For all intents and purposes the game should’ve been an absolute mess. A star studded, underprepared, over imbibed Barbarians side played and slightly less well known, equally underprepared and less inebriated England Saxons side (England XV just doesn’t sound right).
I learnt long ago not to get excited about these fixtures, either the international side is way too strong for the Barbarians, or so weak they get walloped. But at 51-43 the game ended and unlike many of these fixtures it had kind of lived up to its hype.
There was plenty of loose, unstructured play but it was absolutely clear that both teams had come to win and enjoy themselves on the way.
From and England point of view it was awesome to see some of the young premiership talent working together and putting their hands up in World Cup year. Marcus Smith may have got man of the match but I think you could have looked at a number of players in the England squad.
So, with the intention of not being over critical let’s have a look at a few things from the game I personally found interesting.
In a game with less structure than usual I found it interesting how England looked to take the pressure off Smith at 10 and use his dangerous attacking skills and broken field running slightly wider.
Bringing Hammersley into first receiver and Smith moving a channel out allowing them to use Smith’s fantastic pass one channel wider or hanging behind an option.
They also Interchanged a lot, with Hammersley organising the wider attack.
We see Smith club side Harlequins do this a lot with brown popping up in the 1st receiver position a lot and Smith drifting out the back or sitting wider.
We saw an example of this early on at: 02:26
Hammersley in at 10, Smith wider and behind.
Even with the blockers this sin’t about holding the defence but playing deep and moving the ball to the outer edge. The intent is to get to the outer edge of the defence quickly so they have to turn out and chase across.
On the recycle Dombrandt and Smith can’t quite read the others intention and gets isolated on the carry leading to Louw winning a penalty.
Then again at: 49:46, after a magnificent offload and break from Harrison and Marchant, Hammersley again slots in at 10 with Smith a channel wider. Again England are able to move the ball to the far side quickly using straight running and clean passing to stop the drift and eat up the yards in front.
Also, look at the miss pass from Stooke (I think), one after Smith, how clean and perfect it is.
We can also see how after the initial ruck Hammersley and Smith interchange, he slots in behind and starts organising the outside runners for Smith. It just means all Smith has to concentrate on is the ball coming out and then picking his option as he sees what unfolds.
It never quite worked to the point of really producing the scores or breaking down the Barbarians but the intent is clearly there and it would be wonderful to see how they would grow in tandem.
All teams strive for cohesion but in a game like this it’s very difficult to find.
So there were a lot of mistakes where teams couldn’t quite get their combinations working and I think it’s worth acknowledging how big an impact this has on both teams.
Early on we saw the Barbarians struggle with how difficult it is to get on the same wavelength, first Afoa is unsure what his options are:
Followed by Webb throwing a wild floated pass which is nearly intercepted.
He then follows that up with a pick and go on his own and is turned over by Bassett:
This worked out ok for the Barbarians on this occasion as they came back for Bassett’s knock on but it’s a clear indication of how hard it is for a team to get connected in such a short amount of time.
The floated pass is purely because Webb is playing off the cuff as he’s not sure what his options right then are. The pick and go is something he’ll do all the time with his club and country, but as it’s not expected we see Louw arrive late and instead of securing the ball or nullifying Bassett goes straight for the most visibial threat not knowing who’s in support of him.
Again in a sequence of play shortly after we saw it impact negatively for both the Barbarians and the Saxons.
At 01:50 – we catch the English Defence Sitting down, unsure who is taking who.
Ideally here I’d like to see Marchant come around and pressure Slade, with Williams picking up Fekitoa.
But as they’ve already sat down they then have to go again and as a result Williams and Marchant get disconnected giving Fekitoa a clean line break as he times his run late.
We see the Barbarians recycle a few phases and then again Vui takes it into contact on his own and is turned over after some loose ball placement (it’s also worth noting the cheeky little hands in from Dunn to flick the ball back).
We can see the Barbarians trying to get small units working in familiar ways. Vui is drifting behind and Hibbard finds him. Something quite natural for teams at this level, but it also leaves Vui exposed when he comes into contact because he simply doesn’t have the outside or inside support.
