We all know that unless a miracle happens, the Wallabies will be headed to a Rugby World Cup quarter-final against England.
England’s attack during the Six Nations was sublime.
Scott Wisemantel has come in and improved the handling and introduced certain traits into this team – traits that have contributed to some brilliant attack.
England’s kicking game dominated the headlines. This article focuses on the work done behind the scenes on the ball in hand game.
These are the traits England are now showing that they didn’t before, resulting in the highest try count in the Six Nations.
England have scored and made a lot of breaks based on sequence plays.
Sequence plays are the chess moves of the rugby attack, designed to manipulate a defence in such a way and so the players have a framework to play to.
These were used to great effect in the autumn internationals. One used against New Zealand, as we will see in the next All Blacks article, combined perfectly with an defensive weakness to result in a try.
This brings us to the 31/21 patterns.
Seen in all levels of rugby, these are made up of two or three hard phases off the No.9 in one direction to force the defence to overload on one side, followed by a switch play off the No.10 to take advantage of this space. England have actively developed and worked on these.
The 21 pattern
As we can see, the 21 pattern saw great use against the Six Nations teams.
Two phases off the No.9 to overload the defence, followed by the switch play off the No.10.
If we look at the first receivers in both the above clips, the strike runners on first phase are Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola, two of England’s most powerful carriers.
The carrier on the second phase was Mako Vunipola. The reasoning behind this is all designed to assist the switch play.
Mako’s run coaxes the overload to the open side on second phase, while when the switch is made, Tuilagi and Vunipola both fill the role of the first receiver and the dummy runner.
This is because together these two can constrict the majority of the blindside defenders, allowing Owen Farrell – who started on the open side to try to encourage the overload – the maximum amount of space to exploit for the switch play.
England have gone into overdrive in their stacking philosophies.
Stacking has become key in England’s sequence plays, with the receivers behind the ball all running up to the line, committing the man and ensuring outside space.
George Ford with his speed manages to exploit the space outside Finn Russell. This space doesn’t exist without England’s use of stacking.
Here, Farrell stacks the defence to commit men rather then passing immediately.
Here is another example.
The next development for England is consistent communication between the second receiver and his outside line.
As we can see against Wales, Elliot Daly went in for his run, but there was no short option there with him to take the pass into space. The players hung back.
As we saw earlier with Mark Wilson in the 21 pattern against France, if this communication is kept, it means massive gain line as the players are running into created space.
Like the All Blacks, England will look to develop this communication and alignment pre-World Cup.
Another key work-on is that the line outside the second receiver need to be flatter much like in this instance, as England’s attack works best playing flat to the line.
Daly at No.10 and the ten-15 axis
England’s attacking system still depends on two playmakers.
But rather than the ten-12 axis previously used, or the ten-13 we thought might develop when Henry Slade stepped in, it has since been replaced by the ten-15, similar to the All Black ethos.
England are thinking about trialing Daly at No.10, which we’ll see sooner rather than later.
The benefits of such philosophy can be seen in the All Blacks running ten.
We not only see him using acting as second receiver off the No.10 and the three pod – to stack and then pass at the line, a skill that is fast becoming a prerequisite for England’s stand-offs – but in his positioning off set piece as well.
He is fast, ambidextrous and – like Damian McKenzie for New Zealand – is able to kick, as well as execute the stacking principle very effectively with his speed.
On top of this, the ten-15 link is necessary to execute England’s attacking wide plays, as can be seen here. This is a key reason why Daly replaced Mike Brown at 15.
Without Ford and Farrell, England needed a twin playmaker system. In Farrell-Daly, they got it.
This dynamic has given him much increased responsibility in England’s attack, as well as improving his distribution no end.
England run a large majority of their game off nine. If they continue down this oath, Daly’s switch to No.10 could be sooner then people think.
Eddie Jones did it before with Stephen Larkham at Rod Macqueen’s request. He may be doing it again here.
This is the improvement in England’s game that excites me the most.
It shows outside-the-box thinking and a willingness to be pioneers rather then followers.
England have taken the standard wedge formation of the three pod – their generic prong pod – and changed the running lines, timings and angles, all to form more deception within the pod.
The forwards are now running decoy and screen lines within their pods to increase the number of options. Lets show you some examples.
Three pod variants
As we can see here, the pod has turned into a screen pass, to try and put George Kruis into some space, or offer the pop option to Tom Curry.
The exact same lines within the three pod are run against France, but with Mako as the screen runner. All done with the intention of improving England’s chances of a break.
Again, we see the move used to great effect against Italy.
England of course have other variations, but the purpose of this segment is to show their intent to develop these.
3-1-2 system variations
England have multiple structures in their arsenal. The three most prominent are 1-2-2-2-1, 1-3-3-1 and 3-1-2.
The 3-1-2 is quintessentially English and has seen a lot of use in the new England attack.
There is also a lot of variation within the strike options the way they run it, as can be shown here.
Post three pod hit, Farrell has the one option on his inside, and two pod on his outside.
