“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.” – Anne Bradstreet
On Saturday, England put in one of the best performances I have ever seen from them. It was pure outright brutality and power – not to mention a lot of heart.
But the reason I mention Anne Bradstreet’s quote above, is that England’s smarts in this game, were quite simply brilliant.
A physics teacher once told me that force equals pressure multiplied by area; much like the difference between a sledgehammer at full force against a desk, and an unbreakable needle at the same force. The sledgehammer will bruise but the surface may stand, a needle in contrast will pierce.
England focused all of their considerable physicality against certain points, in a game that Eddie Jones stated they had been preparing two and a half years for.
We are going to break down these tactics in defence and attack that England used to such great effect, and very importantly, how they were able to rob New Zealand of their momentum when they so nearly had it back.
George Ford and Owen Farrell have got to stay at 10 and 12 long term. We discussed how multiple approaches will be used throughout this World Cup, but the authority and ability to maintain the connect at near all times, is a key reasoning behind the variety, and therefore efficacy of England’s attacking performance. This doesn’t even mention the notions that Ford can only play against weaker opposition, and that his defence has always been weak. These were not so much disproved as blown out of the water with C4. As even Steve Hansen and Graham Henry noted.
As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, New Zealand do not like being attacked around the fringes of the ruck. They don’t like it, and England made it their business to repeatedly and rapidly target the fringes of New Zealand with quick ball. Like the Brumbies of old.
Not only did they use their pods, but they used their pick and go’s, offloads out of the back, and also showed their serious ‘out to in’ lines that were deployed against Ireland. The play ‘off-9’ for the most part was designed to target the fringes, and move it wide when the New Zealand defence had been brought in. The connect, allowed the attack to spread the second this constriction had been executed.
The out-to-in lines here of England are evident, something shared with the Wallabies under Berne. These are smart, as the natural angle means the support clean out from the side. Something far easier.
Here, we see two rapid-fire pick and go’s make 10 carry metres.
The inside stepping and passing of the England forwards also allowed them past the ‘triangle’ of the NZ defence, kept the attack at the fringe, and denied New Zealand dominant hits, which kept the pressure on the men in black.
They did this, all game.
The philosophy also played a key part in England’s try. New Zealand have a tendency to overload one side of the ruck in favour of the other near the line, which we referred to in the Australian attack dynamics.
New Zealand overfolded, in this example, leading to Marika Koroibete’s try.
Manu Tuilagi’s try was near identical.
That is no co-incidence. The repeated targeting of the New Zealand fringes was a target to get past line speed and in the above case, get the try. With England’s carriers carrying as they were, this tied in nicely to the next facet.
DOMINANT SECOND LINES
The go forward that resulted from the catching at the line, the power and drive of the play off 9, meant England had options. They used the pattern above to kick start their second line play out the back of their three pods. With strong carries the New Zealand defence were often held on the fringes.
Combined with Ben Youngs and the flat delivery to the three pod, this led to passes being made behind to Ford on the front foot. This meant he had time to pass, or kick with space.
As a defence, you don’t want to be giving England’s best-attacking playmaker, ball on the front foot. But through the play off 9, that’s what they gave him. The three pod constricted the defence, which gave him room to work with. This, his two pod on his outside and his connect with Farrell and Daly meant England were always stressing the defence.
We see this quite strongly in the lead up to Tuilagi’s try.
If not for Read here, Mako Vunipola could make the line. Such was the constriction caused by England’s play.
In the 75th minute, England were still able to enjoy this go forward. Allowing the backline and further pods time and options to work with.
This pullback, especially with the forward performing an ‘inside spin’ was used often.
It all fitted together. Kicks were a huge factor in generating this go forward as we will get into later, but with the forward momentum provided. This platform was allowed to happen with profligacy.
The New Zealand inside drift is a very strong drift. England, needed to hold it, and they did so at the start of the game. The defence drift immediately once the ball has passed them so the wide play and next phase crash off 9 are well stocked with defenders, and therefore restricts and lowers the momentum. The problem here, is that the drift can be a little too fast, which means that switches and inside balls can make some gains against the space here, and my gosh did England use them.
Ironically due to similarities between the English and NZ defence, this is something I expected from New Zealand with their ability in broken play, but it wasn’t used half like the English.
Here the NZ D cuts off any wide chances, as such England cut back inside.
Ironically, Ford reminded me a lot of Stephen Larkham. Larkham rarely ran straight, he usually crabbed out cross-field to angle the outside break or provide options under him.
The Leicester 10 crabbed out more often than he usually does, and due to his speed dragged a lot of players out with him. In doing so, he opened this gap for Farrell in the same way Larkham used to for Tim Horan and Daniel Herbert.
New Zealand wised up a little bit after the second break. Underhill went on a scissors line off Ford in the second half to keep them honest, but the seeds were sown. This danger held the New Zealand inside defence, allowing the space in the 15m channels to be exploited by the England connect.
Take a bow, Mr John Mitchell.
