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England’s sudden fall from grace has left fans scratching their heads, but the issue is clear: not a lot has changed, with wins papering over some rather large cracks.
In their past four Tests against the Wallabies, maybe three tries were created from actual attacking play, with the rest coming form opportunistic kicks or poor play from their opponents.
This lack of attacking smarts was again on display in the Six Nations.
Their first five minutes against France started well, but the French began to line up their defensive system, and stopped competing at the breakdown, where England overcommited. The attack then narrowed, and when it was passed out wide, it narrowed again quickly. The space was there but England refused to run into it.
One thing the English were good at was winning and winning in tight situations, with a group of Saracens players, who had won several titles, at the team’s core.
What Eddie Jones did with England is similar to what he did with Japan, played to the team’s strengths rather than fixing the obvious weaknesses. Japan utilised their quick backs and wide passing and it worked against South Africa in the World Cup. But they ignored their tiny pack and poor tackling technique, often having two players commit to the tackle, leaving massive gaps in the defensive line.
England’s biggest problem is their lack of a specialist openside – it has been for years, Chris Robshaw is not a 7. So Jones opted to have multiple players who are decent at the breakdown. For this to work, they need to make big tackles and force mistakes, which is what happened against Australia and in their successful Six Nations.
But this tactic has now backfired.
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Firstly, as seen in the game against Scotland, the Scots allowed the big English pack to take extra metres in the tackle and took their breakdown to pieces as the tackled player was isolated. Their pack managed parity with England and allowed these turnovers to occur.
Secondly, as seen against France, was the issue of facing a bigger, nastier pack. France outmuscled the English and England didn’t get the turn overs they were so used to, leading to a French victory.
Ireland employed a combination of the two tactics and were successful. With no specialist openside, they’re was no protection agains these three sides and England paid for it.
The third way which caught Jones with his pants down was the new change in breakdown laws, forcing the tackler to return through the gate.
England also appear to have zero rugby smarts. Perhaps this was best shown when they played Italy two years ago, when the Italians didn’t commit to the breakdown, meaning that their was no offside line. Any other team would have adapted, yet the English spent 80 minutes waving their hands at the referee.
Against South Africa on the weekend, when England had a large lead after 20 minutes, managing to lose showed a lack of game awareness and strategy. Yes, the Springobks played well, but not 39-15 in 50-odd minutes well.
Watching England’s attack over the Six Nations, I had no idea what they were trying to achieve. They created the space in the defensive line and yet refused to run into it, instead running into the same players, in the same areas, time and time again. There was a clear improvement against the Springbok, attacking the flanks and getting success from it, yet this was largely thanks to some atrocious defence.
The only time England had a semi-cohesive attack was against Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Australia two years ago. This was when they had Glen Ella as their attack coach and their lack of an attack coach over the Six Nations showed.
They have now employed Scott Wisemantel, who worked as skills coach for Jones in 2003 and the attack seems to have improved.
If England want to keep up with the vastly improving Australian, Scottish, South African, and Irish, they need a forward pack that isn’t one dimensional and a backline that can play with some flare and creativity.