Kyle Sinckler runs a screen line from his original position inside Farrell to take the short option instead of Courtney Lawes.
This is usually the role of a winger or fullback. The openness to have forwards coming off as inside-strike options and screen-runners is why I’m happy where England are taking their attack.
Similar to an old Brumby play we’ll discuss in a bit, they’re ignoring convention, happy to break out from the standard structures that forwards are supposed to stick to, in order to advance their game.
Brumby mode 2.0
As we have seen before, certain philosophies of the Brumbies and Wallabies under Rod Macqueen can be found in this team.
Multiple players constricted into one channel, attacking the fringe defence repeatedly, putting them on the ground and playing flat off No.9 and No.10, combined with rapid-fire pick-and-gos to exploit the undermanned pillars.
Some readers may wonder about my obsession with the Brumbies of this era. The reasoning is that they are my favourite rugby team of all time, and I say that as a patriotic fan who went crazy at England’s 2003 World Cup victory.
Their attack structure was basic, but the ideas within it were innovative, exciting, different and geared towards winning rugby. It produced the most exciting rugby I’ve ever seen and has been my ethos since.
What we have seen recently is the advancement of this philosophy.
Specific moves and plays designed to target the fringes of the ruck, use of footwork and out-to-in lines by the forwards to commit the fringe defence to the ground, and Ben Youngs’ increasing scoot similarity to George Gregan.
There will be a whole family of dynamics and moves around this philosophy that Eddie Jones will be keeping under wraps until the World Cup. This excites me hugely.
I can’t show you these. But I can show you what England have shown.
The targeting of the fringe of the ruck here is evident. On a side note, this move is one designed to strike the trickle gap, an under-exploited chink in the All Blacks’ defence, which is indicative of Jones’ thinking.
The off-shoulder principle
Sinckler’s run in the 3-1-2 variation has a similarity to vintage Brumbies play.
I could be incredibly wrong here with thinking England have taken it on in that form fully, but they have done variations of it, and the identical play is definitely in the All Blacks playbook with McKenzie and Beauden Barrett the main runners.
It depends on the use of the hidden runner, and has seen far much more use since Wisemantel was brought on board.
The Brumbies play
The Brumbies were among the first to use the league tactic of screen runners.
The defence has numbered on the Brumbies No.10, No.12 and No.11. By running under the No.12, David Knox leaves behind his marker, and takes a line that slices through the gap between the No.12 and No.11.
The way the Brumbies were set meant this hole was not exploitable until Knox reused himself on this line.
Present day stand-offs usually take a east-west run on plays like this to release their wide men.
The combo of Knox reusing himself with a north-south line against a numbered-up defence meant he could target a gap between defenders that the defence didn’t even think exploitable.
If England run this with Daly at No.10 and Tuilagi at No.12, the results will be devastating.
Tuilagi running a hard out-to-in line will hold the inside drift that covers Knox here.
Daly is rapid enough to exploit to resulting hole. If the inside D tries to plug the hole, a dummy from Tuilagi could send him through.
It really started seeing use in South Africa when Wisemantel started with England.
Jonny May starts inside Ford, and tracks out, targeting in-between the No.13 who covers Ford, and No.14 who’s marking Slade.
The English wingers come in off their wing so often now that they’re hardly out there.
The line from Jack Nowell is not the hardest, yet it attracts the defence.
This is where Jones will want Youngs to develop the smarts of George Gregan. There has never been a better No.9 at troubling and manipulating the fringes of the ruck.
Youngs is starting to add the scooting of Gregan to his game, but the confidence to dummy and go himself here could’ve yielded the break.
Simultaneously, we can see Wilson here run the inside line off Youngs, targeting the gap between and expecting the back pass. This is an educated guess based on Gregan’s past plays.
The above try sealed the 1999 World Cup for Australia. In the England case, these moves have progressed from the back three last year, to forwards and backs taking the screen passes this year.
As we saw against France, and as shown against Ireland here, with Vunipola copying Sinckler’s line perfectly.
With further developments, I expect further variations to this principle to be seen.
Out to in plus footwork
England’s forwards will more often then not take an out-to-in line or utilise footwork to move inside when targeting the fringes now.
England’s one-out pods will often target in this way or the inside shoulder of the fourth defender, where the fringe meets the rest of the defensive line.
Against Wales, we see three clear out-to-in runs here into a very narrow channel. Classic Brumby mode.
The Welsh defence reloaded around the corner, which meant they were able to deal with these runners.
This action going forward is what England are trying to coax.
The development of switch plays has already been seen. Getting the defence to over-commit and then rapidly switch to exploit the opposite side of the ruck with players rapidly moving here.
All of this combined excites me.
We are seeing innovation, the saplings of new ideas and come World Cup time, these saplings should be trees.
England did not win the Six Nations, but I’m happy with their progress and have faith in our coaching team.
These dynamics scream of the intent to aim to the highest position in the world.
The fact that we have this mindset now is enough for this supporter.