“At all times we tried to think outside the square. If we were confronted with “that’s the way it is”, the first question would always be “why?” If it had been done before, “how could it be changed?” If it hadn’t been done before, “why couldn’t it be done?” There is always another way of doing things.” – Rod MacQueen
Just before the World Cup, Eddie Jones stated that the direction of rugby was continually evolving.
“The game keeps changing. I see this game now where it is basically a mixture of NFL and soccer. You’ve got the first three phases that are basically all power and precision. Then you have the kick-return game which then basically becomes football,” he explained.
We have to ask, why are the first three phases the most exploitable for an attack? Why is phase-play being reduced from the wonderful ten phases or more that we used to see to a glorified kick-chase game?
The reasoning is that defences are far better at countering opposition shapes. Pods, dummy runners and second-man plays, are by modern standards, easy to deal with.
This is thanks to the increased work rate of modern defences, as well as the extra analysis and practices that goes into preparing for a match. Whilst there may be minor differences from team to team, attacks are now all steeped in the same principles, and therefore only have a certain number of things to worry about.
When Joe Schmidt’s Ireland arrived, they introduced dynamics which were previously unused in the standard attacking practices of the game.
The above move flummoxed defences, as it presented unexpected pictures. It was a progression in the game and helped net Ireland their highest ranking in World Rugby.
By hiring Simon Amor, Neil Craig and Jason Ryles, England are now designing a game built around increased proficiency at unstructured attack, AFL kicking innovations and league style ruck defence.
This shows that in attack, England are gearing towards being able to thrive in unstructured scenarios, as well as having the best kicking game in the world while in defence, the side will be anticipating increased deception and funnel attacks.
Combine this with his fluid player positioning and we can see where Jones is looking to achieve his goal.
X-runs are an old school Wallaby play originally developed by Rod MacQueen and his Wallabies.
They were incredibly effective, as they not only target defence on the individual level (as opposed to on a zonal level) but also make use of blockers to open the way for the strike runner.
Whilst they didn’t always come off, England have brought them back to target the hinge of the defensive line.
This hinge is an exploitable gap that can be targeted very intelligently with the X-run.
In the above scenario, George Ford has no slider or second man option to move the ball wide, instead, he has Tom Curry cutting in a standard scissors motion, with Jamie George on the inside running a hard line shown by the green arrow below.
This gap cannot be exploited with the inside pass but the X-run makes it possible. The blocking set of George Kruis and Courtney Lawes is designed to hold Jake Ball and Alun Wyn-Jones.
This brings up Rob Evans to put pressure on the first receiver, with Ross Moriarty rushing up with him, opening this gap.
This whole alignment was bait. The block is designed to extend this gap, we can see Lawes and Kruis looking back to see the effect.
Curry is meant to run the line, again holding Wyn-Jones and passing back to George, one of England’s more mobile carriers, running straight through the hole.
New Zealand shows the impact above, albeit with a slightly forward pass.
The X-run allows a player who was previously offside (George), to be put onside by the scissors option (Curry). The only way this could work otherwise is with a forward pass, as in New Zealand’s case.
Wallaby Prop Chris Handy referred to the game as a musical recital, with the forwards being piano lifters and the backs piano players.
Unfortunately, these traditions somewhat still exist today, with tight five forwards often being expected to do nothing other than scrum, jump, back pass and carry hard off the halfback.
MacQueen believed there was little difference between the role of each player outside of the set plays off scrums and lineouts. Each player now picked up the piano, carried it inside, wrote the music, and played it.
This led to “Forax” training in which the forwards and backs would combine together, with backs learning specialist skills like rucking, mauling and the “up the guts” role synonymous with the Brumbies under MacQueen.
By the 1999 World Cup final, MacQueen’s backs were fully comfortable with the high-pressure contact and rucking that the forwards traditionally had to execute in the Wallaby gameplan.
In contrast, forwards were instructed on the passing, kicking, playmaking and running required to attack the space created, offloading and passing to get the ball to Ben Tune.
The current pre-conception of forwards and backs stifles progress.
Limiting what the tight five can do limits your potential and overcoming this mindset accounted for the success the Wallabies made in these years.
This is why Jones feels the need for hybrid players is becoming more and more prevalent. We see Tom Curry acting as scrumhalf off scrum feeds.