England’s defence reminded me of an enlightened bulldog that had sunk its teeth into the finest Hawksmoor steak for the first time and wouldn’t let go. There were times that the All Blacks had breaks and flashes of momentum, but like the bulldog that has sampled brawls and scrambles to get it back, England did the same.
They dealt with these breaks via massive work rate, speed, and smarts. I would also comment on England’s fitness as well, which I would rank amongst the top in the world. The factors that led to this, were pretty simple.
The breakdown is the major element of why this game was won, and therefore what a game for the Kamikaze kids. The ball was turned over 16 times by England; Sam Cane was sent on at half time, and it’s thoroughly understandable why.
The ‘Under-Curry’ absolutely dominated the collision and breakdown, and in doing so led the direction of this England performance. It’s scary to think they’re only 23 and 21. The energy that they brought in was huge and the main factor that led to the win.
England have had Wallaby great George Smith in camp before. The lessons he and Mitchell (as an ex-backrow forward himself) have taught their charges has created wise heads on young shoulders. England’s clear-out is very similar to a Greco-Roman wrestling move. They wrap around the arm and leg and lift the player off their feet, effectively ending the contest.
Whilst a common technique now – especially with Leinster and Ireland – it is clever, as it allows the cleaner to take the jackal out from the side, even though they approach from the front.
All of England’s jackalling attempts were chosen well. No chasing lost causes; the result being slowed ball, turnover or penalties.
Some were very important.
CHOOSING THE SHOOTS
Whilst England’s defence more than held their own, England were pushed at points. They depended on their defensive co-ordinators to make the call to rush up and cut off the play. Be that outside the back of the midfield pod or to cut off the backline.
England’s players, but defensive captains in particular, Tuilagi, Curry and Underhill, had the licence to rush up out of line to either cut off a wide attack. Alternatively, they chose to do this when it would result in a large loss in gain line for New Zealand, as to regather the momentum. This was shown especially in the second half, with Underhill’s tackle on Read a textbook example.
This results in things like Tuilagi’s intercept, and the Underhill special. These are momentum changing moments, and England needed every one of them.
PICK AND GO STATEMENT
New Zealand then tried their own pick and go pattern. It has seen use against England, France and South Africa in the last two years.
Against them it was incredibly effective, resulting in a huge constriction of players – however England knew it was coming; largely as it had been proven so successful in the past.
England stacked up behind the offside line and drove hard off it with their double hit on every drive, stymying the momentum. As such, this was the only time New Zealand tried this tactic.
One of the key reasons England reverted to Ford and Farrell, was that it gave them kicking options that covered the whole field.
As can be seen, whilst England had plans to keep the play in the New Zealand half, it worked a treat on attack too. England were able to get to the edges via the play we saw earlier, and kick for the corners with very skilled kickers in Farrell and Daly. Allowing England’s chasers constant pressure and territory for the team.
This does not do justice to how effective and frequent England’s kicking was. But trust me – the targeting of New Zealand’s wings in their positioning, resulted in the kicks finding a lot of grass.
The breakdown was a major momentum killer for New Zealand in this game. England’s use of this tactic continued the trend.
When trailing or the game is on the line, New Zealand often take short kickoffs, where they will send one of their tall rangy forwards (usually Read or Whitelock) to go up and knock back the ball.
It has proven highly effective in the past, generating possession with which New Zealand have been able to implement their attacking game to win.
In some occasions, it created penalty opportunities for New Zealand that are deemed controversial to this day – read the third test of the Lions series for example.
England positioned players behind the contesting player, meaning when the ball came back, it came back to an England jersey.
This robbed New Zealand of momentum on their restarts, but more importantly, they performed this in open play as well.
As the game went on and on, England knew the type of support play in offloads that New Zealand were being forced into making out wide.
They were having to offload, which meant no ruck was formed, no offside line, and England used this in the dying minutes to cut off what usually finishes the games.
Below, we see Sevu Reece having offloaded to prevent being taken into touch. As there was no ruck formed, England’s players have no offside line, Barrett passes the ball back to his line.
Straight into the arms of Billy Vunipola.
England knew here, that they could get intercepts by getting in-between the receiver and the offload. This is not the first time they did this in this game. Maybe it was something they targeted from the right wing, or with Sevu Reece, but either way, this resulted in game-changing momentum.
Here Reece again goes for the offload.
Which is intercepted by Ben Youngs.
Again, absolute game-changing moments a phase later this resulted in an England penalty, and shows just how much work the England backroom staff put into this game.
All combined, it was a sublime performance. There are still areas to work on, and on top of this their lineout variation was absolutely exceptional. The guile and trickery involved confused the NZ jumpers to a level they didn’t know who to contest against. Steve Borthwick has done a sensational job there. And you can bet more will be needed for the final.
When Jones said this had been planned for 2 ½ years, I’ll confess to being sceptical. But the performance today was amazing. The trick is to back this up next week. If they can replicate the intensity again, I can safely say that they’ll give themselves every chance.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.