When you think of counter-attacking rugby, England doesn’t first spring to mind.
Most will associate the free-flowing, unstructured intuitive style of play with the All Blacks. However, since their worst-ever finish in a Six Nations at the end of March 2018, England has re-booted this area of the game that has been so pivotal to their success under Jones.
The arrival of attack coach Scott Wisemantel from Montpellier and former All Blacks head coach John Mitchell as an assistant would have no doubt brought fresh perspectives into England’s think tank.
Mitchell, in particular, is widely credited with recognising the under-utilised value of counter-attacking play in the 2000’s and would certainly have brought recommendations forward to Eddie Jones.
After each of the Six Nations championships in 2016 & 2017, the Wallabies were completely dismantled by the kicking game of England and their own turnovers at Twickenham, highlighting how effective counter-attacking play can be for England.
In the 2018 Six Nations Championship, zero tries came from counter-attack and just two from turnover ball for a measly total of 14 percent of all tries scored. Fast forward to the 2019 Six Nations and nearly half (47 percent) were scored from counter attacks and turnovers, according to Simon Gleave, head of sports analysis at Gracenote.
England’s game is still largely structured around kick pressure and territory gains through the air, however there has been a revived ability to score from unstructured situations and they way they have done this has still been uniquely English.
The selection of highly skilled, well-conditioned ‘speed’ outside backs has proliferated over the last 18 months with the likes of Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Henry Slade, and Jack Nowell becoming the backbone of their number one backline, edging out Mike Brown, and the oft-injured Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson.
Gifted athletes with evasive footwork and top-line speed, England’s outside backs are also all kicking options – Daly, May and Slade as left-footers and Nowell as a right-footer – while Daly and Slade are talented distributors. This unit collectively expanded and re-powered England’s counter game during the 2019 Six Nations.
Youngs and Farrell are the controllers in England’s kick-pressure game, but the outside backs have the license to kick in search of a ‘kill shot’, turning an unstructured moment into a foot race for seven points.
With speed across the park combined with quick and accurate decision-making, England’s ability to win these races has come back again.
While Daly can be fallible under the high ball at times, his presence at the back has ignited England’s return game off both turnovers and kicks.
In the opening stages against France, a spilled ball is quickly moved to Daly out the back.
Although France actually have more numbers than England out to the far side, the use of blocking opens up a highway for the elusive Daly to cut through.
Kyle Sinckler (3) and Henry Slade (13) deliberately locate the nearest kick chasers and lightly obstruct them by taking the ideal body position to shield them away from Daly.
With the two shields in place, Daly has room to swerve upfield getting a one-on-one matchup in the open field against Camille Lopez.
The third shield by Jamie George gives Daly the time to re-accelerate after shaking the Lopez tackle.
The breach into the French backfield has been made and only the final defender, halfback Morgan Parra (9), awaits. Here is where the ‘kill shot’ via the kick comes, as Daly toes the grubber ahead for the flying Jonny May.
The formula is simple, find a way to breach the first level, kick past the last man and win the foot race.
A poor kick down the throat of Daly is returned on the opposite side of the field. England have more re-loading support players than Scotland have kick chasers, so could spark an opportunity here by creating an overlap.
Daly draws in the two defenders before freeing up his ball-carrying arm and getting an offload away to Jack Nowell (14) in the clear.
With Ben Youngs (9) looping around, England breach Scotland’s flimsy kick-chase edge defence and find the last man again.
Jack Nowell opts for the chip kick over Sean Maitland and only a wicked bounce in-field prevents Ben Youngs getting an easy try. Youngs gets a slight touch on the ball in competition with Ali Price when trying to ground it and a knock-on is called.
If the opposition turns the ball over inside their own half, England has shown collective enterprise similar to that of the All Blacks.
Quick handling and offloading have been used to move the ball towards the edge where Daly and Slade can inject. If England succeeds in making a breach, the kick can be used if the space in behind, or on the next phase while the back three is compromised.
England’s three-zone kicking game often leads to turnovers direct from spilled aerial contests, which present the perfect opportunity to land a kill shot. Against France, this was frequently used to double-down on a successful first kick and expose a depleted back three with a second one.
The addition of Henry Slade into England’s midfield not only provides another kicking option, but also a ball-hawking centre who provides high-pressure defence.
This has created more turnovers from which to create kick-chase opportunities from.
Flying off the line, Slade targets a robotic Lopez going through the motions to jump the passing lane and snatch the pass.
He takes as much of the open field as he can before being at risk of being cut down by French wing Gael Fickou. Again we see the preference for a foot race as Slade puts in a grubber for the supporting Chris Ashton (14).
Chris Ashton is tackled by Fickou without the ball, resulting in a penalty try to England and a yellow card to France.
Against Wales, these fast break scenarios were limited but it was Slade to spark one in the first half with this charge down and re-gather on Gareth Anscombe.
Slade is brought down by Anscombe before getting the ball away to Jonny May who is also chopped down on the edge of the 22.
With Wales scrambling, Youngs and Farrell call a pet-play which calls for a halfback dink end-over-end over the top and a chase from the 10, who can use the base of the ruck as the offside line to really wind up his run.
Wales’ fullback Liam Williams senses almost immediately that his side’s backfield coverage is compromised and bails on the ‘A’ pillar role to make sure this play can’t happen.
He gets a headstart on Farrell and manages to collect the loose ball in what would otherwise have been a race won by the England flyhalf.
Against the likes of Wales and Ireland, England found it more difficult to profit from transition plays as the windows were smaller and the defence generally more aware, although they still came away with two tries from kicks and one from an intercept in Dublin.
Scotland and France gave up an untold amount of opportunities from these situations and conceded frequently.
With Argentina being a helter-skelter type of side like France that can blow hot and cold and offer disorganised defence, England will likely find success with their kick-chase game off counter-attacking situations to knock over their two big pool opponents.
If a quarterfinal presents against the Wallabies, another error-prone side which they have had no problems dispatching since the last World Cup, a semi-final appearance is likely.
Where the All Blacks use catch-pass to kill teams on counter-attack, England use kick-chase off it and in 2019 have found success with it bringing in Slade and moving Daly to fullback.
By re-booting their counter-attacking game, England are ready to make amends for a pool stage exit in 2015 at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
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