How to beat England – lessons from the 6 Nations

The Eddie Jones effect brought some long overdue 6 Nations success for England which was followed up by an impressive display against Wales in the recent friendly. They now head for 3 tests in Australia which will define how far this England team has come since they limped out of the World Cup back in the Autumn.

This England team does not follow the traditional England blue print of a set piece orientated, dominant pack sitting in front of an efficient but limited back line. Yes, these forwards will gain parity at the set piece but it is not yet a front 5 that will dominate games against the best; similarly the back row is some way off the balance and power that the likes of Dallaglio, Hill, Rodber, Clarke, Richards and Teague brought to England over the decades.

What this team does have though are some exceptional ball carriers in the forwards who provide the space for a set of lively backs to exploit. All teams want space to play in but England’s current style of play means stopping their ball carriers will go a long way to nullifying their potency.

This article will look at these two aspects of their game, through examples taken from their recent matches:

  • Forwards who carry the ball over the gain line
  • Backs who exploit the space, particularly around the breakdown

 

France – 6 Nations 2016

Our first example comes from the Grand Slam deciding 6 Nations France v England fixture, earlier this season.

The play begins with a high risk back ball at the lineout and England then quickly move the ball to midfield where Jonathan Joseph goes in to contact:

There are two key aspects to note about this try.

The first is the excellent ball presentation from Joseph on the floor which gives Danny Care time to look up and spot the gap. As the still below shows, Joseph lifts the ball off the ground to pass it to Care, which buys him an extra split second to assess his options.

care 1.jpg

The second aspect is how quickly Care is aware that the French defence has failed to reform in time and that there is a large gap between the ruck and the defending players coming across to the breakdown.

 

In the same game another England try gives us a prime example of the England power runners opening up space for the backs. Off the back of the scrum Billy Vunipola makes 25 metres with the ball in hand before Ben Youngs (on for Danny Care) snipes around the blind side.

 

Vunipola makes huge distance on the run from the base of the scrum – particularly when you consider he was starting from the wrong side of the scrum to make an open field thrust.

Once again we see the attention to detail that Eddie Jones brings to the team, with perfect ball presentation from Vunipola on the ground (see still below):

vuni 1.jpg

The French pillar defence has failed to get back in to position, and like Care in the previous example, Youngs has the time to spot the gap and make a penetrating run that leads to a try.

vuni 2.jpg

 

 

Ireland – 6 Nations 2016

In this example it is the England tight head Dan Cole who makes the thrust through the Irish defence.

Even though he probably only makes about 2-3 metres over the gain line, it is far enough to get beyond the gain line and provide quick front foot ball for England. Again, an England forward gets over the gain line and the ball presentation is so fast the Irish fringe defence hasn’t had time to reform.

The image below is frozen at the point where Youngs is about to pick the ball up. We can’t see the ball but Youngs has unimpeded access to the breakdown and clean ball.  The Irish player with the scrum cap (Mike Ross) has been accidentally taken down in the tackle and is therefore out of position and unable to prevent Youngs taking the ball on in to the gaping gap.

ireland 1.jpg

 

Wales – 6 Nations 2016

Another 6 Nations game and another England forward making good progress with ball in hand to release the backs. On this occasion it’s Maro Itoje who does the damage with an uncharacteristic missed tackles from Dan Biggar and Scott Baldwin allowing the Saracens second row to breach the first line defence, before releasing the backs to finish the try.

Wales – May 2016 friendly

You’ve probably guessed the pattern by now; an England forward makes ground and the ball is then released to backs in space, who use simple passing at speed to score the try.

The key to this try was the drive from England’s debutante Teimana Harrison, which is best viewed from the camera behind the England team, where we can see Harrison bumps off the Welsh centre Scott Williams:

As Williams is bumped off in the tackle Dan Biggar is forced to come across to complete the tackle.

biggar.jpg

Biggar has now been taken out of position, so when the quick ruck ball is delivered England has a 3 on 2 advantage which they capitalise on through simple, passing and direct running.

 

So just stop their runners?

Yes….but that’s the tough bit.

England’s backs do not have the power or strength to bludgeon their way through the opposition. What they rely on are the forward surges from the likes of Vunipola, Itoje and Cole to create the space so that they can use their pace and movement to full effect.

The England try against Wales in the friendly exemplifies the simplicity and precision of execution of Englands backs when they are given space. They are given a numerical advantage but their straight running and accurate passing allows Watson enough room to make the corner.

The challenge for the opposition – Australia this summer, is to quickly close down the attacking lines for their forward runners, which will nullify the pace and movement of the backs. If they don’t manage to do this we can expect a tight series to come.

 

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