12 months is a long time in Rugby Union and it’s not that uncommon to see a well oiled machine start to stutter and splutter.
England, whilst not awful, have gone from one of the strongest attacking teams in the Six Nations to a team searching for a spark. Additionally in the four weeks of the Autumn internationals they went from a team looking to put away the SH giants and set out their stall ahead of the World Cup to one just happy to get a win.
So what’s changed?
In stark contrast to off the field, one of the biggest issues I feel is over the last 3 years England have become a team without an identity. Their desire to bring an all court game to the table is admirable, but one that I believe is fundamentally flawed.
Traditionally England have always been a team of power. A team that dominated the gain line and a team that suffocated the opposition first and foremost. I’m loath to do it but looking back to 2002/2003 when England were one of the best attacking sides in the world it all started up front. Yes the backs scored a lot of tries, but quite often the game plan revolved around getting Tindall and Greenwood onto or over the gain line and the forwards coming around the corner and keeping momentum going. If you cast your mind back to the 2003 World Cup final and Jason Robinson’s try it was a prime example of this, sloppy ball, Greenwood gets to the gain line, Dallaglio around the corner rides the tackle, inside to Wilkinson, outside to Robinson. They got in behind the tackle line and kept momentum going.
Is this the only way to play Rugby? Absolutely not, the game has changed and we all want teams to progress and play intelligent heads up Rugby. But the fundamentals of Rugby haven’t changed that much, it is still about going forward, and as predictable as that around the corner game plan is, it gets you moving forward. That’s not to say England should only play 10 man Rugby, as South Africa have adapted to a more expansive style built around that powerful front foot ball so should England, but that absolutely has to start upfront with a pack that can go forward and the English players skill levels lend itself to a simple aggressive carrying game plan.
Fast forward to November 2014 and what we see is an England side playing very laterally, punch groups are not dominating the collision and they are a team that at times appear as if they are rucking backwards. As any backs coach will tell you it's very difficult to play wide off slow, static or going backwards ball – it may occasionally come off, but attacking a retreating defence is so much easier than trying to get around an advancing midfield.
Going forward is all about beating the tackle line. Both to the gain line and physically, but that has to start with abrasive ball carrying and my personal belief here is that by wanting to play an open and more expansive game plan England have forgone the hardened edgy ball carriers they’ve traditionally used and gone for all round players – a ligther faster pack that can get off the defensive line quickly and can compete on the ground and here in lies the biggest problem for England at the moment, by doing that they lack a gain line presence, specifically a lack of gain line breaking ball carriers in the 2nd and 3rd rows.
Up until the 2014 Six Nations England have largely been able to offset this with the ball carrying of Tuilagi, but shorn of his midfield power in both this and last year’s AI’s England have gone lateral as opposed to forwards crabbing across with their rucks eating up the backs space. That was overcome briefly with the introduction of Billy Vunipola but as teams worked out he was England’s only ball carrying option and his body became battered and bruised his impact on the game waned.
England replaced Vunipola with Morgan, who has been brilliant, but again without a midfield target or secondary carrier outside of Morgan England have had to revert to sitting deep and safe resulting in a game plan that has had little go forward about it.
For all his perceived lack of subtlety Tuilagi brings a bruising gain line presence, it makes sense that people feel the need to couple that with a creative influence such as Kyle Eastmond or Billy Twelvetree’s but maybe what England need is another gain line player with a bit of a passing game, a player who can dominate the collision, can distribute well enough and importantly has a nose for the line. Maybe someone like Luther Burrell?
I have a feeling the combination of Burrell/Tuilagi could be the exact balance England’s looking for, two centers able to give a target the forwards can come onto yet still utilise the impressive back three England can assemble.
Targets are only half of the battle though and regardless of whether England play a simple flow style "pod system" or the "one out runner off a distributing forward" style favoured by New Zealand they need players who can win the collision. Tom Woods not had a vintage year for England, rightfully dropped against Samoa he’s not shown anything that leads you to believe he will realise the promise of his 2011 form but watching him in action for Northampton this season i’ve been taken with how well he has gone at 7.
He’s not your traditional ground hog but against Julian Salvi who I consider on of the best fetchers in the English game he more than held his own, and he brings a level of physicality to the position that Chris Robshaw perhaps just doesn't have. With Billy Vunipola starting to again hit form with Saracens I think he could be a genuine option at 6, coupled with Morgans better technical skills at 8. That would give England more gain line options with a powerful open side in Wood who might not beat Richie McCaw to the breakdown but when he arrives is likely to smash anyone in the vicinity out of the way.
Heading into a world cup year I’d like to see England regain that traditional physical dominance and couple it with the exciting outside backs we know we have.
So below is a team i’d quite like to see take the field at some point in this years 6 Nations.
01: Marler 02: Youngs 03: Cole 04: Lawes 05: Attwood 06: Vunipola 07: Wood 08: Morgan 09: Care 10: Ford 11: May 12: Burrell 13: Tuilagi 14: Rokoduguni 15: Nowell
As we all know 2015 brings with it the World Cup. As Hosts England are obviously looking to make a big statement and will clearly be looking to make the final at the very least but I think until they can sort their gain line issues they will continue to struggle to put away the teams who can raise their intensity to meet them.
The good news is that 12 months in Rugby is a long time and it’s also not unusual to see a struggling team kick into gear and really turn things around.