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How will England’s small men stand up in the Six Nations?

England are moving closer to the No. 1 world ranking. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)
Expert
24th January, 2017
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Zero tolerance. Those are the buzzwords for the new tackle law interpretations. Zero tolerance for high shots – a policy, if consistently implemented, that stands to change the game radically over the next 12 months.

Eddie Jones was one of the first to recognise the technical and tactical impact it could have on the way the game will be played.

“The inevitability of the need to tackle lower is that it will free up the game and more offloads will come in,” Jones told The Guardian.

“I have been impressed by how France have improved in the understanding of how they play: if they are playing rucks, they are an average team, but they are now playing above the defence, picking a lot of big, tall guys who can get above the tackler and offload. Then they become the old, dangerous France, with movement, tempo and rhythm.”

In rugby league, high tackling technique has evolved in order to defuse the danger of offloads, smothering the ball at the point of contact.

In rugby union, it now appears that the offloading game will have an increased chance to prosper, with the tackle zone necessarily lower – and probably for the majority of the time, underneath the level of the ball.

Ironically, this new ruling may have a powerful and immediate effect on England’s defence of their Six Nations title, which begins in less than a fortnight.

As Jones observed, they will be playing France first up, and he has noticed how the French are developing their offloading game and quickening the tempo of their attacking approach.

The England midfield of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph is the smallest trio in rugby’s international top tier. Here is a selection of some of the teams in that elite echelon:

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Team #10 Inside centre Outside centre Average
England Ford, 5’9, 185lbs Farrell, 6’2, 212 Joseph, 6′, 201 5’11, 198lbs
New Zealand Beauden Barrett, 6’2, 203 Ryan Crotty 6′, 209 Anton Lienert-Brown 6’2, 212 6’1, 208lbs
Australia Bernard Foley, 6′, 196 Reece Hodge, 6’3, 207 Tevita Kuridrani 6’4, 225 6’2, 209lbs
Ireland Johnny Sexton, 6’3, 203 Robbie Henshaw, 6’3, 209 Jared Payne, 6’2, 209 6’3, 207lbs
France Jean-Marc Doussain, 5’9, 203 Remi Lamerat, 6’3, 231 Gaël Fickou 6’3, 218 6′, 217lbs
Wales Dan Biggar, 6’2, 196 Jamie Roberts, 6’4, 240 Jonathan Davies 6’1, 229 6’2, 222lbs
Scotland Finn Russell, 6′, 192 Alex Dunbar 6’1, 229 Huw Jones, 6′, 201 6′, 207lbs

England coped remarkably well with the disparity in midfield size throughout the 2016 Six Nations, and in their four games with a much larger Australian inside trio from June on to the end of the year.

So why won’t they continue to handle the issue just as well in the new year?

The two dynamic factors in the argument are, firstly, the impact of the new tackle interpretations, and secondly, increased opposition familiarity with England’s defensive patterns.

One of the major causes of ‘second-season blues’ is that the opponent has far more information with which to analyse and pinpoint weaknesses in a previous winner of the competition – and they, of course, are inevitably targeted.

England have collectively lifted their head well above the parapet and they are up there to be shot at.

Another aspect of the size equation is that Jones has been forced to select an extra ball-carrying back row forward (typically James Haskell with everyone fit) to compensate for the absence of a power runner in the midfield.

Manu Tuilagi might well have fulfilled this role but he has been injured throughout Jones’ tenure. So England have ended up with a back-row consisting of one massive number eight and two 6s in Haskell and Chris Robshaw, linked to two ball-playing 10s and a 13 outside them.

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This has given them some lopsided transition zones on defence, with a bigger imbalance in size and speed between the last forward and the first back.

When you think of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, one of the reasons their defensive partnership was so successful was that they could run and think at the same speed in defence – McCaw could hit harder and Carter could run to the target faster, but the basic similarity in size allowed them to defend well as a pair.

For England, that harmonious blend between forwards and backs in defence is more difficult to engineer.

Let’s take a look at what this can mean in practice.

This first reel comes from the 2016 Six Nations, and two main points emerge from it:

Transition zone imbalance between forwards and backs
In the first example from the England vs Wales game, Wales use their big men in the backline to take advantage of England’s smaller defenders.

