England face a tall order to kick off their Six Nations campaign, up against the reigning Grand Slam champions in Dublin, where they have only won twice since 2000.
England lost at home to Ireland in the final round of last year’s Six Nations, where a handful of miscues led to the visitors building a 21-5 halftime lead. Eddie Jones selected a power-based line up, picking a pack with enormous size and a midfield with Ben Te’o and Jonathan Joseph, pushing Owen Farrell into flyhalf.
They did not go without their chances, failing to score from four straight lineout mauls inside Ireland’s 10 midway through the first half, kicking away multiple opportunities deep into Ireland’s territory and compounding problems by giving away penalties to allow Ireland to piggyback away downfield.
England’s maul was dismantled on their own turf despite having a pack full of ‘beef’ – Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell – which permeated into other areas of the game as the pack struggled to find leeway.
Size over skill
England’s attack is carry-focused, with heavy amounts of carries before releasing Farrell and the backs. There is less interplay between forwards and backs, with England’s pack built for one thing – bulldozing.
When you can’t pound over the gain line and beat your opponent backward, it becomes very difficult to slice them up with speed and shared ball-skills that you don’t have.
If the pack is not getting a roll-on then the attack becomes rigid – they cannot attack space quickly as a unit. Many of the set-piece patterns rely on two or three carries coming around the corner in order to bend the defensive line backward and weaken the numbers on one side before a strike.
However, Ireland’s outside backs are very skilled at playing jockey coverage and tend to deploy it against teams that are deficient with draw-and-pass skills, making it easier to recover from these positions.
On the third phase after two carries around the corner from a lineout, England run a play wide to the right. Farrell squares up the Irish inside defence, and plays Jonathan Joseph (13) out the back, creating stress on the right-hand side.
They use a jockey technique to buy time and shadow the ball to the sideline, while fullback Rob Kearney rushes up from the backfield. England’s backs spread the ball through the hands without committing anyone, keeping all the Irish defenders alive.
Kearney (15) decides to close down on Jonny May (14) as dictated by their ‘last man’ defensive system.
England has made a decent gain but Ireland’s defence didn’t break and most of the numbers are on their feet. This is where England’s rigid play fails to capitalise on the one thing they did achieve – taking out the fullback.
Ireland only has Keith Earls in the backfield, trying to recover back to the open side, with no wingers in support coverage. Both Kearney (15) and Stockdale (11) are stuck at the bottom of the ruck.
The halves duo of Conor Murray (9) and Johnny Sexton (10) are defending on the edge – not the fastest pair – and would be outgunned by a speedster like Elliot Daly. Ireland are vulnerable to a cross-field kick without their full kick coverage team (Kearney, Earls, and Stockdale), or advantageous match-ups can be found attacking the opposite edge and getting a one-on-one with a slower defender.
Instead, England creates slow ball by waiting for their pod to get into place, which takes too long and is disjointed. They play Haskell for a carry, reverting back to winning space via collision, which fails.
Ireland’s pack are a bit leaner but just as powerful, possess more aerobic capacity, and more athletic dynamism. They are able to match England’s physicality and handle their ball carriers, allowing Ireland’s back three to reset again.
The same issues present moments later when after some more carries, the backs get a release deep on attack.
Farrell (10) plays flat and gives a cutout ball to a steaming Te’o (12), who runs over Sexton and attracts Murray’s attention. His strong carry decimates Ireland’s edge defence by pulling in multiple defenders and creates front-foot ball to use.
Just one more play the same way with quick ball will likely result in a try to Daly (11) as Ireland’s edge is shot.
Mike Brown (15), Joseph (13) and Farrell (10) all join the ruck creating a disjointed mess and missing the opportunity for a 2-on-1 to the left.
If Farrell set-up on the left calling for ‘hot’ ball he could easily draw or hold Earls, who has drifted in field, long enough to put Daly over from only five metres out. Instead, Farrell tries to play halfback, creating confusion and allowing Ireland to recover.
England plays another carry back right before Farrell tries the left side a play late. He finds Daly who is ankle-tapped and pushed into touch. Ireland gets the lineout throw and clear their lines.
Opportunities to score go begging frequently and this is often because a change of approach can’t be made to go wide and then wide again or play backs-ball quickly twice.
It is rare that England’s backs will get two phases in a row to play. They can make in-roads but then the forwards take over and slow the game down, and against Ireland’s equally tough defence, one-dimensional tactics like running over your opposition just won’t work.
