It doesn’t seem that long ago that the knives were out for Eddie Jones as his England team fell to another chastening defeat. Sport is a fickle business though, and just 2 games in to this 6 Nations, England are sweeping all before them and seemingly on an unstoppable route to a Grand Slam.
One prominent feature of their attacking game is their use of kicks behind the opposition’s defensive line – particularly to the corners, to force mistakes and find open space for their wingers to attack.
In England’s 2 games to date, they have scored half their tries (5 of 10) directly from kicks. If you add in another try in the France game that came one phase after a great probing kick in to space and the penalty try that also came from a kick, we can say that 70% of their tries were from accurate and effective kicking.
This article will look at what England are doing, how poor France were in containing the kicking threat and what Wales can do to counter the tactic.
1 minute: May try
It took just 1 minute for England to notch up their first try in the game against France.
It’s good play from England. After the turnover, they immediately transfer the ball to one of their creative players (Eliott Daly) who makes good ground through the middle, before kicking over the French defence and allowing May to win the sprint.
Let’s now focus on the French defence and specifically how they defend the space behind their defensive line. This was 1 minute in to the game but we can already see the gaping weaknesses in the French defence that blighted the rest of their performance.
France have the ball. As they lose it in contact, watch the movement of the French players, in particular 9 (Parra), 15 (Huget) and the two wings (11 and 14).
The clip shows that Parra immediately retires to defend the space at the back on the right and Huget points to their left flank to take up a deep position there. At the top of the screen 14 (Penaud) pushes up, while 11 (Fickou) starts to slowly walk backwards.
This tells us that France defend with two at the back, the scrum half and the full back. So far, there are no big problems but as Daly makes more ground Parra (defending on the right) has a choice to make – does he keep retreating to cover the space behind him, or does he come forward to meet the Daly threat?
As the clip shows, he ends up being caught between the two decisions. He doesn’t quite trust the players in front of him to deal with the Daly running threat, so he stands his ground and prepares to close in for a tackle. By standing his ground he then opens up the space behind him, and Daly places a clever kick right in to this undefended zone.
Parra doesn’t have the pace to turn and keep up with May and once the balls stays in play a try was a certainty.
Parra’s decision to hold his ground is understandable given the ground Daly had made and the fact France only had forwards trying to make a tackle on Daly. The main issue is the space behind Parra, and this should have been covered by Huget, who was also supposed to be defending the space at the back.
Huget is primarily a wing, so perhaps his poor positining and anticipation stems from his lack of game time in the full back role, but as the attack went down France’s right hand flank, he should have been moving across to support Parra, with Fickou on the near-side Wing filling in Huget’s old position in the back-left slot.
The camera angle doesn’t give us a great view of Huget’s movement as the move develops, so we can just pick him up as Daly chips the ball on the right. From the moment Daly picked the ball up, England attacked down the centre and the French right hand flank and yet Huget has still to make it to half way across the pitch.
At the top of the still we can see Penaud (14) is tracking his wing back (May) but get’s badly done for pace (or general interest!) and easily loses the race back to the ball. Fickou has barely moved from his wing.
21 minutes: kick that eventually leads to May’s 2nd try
This is very hard to defend against. England have a scrum about 40 metres out from the French line towards the far touchline.
We don’t get a great view of the French setup in its entirety, but the still below shows where the French backs eventually align to defend the scrum. Huget is very wide and deep, while 10 (Lopez) and 14 defend the short side against two English attackers. Effectively they line up 1 to 1.
Watch the movement of Youngs (England 9) and Parra around the scrum as the move develops.
When we talk about details being important at test level, this is the sort of thing that we mean. England had the put-in to this scrum, so Parra would normally be defending on the far side, which would give him easy access to attack Daly when he took the ball.
Instead, Youngs moves around to the open side and Parra follows him. Not only does Parra follow him, but he takes up a position in the defensive line and then has to track back to support Penaud. The fact Parra follows Youngs means that when Daly gets the ball he has plenty of time to pick his spot and execute a perfect kick, again hitting that space behind the winger.
As Daly gets the ball, let’s look at the French positioning. Lopez (10) has gone to meet Daly, Penaud (14) has dropped back already to scramble back and Parra (9) is tracking the ball. Huget (15) is out of the game because he is defending so wide.
The kick was executed perfectly, staying just infield and forcing France to clear from their own try line.
What could France have done better? Parra could have stayed on the far side of the scrum and taken Daly, so allowing Penaud to sit deeper or alternatively he could have retreated behind the scrum and covered the area behind the wing.
28 minutes: chaos from a kick leads to May’s 3rd try
England have had multiple phases on the French 22m line without really making much headway, when a stray Youngs’ pass from the base of the ruck results in Slade putting up a high kick. As the kick is made here’s the French positioning in the back field.
We now see the familiar sight of Parra (9) in the sweeping role, but this time he is the only player defending the space at the back; Fickou on this side is still stuck on his wing, while Huget (15) – perhaps thinks he is back on the wing, hugs the far touchline behind Penaud (14).
The kick isn’t particularly good but the combination of Parra failing to catch it and the defensive disorganisation results in a fairly simple try for May (after another chip through in to space).
