It’s just under two weeks till the first test in Englands tour to New Zealand, and with the Heineken Cup done and dusted, and the Premiership finalists now known, we have a rough idea of how the first test team will line up, and well, it’s reasonably strong.
Yes, England will be missing a couple of key players, Owen Farrell and Tom Woods for example, but in most positions they’ll be bringing in international experience to shore up the breach.
So how should England approach this first test, and this test series?
Well, we previously looked at the kicking game, but how will the game be played with the ball in hand?
The temptation for England is to head down and give it a good crack, think France style, just rock up confound the bookies and sling the ball about fast and furious hoping to pip New Zealand to the post. No one gives them a hope in hell’s chance of winning the test series. But lets face facts that’s style of hit and hope play is just not going to cut it in New Zealand, and as I have previously mentioned England should be looking to come out of this test series with at least one win if they want to be serious World Cup contenders next year.
So a far more pragmatic and focused approach is needed, that’s not to say you don't’ move the ball against them, you do, you just have to do it in the right areas of the pitch.
Defensively New Zealand want you to play it in the wide channels. They tend to run a classic drift defence, and push up on the inside of the defensive line as opposed to the outside. 10 drifts onto 12 once his channel is clear and so on. They show you the outside, and look to isolate the ball carrier from their support. The inside tackler goes low the outside tackler goes high or comes in for the jackal if there is a turnover opportunity. It’s all about trying to get possession rather than the big smash (thought if you come down their channel they will do that as well). They are patient and happy to let you run the phases until the mistake comes.
So, how do you counter this? Well it’s actually pretty simple to breakdown a drift based defence, you go route 1, and England need to dominate the All Blacks physically in the contact.
The last couple of times England played New Zealand they’ve done it reasonably well, but it’s a difficult thing to achieve over the course of a three tests series.
Previously when they’ve met, England have sent runners back against the flow to keep the All BLack defence narrow and then they’ll look to move it quickly after two or three close phases – we saw this early on in the November tests in 2013, and in the 2012 test. England frequently used Brad Barritt, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins on the switch back to their support. They then threw numbers into the breakdown to stop their ball carrier getting isolated, and after one hit in the midfield they tended to use their pod system to work down a channel in the middle of the pitch rather than across, and then once the defence steps in they tried to come wide again and attack the 13 channel.
In addition they use the Maul to great effect to keep the New Zealand loose forwards honest and not drifting off the lineout early, this leaves their punch groups attacking Carter and Nonu, until they can identify a miss match in the 13/14 channel.
Effectively this means it’s through the middle with a punch group and making the opposition 10 or back row tackle. Pick and go then once the defence has narrowed move it wide at pace as we saw in the Chris Ashton try in 2012 and the Brad Barritt try the same game. Yes, ok, Ashton’s try was off 1st phase but Tuilagi runs an out to in line from 13 to the 12 channel and breaks through Carter drifting out. On Barritt’s try we see exactly what happens when the drift isn’t working as a unit.
A lot of it is about taking McCaw and Carter/Cruden/Barrett out of the equation for the next few phases. This means the midfield steps in one to cover the lost bodies, and their key decision makers in defence are out of the game.
Having said that England even though they keep it quite narrow, aren’t looking for a high recycle count. Like New Zealand, they are looking for pressure situations in the opposition half that they can turn into two on ones and 3 on 2’s. Both of the try’s mentioned above are scored in under 5 phases, which is a trend I’ve touched on before on this blog.
In essence England deploy a quite narrow phase game against New Zealand only really spreading it wide if the defence is truly unsettled. It’s simple, but as we’ve seen the last two times England have played New Zealand, actually quite effective.
Can they do that in New Zealand? Well everything goes up a notch there, the intensity levels will be unlike anything they experience in Europe and the speed of the game will be very the difference. The trick will be if England can get the right balance to physically impose themselves on the All Blacks and maintain enough tempo for the duration of the game.