There’s been much comparison between England under Eddie Jones and Stuart Lancaster. But, what ever the differences, it's impossible to argue with the fact England, for the first time in five years, got the job done.
An area that’s understandably come in for praise has been England's defence since Gustard took over. England conceded 30 points less than in the 2015 6 Nations, thats an average of 1.7 points per game less than under Stuart Lancaster’s entire time in charge of the same competition. In fairness that’s an average over 20 games vs 5, which leaves it a little unbalanced, but whatever, fundamentally 5 wins from 5 can’t be argued with.
Among the many tournament stats, and the one that caught my eye, was England’s penalty count. England were the most penalised team in this years 6 Nations when previously they'd been one of the least. So I thought I’d have a look at England’s discipline in the 6 Nations and also try to dive into one of the games to see if I could map the impact of the penalties on that specific game.
First some stats: In the 6 Nations under Stuart Lancaster, England averaged: 9.55 penalties a game, the figures break down like this:
2012: England: 48 (Avg: 9.6)
2013: England: 50 (Avg: 10)
2014: England: 45 (Avg: 9)
2015: England: 48 (Avg: 9.6)
England in this year’s 6 Nations stack up like this:
2016: England: 66 (Avg:13.2)
That’s a 3.65 spike in penalties per game from previous seasons. In addition England were one of only two sides to not improve on last years penalty count (Ireland being the other). Again the figures breakdown like this:
England: 48 (Avg: 9.6) 66 (Avg:13.2)
France: 51 (Avg:10.2) 45 (Avg:9)
Scotland: 58 (Avg: 11.6) 46 (Avg: 9.2)
Wales: 58 (Avg: 11.6) 51 (Avg:10.2)
Ireland: 43 (Avg: 8.6) 49 (Avg: 9.8)
Italy: 66 (Avg: 13.2) 53 (Avg: 10.6)
So what does that actually tell us?
Clearly England have a worse disciplinary record, but are they actually a more ill disciplined side? The figures say so, but if this is the case would England not have conceded more points than in previous seasons?
If we round that down to 3 pen’s a game, and assume all those penalties are converted into successful kicks at goal that’s a minimum 45 points swing over the course of the Tournament, 105 points if all those pen’s are transformed into Goals (converted tries). It's unlikely England would ever conceed that many points, but that’s potentially a lot of points left out there. 21 per game which is certainly enough to swing most of the games and the championship away from them.
In reality we know that not all penalties given are points scoring opportunities So to really understand England’s approach to discipline I think we need to try and unpack the figures a little and look at two things:
A: Where the Penalties were given
B: the impact of the penalties on the current situation and then on the wider games.
Now, that kind of analysis for a whole tournament is a bit more than this one man and his notepad can chew off, so I’m going to zero in on the Wales game to see if we can at the very least get a smaller snapshot of how the penalties impacted on that game's outcome.
England converted 6 attempts at goal to Wales 0. That’s 18 points directly from penalties. So you’d think that Wales conceded a lot more penalties? The official stats by Accenture record 26 penalties in the game, assigning 14 to Wales and 12 to England but to try and get a feel for the impact of each penalty, I went through the game and did a basic impact assessment of each penalty, you can find it here: England vs Wales Penalty Impact Analysis
As you’ll see I make it 15 – 14 in Wales favour.
To clarify how I got 15 to Accentures 12: I’ve also included the 2 free kicks England conceded, which whilst not full penalties are transgressions of the laws that have an impact on the game. Additionally, I’ve included the fact that England also conceded a penalty that was was never blown, a Ruck penalty signalled by Joubert, who let advantage play out and England under that conceded a second penalty that was more advantageous to Wales.
So with that broader definition, England's transgressions broke down like this:
Scrum: 03:34, 12:00, 35:00, 41:20, 47:40, 49:40,
Ruck: 22:00, 46:22, 46:34, 55:43, 69:29, 71:10, 78:32
Maul: 70:20, 71:33
The 13 straight arm penalties England conceded against Wales, break down like this:
10 Penalties were conceded in their own half.
7 of those penalties were in their own 22 whilst defending.
4 of those 7 were conceded in the middle of the field
3 of the 7 were conceded in the 15m to touch channel.
5 (of the overall 15) were conceded in the opposition half.
If we define an obviously kickable penalty as occurring in the defending team’s half and in the middle channel (so between the 15m to 15m line) that means of the 10 penalties England Conceded in their own half only 4 were obviously kickable.
Additionally the four “kickable” penalties all occurred in the space of approx 3 minutes. The first occurring at 46:22 the last at 49:40 at this stage Wales were already down 19 points.
One of those penalties was the advantage penalty I flagged earlier and Wales got a better penalty out of it, so in reality they cancel each other out (so back down to 14), which means they conceded 3 kickable penalties at a time when the impact of 3 points on their lead was heavily reduced. There was nothing in Wales play to suggest they would be able to chase a 19 point lead with goalkicking so at this stage England knew they could concede penalties safely sitting on their lead.
