New Zealand vs England – Focus on Englands Defensive Woes

Alas it was not to be, 3-0 to New Zealand.

Expected? Maybe so, but England must have hoped for a test win.

They showed a lot of encouraging signs but for all their endeavor they still came up significantly short. Combative yes, competitive, yes, but for about 30-40 minutes of the test series New Zealand tore England apart with attacking Rugby that exposed huge flaws in their game.

Defence has been a big part of England's development over the last few years, so to see it so completely lacerated off first phase ball was both impressive and worrying in equal amounts.

So what went wrong?

Well the first thing to note is it's not all doom and gloom. England actually defended pretty well through out the series. Nearly a complete shut out in Test one, and yes they conceded 3 trys in the second game, but none of them gifts with New Zealand working hard for the scores.

In test one England got off the line early and faced up man on man, Burns met Nonu on the gain line and Englands transition defence in subsequent phases got off the line early and shut the All Blacks down. New Zealand struggled to gain momentum without a target for their forwards to come onto.

In theory that should have worked this time around, right?

Well, no.

One of New Zealands biggest assets is their capacity to learn and adapt. It’s been two weeks since they last faced this midfield, and they’d clearly broken down its components to exploit weaknesses in that defence and Englands defensive alignment.

So let's have a quick look at the first try, and what’s gone wrong. There are a number of issues for me here, the first of which is Englands set up:

alignment 1

The initial set up is ok. They are man on man, that's clear. Yes, Ashton is very narrow, but the mark up is: 10 vs 10, 12 vs 12, 13 vs 13, 14 vs 15 with Brown taking the last man. That’s normal, even though he is behind the midfield as he sweeps he’ll be in a beter position to make a side on tackle into touch.

New Zealand catch, set and drive. This pulls in the English backrow and stops them fanning out. Behind this maul is where the first issue is.

alignment 2

Yarde has come across from open to blind and is on the near touchline – he's out of the game. At the lineout he was on the 15, which is exactly where he needs to be. With the defence lining up man on man and Brown as Fullback taking last man, he needs to stand open behind Youngs, or even better behind Burns/Eastmond.

You can see black 14, Jane, is already drifting open. They are looking to expose England wide with their blind to open runners. Yarde, or Young’s, needs to track that ball open and Yarde can't do that from there. One of them can stay on the touch line in defence and shutdown anything back on the blindside – it's down to communication.

Meanwhile on the tackle line Nonu carries the wide pass from Smith straight into Eastmonds channel.

alignment 6 - End on 1 alignment 6 - End on 2alignment 6 - End on 3

Burns has drifted out, but Eastmond has stood his ground and goes for the safety of the high hit. He's looking for the two man tackle – Burns going low, he going high. But really he needs to trust Burns and stay on his channel.

Tuilagi holds on Fekitoa, but importantly Nonu offloads to Cruden on the wrap. Nonu actually gives a poor offload and Jane picks up and pops to Smith on the wrap. So Ashton rushes in to make the smother tackle. Smiths upper body strength and footwork gets him through the tackle, resulting in Ashton falling off a hit he had to make. Smith offloads and the moves ends with Savea going in the corner.

It's a collective failing with both the front line and cover defence just not functioning to a sufficient standard for this level.

In the second example the initial alignment is again good.

Alignment 2 - example 1

But England are lazy out wide and leave a substantial dog leg, the outside man should be pushing up quickly not showing the space.

Alignment 2 - example 3

New Zealand run a similar move to last time. Nonu runs a crash ball line and McCaw gives a masked pass to Cruden behind Nonu. If you look at the first two pictures you can see McCaw is illegally playing as a second scrumhalf at the line out. He isn’t 10, but it's a small matter in the context of the problems England are having.

Ball moves open and again Yarde is nowhere to be seen. He should be policing the area behind so Brown can get wider early.

Alignment 2 - example 4

Eastmond again fails to pick up the runner coming round the corner – Burns is on Nonu on the drift so Cruden is Eastmonds man. This leaves Tuilagi and Ashton badly isolated. There is literally nothing they can do.

The third attack, Savea’s non-try, New Zealand run the exact same move as the first try and again England stand off the man on the wrap.

England seem to be caught between two defensive systems, Man on Man and Drift – in your own 22 Man on Man is not an unusual call to make, but you have to hold your channel. But they are caught in two minds and don't defend the same way twice.

Tuilagi on the first clip holds his line on Fekitoa, but on the second example his eyes and shoulders are turned inwards, looking for the wrapping runner. He's in no mans land, not coming in for the big hit and not square on so he can readjust to the wide runners. Ashton is lazy in advancing off the line or reckless in his rushing, but the problems in close far outweigh the issues of his poor tackling.

It's very poor first up defence for this level. First Phase defence at international level should be absolutely airtight, but there are clearly communication issues throughout the team in defence and once the first line is breached Englands scramble defence is depleted because neither Yarde nor Youngs tracks behind the 1st line.

So really it's a combination of a number of things both on the tackle line and cover defence.

Ultimately all this results in Eastmond being subbed. It's not an option i'd have taken. To me it would have made sense to adjust the defensive alignment and give him the first 10-15 minutes, but with the introduction of Burrell at 12 the defence looks far more solid and is a lot more aggressive getting off the line. Tackles are still missed, but the attackers are forced into negative attack options – stepping inside, being slowed down till cover gets there.

Is it something England will be worried about? Probably not too much, it's ruthless Rugby from the All Blacks and tired and flagging defence from England – but it's not really a systemic issue with Englands defence as we've seen over the last 12 months. I don't think there will be much change in the systems but players will need to take ownership of their responsibilities and set the standards they expect to be achieved.



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