Jack Nowell packing down at Flanker, Joe Cokanasinga at 8 allowing Billy Vunipola to strike the 10 channel – all of these positional changes are down to England’s goal to generate this breed of player and become more complete.
England forwards are also now kicking more than ever before.
This will appear as sacrilege to some coaches. Yet when no centre is available to kick and the option is on, having forwards who have the skill and the freedom to make this call, could prove invaluable.
England’s Kick Philosophy
Englands’ next major trump card, is directly related to the role of kicking within the modern game.
England’s kicking game is already highly developed. Off deep opposition restarts, number 8 Curry always fields and carries the ball into contact to gain momentum.
The ball needs to be recovered, which is why Curry is always supported by two front-rowers and two locks, to ensure quick and safe delivery of the ball.
The box kick follows shortly after, accompanied by two lines of chase to account for the counterattack and potential chip into space.
Against Wales, the exact same principle is followed.
Curry carries into contact, supported by two locks and two front-rowers. Only this time, the kick goes back for George Ford.
Ford clears it, with Farrell coming through as the chaser. This is to put his forwards onside and activate the chase.
It’s a very well-rehearsed and battle-proven strategy. However, all teams have restart strategies to exit their red zone.
The innovation that England may have launched and something from AFL, is the use of forward observers.
In the British Army, there is a role called the Fire Support Team (FST).
The role comprises of a small detachment of artillery specialists who are attached to an Infantry patrol, who will then coordinate indirect fire onto enemy positions should they be contacted by said rascals.
This proximity means they can bracket and fix the enemy with better accuracy.
If there’s a rugby take on this, it’s what England have been doing in winning their games of kick tennis. This philosophy may have been taken from their former attack coach, Scott Wisemantel.
Wisemantel’s theory detailed for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2009 is that the wingers and the fullback should play like three fullbacks and be the “eyes” of the backline.
He says one of their roles should be to communicate their reading of the game to the centres – the “ears” – who relay that information to the halfback and five-eighth to help them to make better decisions.
This chain system of communication could have been taken for England’s use to gain an advantage in their kicking game.
Going up the field, England colour code their kick-chase zones. If they follow the method employed by Eddie Jones’ Japan, this means the field is divided into three zones for their attacking kicks.
This is how the kicker is told where to kick to, what’s interesting, is how they are given the information to make the accurate choice for this.
England always provide a good chase or charge down option in the game of kick tennis, but the chaser’s job does not end with this.
The chaser can stay in the backfield for anywhere from 10-20 seconds, and this is for two main reasons:
1. To identify the best space into which the ball can be kicked.
2. To act as a support player should the counter attacker get through.
Here we see Maro Itoje fly up to pressure Romain Ntamack for the kick. This is not his only role as the chaser.
This information is passed back to the kicker and scanner set.
The scanner is a pre-requisite for the England kicking system. The kicker’s sole focus is fielding the kick, the scanner scans the backfield, looking for space and information passed back by the FST.
We see this with Ford directing George Furbank, the scanner provides valuable information to the kicker, who then acts upon the scanner’s instructions, making them more likely to win the kick battle.
This is an example of England’s contestable kick strategy.
Against Scotland, we see Ford (kicker) called by Elliot Daly (scanner). Ford kicks down K2, the best place due to the depth of the FST (Farrell) and the placement of England’s tall men.
This kick is then followed up by a good chase from the scanner, putting his tall men onside, and knocking the ball back into plenty of support.
Against Wales, we start to see the philosophy of feedback from the front coming in.
Dan Biggar makes the kick, and Daly comes back to inform Henry Slade K1 is the right option. This leads to Slade kicking into space.
Leigh Halfpenny has to scramble to regather, and Henry Slade follows up to ensure Halfpenny’s kick is made under pressure.
This means Slade takes the FST role, the kick is made back by Daly, who is informed of where space is by Ford, his scanner. This kick again finds space and puts England in a great field position to launch their attack upon the kick return.
Often, the kick goes up, and the chaser quickly follows, putting his players onside.
Should the kicker have baited the opposition, this means many of the England players will be upfield of a defence that has overextended itself.
We see May here, attempt to change his line and breakthrough, where if he had succeeded, he would have broken next to Charlie Ewels, putting him onside as a support option.
This shows steps that England are taking to advance their game. As a game, the structures of the union attack and what can be done, have stayed similar for too long. Sometimes a little unconventionality and outside the box thinking, is exactly what is needed.
In Englands’ case, it seems to be the priority.
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