The Opening Try
Again with the games first try we just saw those little disconnects caused by unfamiliarity having a large impact with Atkins overshooting Fekitoas overcooked pass, with England counter attacking and Bassitt going in for his first try.
First up Piutau counters from a long kick from Mitchell. Beats Mitchell on the turn and then brings the ball back a fair way to the Barbarians 10m line drawing in 5-6 defenders. Putting the Barbarians in a great position.
From the ensuing ruck we can see the Barbarians have set themselves up a good attacking shape.
If Slade and Louw fix the England defence and play through the back htey are likely to create a 3 vs 2.
But Slade unfamiliar with Louw and Fekitoa and under pressure from a lightning fast Ben Curry tries to buy a fraction of a second and steps him.
Ideally here with the moment lost Slade would take the contact fight to ground and the Barbarians would go again.
But not knowing where his support is he forces the pass and Fekitoa who was looking to come back and help Slade has to re-adjust and looks to create something.
It shows the quality of Fekitoa that he opens up space for Atkins to hit. Unfortunately not quite on the same wave length Atkins overruns and Fekitoa fires the ball.
The result is Williams and Bassett pounce.
While it may seem overly critical to pull these small moments of a fun game apart it’s merely to illustrate how difficult it is for teams at this level to abandon familiarity.
It’s also worth acknowledging how hard games like this make it for forward units to work on technical things like the line out and scrum and it shows the absolute quality of the Barbarians players in the fact they only lost 1 of their 20 set pieces (8 scrums won and 11/12 lineout’s).
Something that really struck me was how simple both teams played it, especially England, and I’m a big fan of this.
Understandably for teams with little preparation behind them you want to keep it easy. Simple is effective and easier to execute under pressure.
13 tries though, I think shows that the intent to move the ball and play attacking rugby doesn’t need to be complicated if you can identify space and move the ball to it.
Some of the tries were gimmes, some of them directly from a highlights real but there was also simplicity in how the teams approached trying to create some structure.
I think both sides showed us how similar many teams systems actually are because the game had a fair amount of structure. Occasionally it would break down, of course, an isolated carrier would get turned over resulting in 37 turnovers (11 more than Wales vs England in the Six Nations for example) which lead to some lovely transitional Rugby as both teams worked hard to switch from defence to attack and vice versa and the best Rugby was played in that short period between the sides following structure and trying to find it.
I think this is also reflected Stats wise, with the game showed no significant drop off in things like tackle counts, England returning an 82% tackle percentage and Barbarians returning a 74% but the game producing 13 tries.
To me, purely on face value and without diving in too deep it shows that both teams didn’t play straight up the field and we saw that with England moving the ball to the edge very quickly, eating up the yards and making the barbarians chase them so the ruck was very wide giving them the space to attack back through a stretched defence.
Another impressive aspect of the performance was the speed of England to react to turn over ball, obviously with the Bassett try and here with Dombrandt’s second try where he works hard to connect with Mitchell.
It would be easy, and forgivable, for this to have resulted in a series of pick and goes on the Barbarians line but Dombrandt’s speed of reaction and Mitchells desire to keep the ball live rather than go one man to far is key to this chance being taken.
Finally lets have a look at the moment of the match for me, Mark Atkins second try at 60:13 on the clock:
England clear the lines and we can see they’ve set up very well, but that Stooke is slightly behind.
As he shoots forward Afoa plays the pullback option to Piutau and that coupled with Stookes timing hinders his vision and as a result he overshoots Beaumont leaving the dogs leg that Piutau exploits, first standing up Beaumont and then ripping through the gap.
He cuts a line to sit Hammersley and switches with Heffernan who finally takes contact.
It’s a quick recycle and a brilliant offload from Naiyaravoro to put Atkins away.
Obviously the game has to be taken in the spirit it was played, fun, entertaining semi-international Rugby but I think it gives us a small glimpse of the future of England if Mallinder does indeed take over from Jones in 2020. Not everyone is happy about that but if he’s able to bring youth through in a similar way he did with the U21’s and Saxons then it could be an interesting period for England.