Ask most Rugby fans to describe a team, such as the All Blacks and you’ll get a pretty consistent answer even from the most layman of fans. Likewise, if you repeat the question of France, Ireland, and South Africa.
“They Attack from everywhere, possession, Jouex, Jouex, They smash you, Brutal Defence, Physical both sides of the ball”. The traits of each team are obvious.
Even in this day and age as the game becomes a homogenous mess of familiarity, when we dive deeper there are uniquenesses that even now clearly identify a team’s DNA.
Teams may drift away from that on occasion but they don’t change much. They hold true and that’s an important element of any team sport. Teams that don’t often struggle.
When Eddie Jones took over England in 2015 he was very clear about what England should come to represent. Strong Set piece, Bully other teams, best goal-kicking in the world.
A return to the arrogant England.
The core though was brutal defence, the identity of the largely Saracens driven England side, transplanted to the international stage. It was the benchmark they’ve prided themself on.
7 months on from Jones departure it took Ireland just 9 Minutes to get on the scoreboard. Their first worthwhile attacking play. In just 2 phases they transitioned from fielding a high kick to going in untouched under the post.
We’re going to look at that try, it’s largely poor execution by England that Ireland masterfully exploit. But importantly it also gives us a great indication of where England are mentally (confused).
First though, we’re going to start at the beginning and look at England’s first defensive set.
THE START OF THE PROBLEM
Ireland kick off and England exit with a kick from Youngs.
Youngs kicks long, which there is nothing inherently wrong with but rather than heading for Touch the ball travels down the tramlines and when fielded by Keenan there is a good 11m between him and any chasing England player.
There is nothing specifically poor about England’s shape in chasing this ball, Daly leads the chase and makes the tackle.
Earl leads the first wave, with Ford, Tuilagi and Marchant alongside him.
Behind that we have the Second wave of Lawes, Genge, Ribbans and George.
Importantly look where Ford is on the pitch. Keenan with all the time in the world moves in field and is tackled by Ford well inside the 15m’s
England set and as Ireland play we can see an immediate disconnect between George and Tuilagi that Byrne will exploit out the back.
In one phase Ireland have opened up space on the far touch line and it’s only great speed and focus from Earl that bounces Ringrose back inside, shutting off the overlap.
We can also see Daly keeping his width on this near side which we’ll see is important.
Ringrose jams back and Ireland get into good shape, we can see them in a 3-2-1 formation with both Aki and Byrne in the boot offering options.
However the width Daly has kept allows him not only to advance but also buys time to hold and then rush in when he has read the play.
England counter ruck getting the turnover.
Sure it’s a great read by Daly but the concern here is how easily Ireland found it to travel sideline to sideline in only two passes to find space.
SAME MISTAKE DIFFERENT OUTCOME
So lets fast forward a few minutes and look at the try, again, England exit, this time from a defensive lineout.
Youngs again kicks but this time the entire pack bar Earl is tied up in the Maul, this has the knock on impact of making them late to next phase and constantly chasing the ball.
The kick is poor, coupled with a poor chase. Again it travels infield this time landing well inside the 15m channel in a similar position to that which Keenan made it to.
And whilst Tuilagi puts in a shot on Hansen, it again splits the field and creates a very thin England defence, and a lot of space outside Anthony Watson. Also note how all of the England forwards are in this near 15m channel and so far behind the play. The next ruck is in the opposite 5m channel, that’s a lot of ground to cover.
In two passes Ireland get to the edge and while Watson does well to shut Lowe down we can see the compound impact is that the entire England defence is turned and back tracking to that tackle on the edge.
This means England are slow to set and when Ireland play off the floor we can see everyone’s head is turned in as they haven’t had time to set and scan.
This makes it hard for England to identify their man. Ireland on the other hand have already identified the point they want to stress using O’Mahoney to punch the gap.
Stuart will get criticised for not biting in earlier on O’Mahony but we can also see Aki hovering behind. This holds Stuart just long enough to give O’Mahoney the gap with Genge snapping in on van de Flier.
Aki’s positioning gives him the perfect support line and it’s a simple 2 vs 1 to put it away.
The key to note here is it’s the compound effect of mistakes made by England that leads to a great try from Ireland.
Youngs makes a poor decision on the kick, with no secondary chase team perhaps that kick should have hit touch. It leaves England exposed and Ireland manipulate this into a scoring opportunity.
Backing your defence on the kick chase is great if you’re organised but if not then you probably just create issues further down the line, and as we see here England get pulled out of shape far too easily by having to chase back and across.
That’s not to blame Youngs as there are a number of issues here, but Englands exit is the start of the issue and instantly puts them behind the speed of the Irelands attack.
KEY TO THE RECOVERY
Whilst so much is made of England’s poor attacking play, Defence is for me the most important and immediate focus for England.
It’s what has defined all the best England teams.
Thankfully it can be a quick fix that can make the most immediate impact. Of course, a team needs to progress beyond just defence but it should be, in fact, I would say has to be, the foundation any England team is built on.
It’s not that England players don’t tackle, don’t put it about, but more that as a collective it’s not clear what they are trying to achieve with their defence. There are some givens, getting the ball back and stopping the opposition from scoring but what is it that defines this defence?
A key indication of a defensive system being stuck between what it wants to achieve and how, is how it utilises line speed.
In 2019 England produced line speed from depth, sitting off the tackle line a few paces and moving before the ball was in the hands of the halfback. It was key in their destruction of the All Blacks. It creates speed in the line and it creates a large enough margin of error at the offside line that they don’t have to worry about being continually pinged.
It also gives them time to make better decisions (as we saw with Daly in the first clip).
This year however they either sit on the rearmost feet, outside defenders are creeping up or they fold way too deep to close the space behind the ruck, League style. For me this signals a lack of confidence on connection between the defenders.
England have only three weeks to resolve the issue, it’s not an impossible task but there is little evidence to suggest it will be done.
Author: The Dead Ball Area