England dominated territory and possession inside the first five minutes but threw away good ball by looking for the low percentage grubber kick play in behind twice, coming away with zero points for their early work.
This is the same tactic the All Blacks got baited into using in November – the space looks there to kick into, so it seems a good idea.
The problem is Ireland’s back three are so good in kick coverage that unless the kick is executed perfectly, it is extremely hard to pull off. It is only when you hamstring the back three in the example above, does an attacking kick become more likely to come off.
Ireland runs a back-three pendulum, but the only constant in the backfield is Kearney. They trust the wingers to know when to drop into kick coverage, and the supporting cast of Earls and Stockdale aid Kearney well.
Most the time both wingers are up in the line, but they often anticipate the kick and are able to turn and clean up.
To illustrate how good their situational awareness is, here Earls shows Scotland the space in behind by defending most the way up. He reads Finn Russell’s (10) setup and knows a kick is a high probability.
Russell hasn’t even started his kick motion yet and Earls is off, dropping back into kick coverage. He catches the ball on the full calling a mark and Ireland can clear easily without having to execute an exit play.
What looks open space with Ireland, generally isn’t.
And what looks like a good option deep inside Ireland’s territory, often becomes a 22-metre restart and Ireland are able to exit way downfield and the opposition comes away with zero points.
Ireland’s defence, particularly the wingers, predict the play and pre-empt the kick often, so if you are predictable it will be covered. However, the opportunity is there to exploit this tendency and manipulate Ireland.
This is a box kick on halfway from the Scotland clash. Greig Laidlaw (9) is selling the kick and Scotland are setup for a box kick, Dan Leavy (7) has turned his back on the attack and is already backtracking, Murray (9) on the short-side is retreating and Earls is already so far back he’s nearly out of shot.
With Murray so deep, the vacant short side snipe is on, and the same opportunity exists on the open side if the backs were a bit deeper.
Using kick-fakes – running pass plays out of kick formations – is one way to manipulate Ireland’s defence and turn their strength (kick coverage pre-emptiveness) into a weakness, but no side has tried it yet.
The All Blacks one attacking grubber kick that nearly worked did both of the aforementioned things – weakening the back three before selling one thing and trying something else.
The All Blacks make healthy in-roads down the left-hand side through Jack Goodhue. Earls (14) is forced to make a tackle, and Kearney (15) is downfield out of shot also out of play after making a tackle attempt.
Two phases later Beauden Barrett (10) gets the ball going right. Kearney (15) is still retreating onside at the bottom of the screen and Stockdale (11) is the only one in the backfield.
Stockdale is a known ball-hawk who actively looks for the intercept and on this occasion is starting to push down hard looking for the pass.
Barrett uses a big pump-fake to pull Stockdale right down into the line, before re-loading and putting it in behind with the grubber kick. Ireland are without either Earls or Kearney in rolling support coverage so the open pasture presents a massive opportunity.
If Barrett’s kick had more weight on it, Ben Smith (14) has a high chance of scoring a crucial try.
Peter O’Mahony (6) makes a great try-saving play to snatch it out of Smith’s grasp and save Ireland. Even Stockdale himself is able to recover well after trying to jump the pass.
Again, even when the grubber kick presented the best opportunity, Ireland still covered it showing how futile it can be and lengths you have to go to set up a play like this.
England’s only try in the first half at Twickenham came via a Farrell grubber kick to Daly, so they did eventually score in this fashion against Ireland.
However, it was on the third attempt of a kick in behind. They failed to score on another grubber in the second half, scoring on one from four attempts. This is a return of 1.75 points per visit into Ireland’s 22, less than a penalty goal on the four times they tried kicking in behind.
When you add in the failed mauling attempts, England’s inability to score with prime field position was critical and falling behind early was a death knell.
If England falls behind on the scoreboard, the ‘beefed up’ pack becomes a liability. They have to chase points but can only play one way, unable to play with speed and width to create space.
If they are to continue to play a traditional English game based around territorial kicking and muscle up front to bully the opposition, they will continue to run into problems when the pack is dominated or the opposition gets a fast-start.
All the eggs are in one basket, and last March Ireland stomped on that basket until all the eggs were broken. Neutralise the pack, bait them to kick away good possession, and play the possession-based game they are experts at. Not to mention England’s poor discipline which further helped Ireland’s cause.
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