that it was Lydiate who was leading from the front when it came to scything down Springboks. He made 18 tackles throughout the day, six more than anyone else on the park.

When you see them back-to-back, the overriding thing is just how brutal each collision was. However, one in particular showed exactly how effective tackle choice can be - with Lydiate's chop effort stopping the ball carrier and holding him up.

By the time the clearout has been completed and the scrum-half can get the ball away, 8.5 seconds have passed. Compare that with the relatively speedy 2.5 seconds on the previous phase and suddenly South Africa are having to try and create momentum from nothing again.

It wasn't just the choice of doubling up in contact and looking to the chop tackle that Wales did well. Louis Rees-Zammit had fallen out of the starting XV during the Six Nations to work on his defence and it appears to have paid off.

This nice piece of shepherding on Warrick Gelant allowed Liam Williams to stay wide and cover Aphelele Fassi just after Wales had been reduced to 14 men.

And, in the build-up to Gareth Anscombe's penalty that reduced the gap to six points, the winger does a good job of holding his feet and keeping himself square, trusting George North on his inside to deal with South Africa's short threat. If he gets even the slightest bit jumpy and turns in, South Africa have an overlap in acres of space to exploit.

But he does a nice job and the Springboks feel the need to hand it off to the short option, rather than push it outside Rees-Zammit. From there, Reffell does a great job of tracking across from the scrum to win the breakdown race and get the penalty.

Not everything was perfect, of course. Wales still looked a little vulnerable off transition ball, with South Africa getting some joy at pushing it out the back. Here, Wales don't field a kick cleanly and the Springboks find the edge as North spot-blitzes Gelant when he's probably better just drifting as there's no immediate threat. Sure, South Africa have numbers out wide, but Gelant's depth means that Wales need to sell themselves for anything to really happen.

It's understandable what North is trying to do, curb the man and ball threat, but once he does that, it forces Josh Adams to come up with him and, from there, South Africa have a three-on-one and get to within metres of the line - leading to Alun Wyn Jones' contentious yellow card.

However, there's certainly more to be positive about than not on the defensive side. It should also be noted that much of the fact that Wales kept South Africa out was down to Jon Humphreys and the defensive lineout, given how much of a weapon that was for the hosts in the first Test.

But for Jenkins, this was another defensive performance that underlined the improvements he's made to Wales' rearguard in the last two years.


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