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Are you not entertained by Steve Borthwick's exciting England? - Six Nations

By Sam Larner
XV_ Sage Partnership (analysis)

Round two of the Guinness Six Nations sparked controversy and debate, from Scotland’s non-try in a bonkers Murrayfield finale to the robbery of the ball from George Ford’s kicking tee.

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In this article, we’ll be taking a breath, making a coffee, and letting the cold, rational stats guide us through the big stories of the weekend.

Exciting England

England won three of their first nine games under Steve Borthwick; after Saturday’s Twickenham victory they have claimed eight of the next nine. Borthwick has turned them into a clinical side capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent, if not getting fans on their feet in the process.

This campaign marks the start of the second phase of the plan. Felix Jones has brought his revolutionary defence and there are some signs of attacking life. But are England more exciting now than during the World Cup?

Excitement is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s fair to assume ball-in-hand attack gets the blood pumping for most fans. Let’s look at three measures of attacking excitement; carry metres as a percentage of total metres, carries per kick, and the percentage of total carries by centres, wingers, or full-backs. For balance, we include only games against Argentina, Fiji, and South Africa at the World Cup.

MetricRugby World Cup% change Six Nations
Carry metres % total metres21%+14%
Carries per kick2.8+12%
% total carries by outside backs28%+21%

Starting from a low base, England have made steps to becoming a more dynamic side. Nobody represents this new style more than Ben Earl. The number eight has shored up a position of possible weakness and his carrying has been exceptional. He has made the most carries of any player and beaten the most defenders of any forward.

There were fears as to how England would adapt without Manu Tuilagi or Billy Vunipola. In reality, neither have shown enough form or fitness in recent years to justify building a team around them. The question was whether England could make their attack work without at least two powerful carriers. So far, their big carrier is a 6ft, 16st 8lb back-row. Earl’s punch comes from dynamism and guile rather than mass and head-down power.

Borthwick’s game plan is built on a very simple rule: don’t play in our half. England spent just 22% of their possession time in their own half against Italy and 31% against Wales, the two lowest such figures in the tournament so far. More exciting? Yes. But don’t expect England to move away from what’s worked.

Ireland’s total rugby

The Dutch team of the 1970s created total football, a style in which players could rotate into any position. Five decades later, have Ireland created total rugby? The Irish attack is probably the most aesthetically beautiful in the world. But we are assessing statistical beauty.

Thanks to Sage smart ball technology, we can see 185 of Ireland’s 407 passes have travelled 5m or less. That is 37 more than the next highest (belonging to Wales). Ireland’s attack is built on a relentless barrage of short passes right across the pitch. Those aren’t just the preserve of their enormously talented backs. In fact, Ireland’s front-row make more passes than any other front-row, their second-row likewise and their back-row just the same. The 52 passes made by Ireland’s forwards is greater than the total number of passes made by the backs (excluding scrum-half and fly-half) of any other nation.

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You might read that and think we are looking at some kind of wide-wide Fijian blueprint, but we’re not. Ireland play beyond the second receiver (essentially stringing together more than two passes) on 15.2% of their phases. Only England and Italy also reach double figures and nobody tops Ireland’s tally. Yet, they play wider than 10m on just 50.6% of their phases which is fewer than both those teams. Ireland get their passing done in a far narrower channel than any other nation.

Ireland’s game plan is based on carving out soft shoulders for their powerful runners to carry towards, before their speedy backs finish the job. It’s beautiful to watch but it requires extraordinary passing skills from their heavies up front. If they are to claim back-to-back Grand Slams, their total rugby attack will be key.

Scotland’s parked bus

Amid the controversy of the try/no-try affair, the stats suggested another factor – rather than the TMO – was to blame. During round one Scotland led Wales 27-0 then almost conspired to throw it all away. In the 26 minutes between Duhan van der Merwe’s second try and Wales’ final score, Scotland carried just ten times to the hosts’ 79.

That warning of what might happen if you deviate from your natural game wasn’t heeded on Saturday. Scotland once again took a lead and once again moved away from what had been successful. When they were losing, or winning by fewer than four points, Scotland carried 4.7 times per kick. That powerful carrying game and expansive attack had given them a shot at a home victory against France. But, once ahead by more than four points, they then kicked more than they carried.

Scotland have now lost their second halves by a combined 36-10. It’s incredible, given those figures, they have one win in two. Gregor Townsend won’t need reminding if only his charges had kept their foot on the gas, they would be joining Ireland and England as the only undefeated sides.

Sage is the Official Insights Partner of the Guinness Six Nations, enhancing the fan, player and coach experience through innovative new technology and enhanced insights to the game. Find out how Sage can support your business at sage.com and discover more rugby insights at sage.com/rugby.

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Comments

9 Comments
J
Jen 126 days ago

Entertained? No.

L
Lucio 127 days ago

Anyway England team is solid, can adapt is game plan to their opponent’s tactic too ( As in the second half against Italy). For sure is not as fun as AB or Ireland but, hey SA is much more boring.

P
PaPaRumple 127 days ago

Christ alive this writer is delusional. England is no where close to being the team you describe here. Scraping a win against Ireland and Wales means absolutely f all. England certainly can't go toe to toe with any team in the world lol.

f
finn 128 days ago

“Ireland play beyond the second receiver (essentially stringing together more than two passes) on 15.2% of their phases. Only England and Italy also reach double figures and nobody tops Ireland’s tally. Yet, they play wider than 10m on just 50.6% of their phases which is fewer than both those teams.”

Seems like a very odd choice of stats to pair.

1) Clearly at least 70% of phases that go wider than 10m contain at most one pass, so you wouldn't necessarily assume there to be a significant correlation between the two figures.

2) 10m isn’t very wide. Teams that go wide to wide aren’t those that regularly go 11m, they are those that semi regularly go 30+ metres.

(2) can be inferred from (1). When have you ever seen a scrum half fling a long pass to a crash option and thought you were watching a team spread it wide?

f
finn 128 days ago

“For balance, we include only games against Argentina, Fiji, and south Africa at the World Cup”

Thats not very balanced. Samoa and Japan are much closer to Wales and Italy's level than South Africa is.

England are playing just as defensively now as they did at the world cup. I am glad about that, because I want England to win.

f
finn 128 days ago

“For balance, we include only games against Argentina, Fiji, and South Africa at the World Cup”

Thats not very balanced. Wales and Italy should be compared to Fiji, Argentina, Japan, and possibly Samoa, not south Africa.

England are not playing a more attacking style of rugby now than they did at the world cup. I am glad about that because I want England to win.

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Flankly 13 hours ago
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