This is truly shambolic stuff. Leaving aside Parra’s poor attempt at catching the ball, it’s the lack of communication and organisation between Parra and Huget that is France’s downfall in this move.
Huget’s initial positioning is wrong, but as he sees Parra come forward to take the ball he should have one thing on his mind, which is to go back and fill the space Parra vacated. Instead Huget follows the ball and gets sucked even further forward. A clever kick then identifies the space that Huget should be filling and it’s a simple try.
Not even a casual, accusatory glance inside from Huget can disguise this was very poor defending from an experienced test player.
This try came from a combination of a high kick – where the full back (or sweeping player) comes forward to take the ball, followed by a grubber kick through in to the space vacated by the sweeper. Let’s call it England’s 1-2 sucker punch. Hold that thought.
38 minutes: More defensive apathy and disorganisation leads to Slade’s try
It gets worse for France. As we head towards half time, France kick the ball away and Owen Farrell puts up a high kick in midfield. France fail to deal with the kick and from the resulting grubber through the defence, England move the ball wide for Slade to score.
This try sums up France’s lack of organisation, decision making under pressure and general apathy towards defence.
As Farrell’s kick goes up, France have 3 players defending the back field, with Parra just out of picture, Picamoles at the top of the screen and Huget walking back nearest the camera.
If we look at what happens when the ball comes down, we can see the root of France’s problem for this try.
Picamoles makes a hash of catching the ball (France barely took one catch from a high kick all afternoon), but who is this that appears at the breakdown as Lawes takes the ball on….it’s Parra!
So France did have 3 players covering the back – Picamoles has come forward in an attempt to take the catch, Parra for some reason has followed him in and decided to stay at the breakdown, rather than retreat to sweep again…..that must mean Huget (or perhaps one of the wings) has filled the space at the back? Let’s look.
After setting up the ruck, England – through a nice kick from Ben Youngs identified the space behind the French defensive line and Farrell and a few others flood the gap. Huget is nowhere to be seen and we can just catch Fickou making some attempt to scramble back.
It’s good awareness from Youngs but where is Huget?
Here he comes, slowly retreating to fill the space he should have filled a lot earlier.
Hang on. The clip above shows him coming in to shot with 39.07 on the clock, and he’s just crossed the 15m line. If we go back up a few stills we see him at 38.55 walking back after Farrell’s high kick. In 12 seconds he has barely covered 20 metres. So what happened to him?
The answer comes from re-winding back to 38.14 when France had possession 30 metres out from their line and Lopez passed the ball to Huget. Huget ignores his wing in acres of space and smashes in to the English defenders. He may have been slightly injured in that tackle (or more likely fatigue), but to buy himself some time to recover he flops on to the next ruck!
Later, when Farrell puts up the high kick, Huget is virtually in the same spot at that breakdown, and we see him slowly walking back. It seems like he didn’t have the fitness or desire to get back in to the 15 position where he could have prevented the try.
If we step back and look at this try, we see it’s the England 1-2 sucker punch tactic again!
A high ball isn’t caught by the opposition and the grubber kick through hits the space that the player who attempted to catch the ball vacated. It’s that same pattern again; bring the sweeper in for the high kick, then chip in to the space left behind. Simple but effective.
What this means for Wales
This 1-2 sucker punch tactic has caught Wales out in recent times. In last year’s 6 Nations England v Wales fixture, Wales failed to catch a high kick, the ball then fell to Owen Farrell who put through a grubber kick for Jonny May to run on to. Exactly the same approach as we saw in the France game.
Wales’ weaknesses for this try were also a carbon copy of Frances; a catcher fails to take the ball and the supporting back field player gets drawn towards the ball and fails to defend the space he has been assigned.
There are two areas for concern for Wales in relation to this kick tactic. The first is that Leigh Halfpenny, arguably the best defensive full back in world rugby, still isn’t available to play following concussion related problems stemming from the autumn internationals.
His likely replacement, Liam Williams, offers a more offensive threat but doesn’t have the same postional sense or discipline to make the right defensive decisions at the right times.
The second issue is that although Wales generally has an excellent defence, if there is a weakness it’s around the decision making of the back 3. This article looked at some of the poor decision making over the last season or two, and in game week 1 of this 6 Nations we saw George North again fail to make te right decision in defence, which led to a simple French try.
Wales will however have much better organisation and desire to win than France. They also usually defend with 2 players at the back – usually the full back and the outside half. If the outside half pushes up – for example Biggar kicks high and long, then it’s usually the job of the scrum half to drop back in to Biggar’s vacated position.
Wales impressive back line blitz also reduces the chances of the ball going wide, which allows the full back to stand more centrally and sweep behind the defensive line. We often saw Huget standing 5-10 metres from the touchline when defending deep. This opens up the field in the centre of the pitch to the chip kick.
Wales can also look at some of the tactics used by England and adopt them for their own use. The kick from the scrum in behind the winger was particularly effective and very difficult to counter, if the kick is accurate and the right length.
Expect more of the same offensive kicking from England in Cardiff in 2 weeks’ time, but Wales can’t complain they haven’t been warned. It’s now down to Wales to work on the organisation around defending these types of kicks in order to nullify England’s attack.
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