I really think England need to get back to basics.
I say this as I’m forced to admit to myself that in this last world cup cycle England Rugby have been, frustrating to watch. Last Autumn we saw in the space of four games a team lose it’s way and then completely re-invent itself with a switch of game plan and a change in key personnel and for the most part it worked.
Post six nations I felt a little more positive, a pack that was able to get on the front foot and bully other teams gave a pretty exciting back line some decent go forward ball and with George Ford pulling the strings we saw some excellent running rugby, and some amazing tries scored. Ok, the final game against France kind of over egged the pudding a bit but essentially the report card was probably a B+, possibly an A-.
On reflection though, among the good Rugby there were also some choppy patches as well. Certainly there were times when England came undone, Ireland being the most obvious of occasions where England were out thought, out muscled and completely outplayed. But also looking back, for large periods of the French game England were taken to task. Let’s face facts you don’t concede 5 tries to a side that can’t build some momentum and regardless of how lost at sea France were this last year they have always had a solid, competent aggressive pack.
Now post loss to France in the warm up game, I’m again left feeling England really come unstuck because they seem to be unable to decide how they want to play.
Back in December I wrote an article on England’s inability to get over the gain line during last season’s Autumn internationals. (https://www.thedeadballarea.com/england-2014-englands-ball-carriers/ )I felt that England were a side lacking in identity trying to play a style of rugby that was alien to their skills and mental ability and I think this is still a major issue for them.
Is it a team that dominate the gain line, get on the front foot and then use that space? Or is it a team that sit back waiting for mistakes they then exploit either on the counter attack or with the boot the New Zealand style?
Ok, that over simplifies International Rugby somewhat, quite a bit actually, but the point is I’m again left struggling to see what England are aiming for.
If I look through the team there are some genuinely excellent players. Are they world class players? Some of them yes, but not all of them – and that’s ok. They are certainly all international class though and as long as everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet they should be able to produce consistently competitive performances, even in defeat.
This is where England concerns me the most, when they fail they really fail, and for me that comes down to a lack of leadership and guidance in the direction the team is going.
When I talk about leadership I don’t mean the Captain, though he must certainly shoulder part of the blame. I mean the core of the team, the cadre that can analyse and correct a game in full flow, the group of players and coaches who can grab a team, change their game plan and claw their way back into a game, and against France that leadership came with the introduction of old heads in Nick Easter, Danny Care and Danny Cipriani.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of anyone in the England set up, I am a Lancaster fanboy. I feel he and his team have been excellent for England, transformative even, and unlike a lot of people I’m very happy for Robshaw to be the England captain.
But I do think that lack of leadership stems from the aforementioned issue, where England to me seem to be stuck between trying to play their traditional power game and replicating the high tempo high skill game of New Zealand. Admirable as it is, it’s ultimately a futile task for the simple fact the average English players are not as skillful in open play as their New Zealand, South African or Australian counterparts.
So how does England address these issues ahead of the world cup?
Well, I think by getting back to the basics of the English game and prioritising the contact area, and the gain line.
Against France we saw a team struggling to get on the front foot, some of that was due to aimless kicking (will England ever do away with the rugby league style downtown kick) but a lot of it seemed to be down to a desire to avoid the contact at all costs.
Avoiding contact is a great idea, spaces not faces after all, but when the decision is made to take contact you have to dominate, you have to be able to get past the collision and make sure you are a target, and against France in the second warm up game that never happened until England were chasing the game and their fitness started to tell.
I admit, it does seems there are issues in the set piece, but they can be overcome if you get yourself into a good position on the first or second phase.
Poor line out or Scrum ball, whilst not ideal, can be turned into good font foot ball if you are aggressive in the carry – Australia have been doing it for years, they get through the contact area with good footwork and then aggression in the contact.
Part of it is also down to the fact England's best ball carriers are also our best distributors, Robshaw, Vunipola, joe Marler – all guys who are adept at the little off load before contact. The problem there is that inevitably it’s to a player who is static and not as effective as them at carrying.
Additionally unlike New Zealand and Australia who do this they distribute very narrowly and to a man running straight. For example, if you watch Stephen Moore distribute as an auxiliary 1st receiver for Australia, he’s wide (like 12 channel wide) and he’s always hitting a carrier running a line that’s cutting an angle, furthermore he executes this right on the tackle line.
England's short passing game just doesn’t do that and that makes it easy to defend. Playing these small pods inside the 9/10 channel also keeps the defence narrow and puts less stress on them.
I'd personally like to see England go back to assigned ball carriers (they can still mix it up) but i just want to see a heavy pack coming around the corner onto that short ball from the 9, holding the defence and giving those masked passes to 10 and 12 some real cover.
If they are going to persist with this passing game plan they need to distribute wider, with the passer moving forward and the receiver changing angles so defenders get moved – but most importantly they absolutely must start winning the contact when it comes.
I think until England can prioritise going forward they are going to struggle, and in Wales and Australia they will be meeting two teams who will be out to meet them before the gain line – if they have no momentum they will be hit deep, and lose the contact.
Lose the contact and you forgo quick ruck ball, no quick ruck ball and the backs may as well not be there.
Set targets using 12/13 and then get around the corner onto those short balls and they will build momentum, build momentum from the off and it’s easier to carry that into subsequent games.
Which makes Fiji now an incredibly important game, get them moving backwards and the signs are good, if England struggle to generate good go forward quick ball against Fiji then be sure Wales and Australia will be smelling blood in the water.
Tough times ahead of Lancaster and England Rugby, fingers crossed they can address the issues in the month left till the tournament kicks off.
Author: The Dead Ball Area
Graeme Forbes has run The Dead Ball Area since 2014.
You can find his material on Green and Gold Rugby, Rugbydump Coaching and Youtube. You can also find him randomly arguing with people on Twitter.