But let’s dig deeper. The first penalty in that sequence was for England going off their feet. Wales took a scrum rather than the points. At 19-0 that’s understandable, but England were then able to conceded two further penalties at the scrum safe in the knowledge Wales would not kick for goal – Yellow was never mentioned, and the scrums were far enough out for it not to be in penalty try territory.
So of those 3 penalties, two were follow on penalties in the scrum – which now reduces the tally to only 1 kickable penalty conceded by England in 80 minutes of Rugby. Given at a time when the points impact was greatly diminished.
In truth we’re creating a very small window of opportunity for Wales, so let's expand the criteria for potential kicks at goal to anything in the T (the T being the middle channel in your own half and the 15m channels outside the 22).
That now gives Wales another 2 penalties that are “kickable”, one at 35:00 for pushing early (Wales are 16-0 down and kick to the corner). The second at at 69:29 for not rolling away at the ruck (Wales are 25-7 down and kick to the corner).
So that leaves 3 penalties to account for in England’s 22. To cut it short they are all conceded in the 15m channel in a 2 minute period: One ruck offside and two collapsed mauls (leading to England’s Yellow Card) and ultimately the final penalty, that results in a yellow card for Coles, is reversed due to foul play by Wales.
So, in the entire game not a single point comes directly, or indirectly, from England conceding a penalty. All three of Wales tries come from turnovers once they were chasing a 19 point lead.
Clearly the Wales game is a very small snapshot of England’s performance over the 6 Nations, so let’s look at the game vs Ireland. England conceded 12 penalties, they broke down like this: 6 in Irish Territory 6 in English.
But of those 6 in their own territory only 2 where in that middle part of the pitch, and only one of them in their own 22 (not rolling). The other four penalties were all in that 15m channel.
In points terms it boils down to this: In 160 minutes and from a combined total of 29 penalties conceded against Wales and Ireland, England surrendered a measly 3 points directly from penalties. Even if we're generous and expand that to a try from a penalty kick to the corner to include Murray's try it’s still only 10 points.
Finally let’s quickly dive into the a game where it didn’t really go their way, vs France. In this game France scored 21 points from penalties, 7/7, but England conceded 15 penalties.
For speed let’s just look at the breakdown of France’s successful penalties, and where they were conceded:
Time: Area: What:
02:00 Own 22 – 15m Channel Off feet (defence)
15:00 Own Half – 15m Channel Scrum pen
28:00 Own Half – Middle Channel Holding On (attack)
39:00 Own Half – 15M Channel Not Releasing
49:00 Own 22 – Middle Channel Off Side
50:00 Own Half – Middle Channel Not Releasing (after line break)
58:00 Own Half – 15m Channel Not releasing
So that’s four of the 7 penalties falling outside that magic middle channel, and only 1 conceded inside the middle channel of their own 22.
Essentially the point is the majority of these weren’t easy scores, and in 240 minutes of rugby and from 39 penalties England conceded only 31 points directly from penalties.
Cheats Charter? Perhaps, but I think there are a couple of ways to look at it.
The first is, are England deliberately killing attacking sides momentum in certain areas. We kind of see that against France where once their line was broken they gave away 3 penalties to shut down the French attack, but it’s not so obvious in other games.
Let’s spin that view point around. Perhaps what we’re actually seeing is England showing more control and heightened discipline within a set area of the pitch, an area where they feel if they can defend without conceding penalties they’ll have a greater chance of winning the games.
So is England’s improved defence and increase in penalties linked? I think so.
If we look at where the majority of those penalties were conceded they are in the wider channels where England’s defence is the thinnest, where players have to make harder decisions and are more isolated. In the middle channel the defence is massed, in essence there is a solid compressed core to the line. It’s easier to commit just a single and secondary tackler and allow the rest of the defence to step off and set early.
I think this is further illustrated when we consider the majority of notable linebreaks against England by Wales were also in that wider 15m channel, and off low phase play or counter attacks, before the defence can be set. Ireland and France had a little bit more success breaking England's midfield defence several times, but from a lot further out.
Of course, most of this shouldn’t be a surprise and it’s a truism that England will want to start to see that penalty count come down. But the stark reality is when it comes to playing the Southern Hemisphere teams that penalty count has to come down to under 10 per game (minimum).
As some perspective when England beat New Zealand in 2012 they conceded just 6 penalties. In the 3 test matches they played against New Zealand on tour in 2014 they conceded 8, 7 and 8 penalties and in reality never came as close to beating New Zealand as the scores suggested.
England clearly have a defensive system that can stand up against the power runners of the 6 Nations, but Australia in June will attack the inside of the 2nd guard and isolate the 3rd defender in far more dynamic ways than the NH teams will have been able to. They will bend and stress the defensive line until it’s thinner than it’s ever been in this year’s Six Nations.
The real question is, how are England going to be able to maintain that defensive solidity while reducing their penalty count under that kind of pressure?
** this article is all my own personal interpretation through visually analysing the games in this years 6 nations. There is obviously some level of confirmation bias involved and it's clearly open to discussion, which you are free to do in the comments below – just keep it civil.
*** why did I include free kicks? Because they are a low level law infraction that have an impact on the game, Wales for example could have taken a scrum and attacked or possibly even converted it into a penalty