As England and Eddie Jones prepare for the challenge of New Zealand in Yokohama this Saturday, they have made just one change to the starting XV that comfortably dismantled Australia in the quarter-finals.
George Ford has resumed his role as England’s starting fly-half, with Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi shuffled further out in the backline and Henry Slade moving to the bench. It’s just one small change but it has big repercussions on the way that England are likely to play and their approach to countering the considerable threat of the All Blacks.
The return to the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi midfield axis is one which leans to a more offensive-oriented game plan, rather than approach against Australia which was to counter the threat of Samu Kerevi on the inside, put up an unbreachable wall of line-speed and allow the Wallabies to punch themselves out. It was a tactic which worked to perfection for Jones and England.
The All Blacks, though, are a very different beast and even if England’s defence is energetic, fast, physical and makes the right decisions, New Zealand will manufacture enough chances to cross the whitewash and hurt England. Jones’ charges will have to meet fire with fire and make their own attacking statement against the reigning world champions.
On the reintroduction of Ford to the starting XV, Jones avoided talking too much about the attacking impact the playmaker would have, though.
“Every game we have a look at the conditions, the opposition, what we think we need to do, what we need to take away from the opposition, and this is the best fit for us. Horses for courses. We just feel it’s the right combination this week.
“Work-rate is going to be important. Whenever you play against New Zealand your work off the ball is going to be massively important. They like to move the ball around, they are very good on transition and George’s work-rate off the ball has been absolutely exceptional.”
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Despite Jones’ reluctance to talk about the attacking versatility that Ford will bring England, it’s hard to ignore as a factor in his promotion to the starting XV and the knock-on effects that will have on the rest of the English back line.
Tuilagi’s move to 13, unarguably his most effective attacking position, plays into that goal. Whilst the perception and focus around Tuilagi seems to revolve around his ability to run through and over defenders, his best asset may be his stop-start acceleration and speed to beat defenders on the outside, often whilst also throwing a trademark fend in the process. At outside centre, he gets the space to showcase this more regularly than he does at inside centre.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 24, 2019
Yes, his physical presence outside of first receiver is lost, though England have become much more comfortable using players like Kyle Sinckler, Billy Vunipola and the Kamikaze Twins, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, in this role. It is a selection which prioritises attacking in the wider channels, rather than keeping a game tighter.
England have previously shown a comfort switching Farrell and Tuilagi in this line-up, too, which will put an emphasis on New Zealand tracking when and where Tuilagi will appear in the back line. That will help England in their attempt to create space and numerical advantages for the back three of Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly to exploit.
It’s not something that New Zealand will be unprepared for, however, with Steve Hansen having highlighted the possibility of it when he announced his own team earlier in the day.
. @EnglandRugby have three non-negotiables if they are to beat the All Blacks on Saturday
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“Eddie might make some changes. He’s pretty shrewd. We have seen plenty of the George Ford and Farrell combo and also the Farrell-Tuilagi combo. You prepare for both scenarios and try to deal with it as best you can.”
It is not something, though, that the All Blacks got a look at first-hand in 2018 when they played at Twickenham, when Jones went with a midfield of Farrell, Ben Te’o and Henry Slade. In fact, only Sinckler, May, Daly, Underhill, Maro Itoje and Ben Youngs from the starting XV that day join Farrell in starting again against the All Blacks, with a number of relatively new faces for New Zealand to have to contend with.
Where New Zealand have bulked up in their back row, England have continued with a more mobile unit involving Curry and Underhill. Where New Zealand have leant heavily on formidable scrummaging front rows, England have been building their game around the more influential in the loose props they have at their disposal. In a way, both teams have spent the last cycle moving away from some of their traditional strengths and bolstering the other areas of their games.
The All Blacks may be favourites, but this has all the hallmarks of a titanic tussle and a clash for the ages in Yokohama on Saturday.
Watch: Steve Hansen speaks to the press ahead of New Zealand’s semi-final with England
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