With the threat of Jamie Roberts holding the inside defence, they’re in a position to match up their best footballer, Liam Williams, with Joseph on the third pass. Joseph makes very few errors in defence, but he cannot prevent Williams getting the offload away to Jonathan Davies, because he is a low tackler.

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At the moment the offload is delivered, look where England’s first two back-row defenders are in relation to their Welsh counterparts – at 73:39, both Justin Tipuric (Wales #20) and Taulupe Faletau (#8) are well ahead of their opposite numbers and the transition zone is gaping wide. One second later and there are four Wales players in support against lone England fullback, Mike Brown.

The second example comes straight from the kick-off after George North’s try. Again, England have an uncomfortable transition zone between their big No.8 Billy Vunipola and Jack Nowell out on the right wing, and there is no sense of connection between the two in defence as Davies makes his second break.

Forty seconds later, Faletau rampages through another disconnect between a big forward (replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie) and a small back (scrum-half Danny Care) to finish the movement. The score is a mirror image of the try converted by Sekope Kepu in Australia’s December international, with the Wallaby tighthead running straight through the seam between prop Joe Marler and Owen Farrell to score in the 66th minute.

The need to protect George Ford in the 10 channel
The need to protect their small number 10, Ford, often leaves England looking narrow on defence, especially from early set-piece situations.

In the Ireland game, at 15:31, the threat of big Stuart McCloskey fixes Ford and the two defenders inside and outside him (Haskell and Farrell) in about five square metres of space. If Henshaw is less obvious with his holding block on Farrell, Johnny Sexton is through the gap and away.

When McCloskey receives the ball again, at 39:03, all three England midfielders are compressed into that same five square metres of space and the outside is open if Sexton passes immediately. At 55:16, the widest England defender (Anthony Watson) is well inside the far 15-metre line, as McCloskey brushes Ford out of the way on the block – if Henshaw passes short to Rob Kearney, rather than throwing the long looped delivery, then Ireland are in business again on the right outside.

A number of these issues were confirmed in England’s last match of the season, against the Wallabies.

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After the scrum turnover at 6:35, Reece Hodge drives so far through the seam between Ford and Farrell that the second phase finish is a simple walk-in for Sefa Naivalu. The second example follows right after the ensuing England kick-off – just as in the Wales Six Nations game.

Again, there is a forward (Courtney Lawes) defending inside the last back (Marland Yarde) and there is little evidence of a connection between the two players. Lawes is sucked on to the decoy (David Pocock), leaving a straightforward two-on-one in the wide channel for Hodge and Naivalu.

The vulnerability of Ford as a front-line defender, especially from early phases, is also spotlighted.

At 11:27, Australia put a big athlete in the shape of Israel Folau over the top of him directly from a midfield scrum, at 15:22 they identify him in the wide channel from another England restart. At 22:30, even Bernard Foley is able to put enough of a dent in Ford and Nathan Hughes for Michael Hooper to break straight up the middle of an unsettled England guard defence on the next play.

At 37:00, Ben Youngs drifts too far across the field in an effort to protect Ford from the threat of Tevita Kuridrani, allowing Dane Haylett-Petty to slip underneath him for another clean break.

Summary
England’s opponents in the forthcoming Six Nations will draw comfort from the targets they can identify in England’s midfield and the shaky relationship between their inside backs and their forwards defending together.

The fact that England have held together so well in these areas over the last season, with the physical imbalances involved, is quite remarkable.

Nonetheless, they have conceded 20 tries in their last seven games and the suspect areas of their defensive patterns have become ever clearer in the second half of the season.

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There is no lack of either sheer guts or ‘smarts’ in George Ford without the ball, while Jonathan Joseph is consistently one of England’s best low-tackling defenders.

However, Owen Farrell will need to adapt his rugby league, high-tackling ‘smother’ technique to the new rulings (see the misses at Ireland 39:16, and Australia 22:35) and all three will have to work out a method to stop the offload against often much bigger attackers.

The new tackle interpretations may help bring England back towards the chasing pack, and it promises to be one of the most intriguing Six Nations for many years!

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