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Leicester and Saracens show the way for risk-averse England

By Jamie Lyall
BORTHWICK FLY HALF

The clamour for the England head coach to pick the best attacking players is unceasing. There is always a subliminal conviction among English rugby folk that somewhere, somehow ‘we have the players’ – it is just the systems and people around them which are failing. Get those right, and the Red Rose would be a world-beater.

Orchestrating the media chorus more often than not is Sir Clive Woodward, head coach of the only England (or northern hemisphere) side to have hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup back in 2003, and erstwhile contributor to The Daily Mail. If If Henry Arundell represents the attacking conscience of English rugby on the field, Woodward is its ambassador in the media.

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Midway through the World Cup, after England had put 71 points on a luckless Chile, Sir Clive opined in his Mail column: “It was the first time I can remember for a long time we have got a team playing with some real pace and real risk. If you ask, can you imagine playing this way against South Africa, Ireland or France, the answer is unequivocally yes. If you have got the coaching and the mindset to do it, you can, and this was a massive step forward.

This is the first time Steve Borthwick has coached a team to play like this and he would have learned a huge amount from last night in Lille. If you were a player, you would have loved playing in that match and the squad members on the sidelines would have been desperate to play in a game like that.”

Arundell scored five tries and Marcus Smith started at full-back, and both made it into the back three Woodward recommended for the knockout stages of the tournament: “With Smith it is about getting your best players on the pitch. My back three would be Arundell, who should have been in the team for a while, on one wing, Freddie Steward on the other and Smith at full-back.”

When push came to shove, as it always does in games against the Springboks, Borthwick reverted to type. Arundell and Smith were gone, and Steward returned to full-back with a pair of relative eminence grises bookending him on the wings in Jonny May and Elliot Daly. That trio won the kicking/fielding battle hands-down and England almost won the game against the eventual champions.

Henry Arundell
Henry Arundell scored three tries on his Racing 92 debut earlier this month (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)

Woodward may well be right about the optimal combination in the back three, but he will never get to see it in any match that matters while Borthwick is the head coach of England. To find his justification for preferring the solid all-rounder-in-the-now to the X-factor-attacker-with-potential-for-the-future, Borthwick need look no further than two key matches from the last round of the Premiership. Leicester Tigers beat up Northampton Saints convincingly at Welford Road 26-17, and Saracens shattered Harlequins 38-10 on their own patch at the Stoop.

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Saints and Quins represent, at club level, the attacking U-turn Woodward would like to see England make in international rugby. Saints finished top of the attacking tree in the 2022-23 season with 91 tries, including a league-best 34 scores from turnover. They were one of only three clubs to average over 50% of lightning-quick ball from the breakdown and they averaged one clean break for every 13 rucks they built, two top-notch offensive outcomes.

Saints contain several backs who have been mentioned in England dispatches in recent times – principal among them Tommy Freeman, George Furbank, Fraser Dingwall and Alex Mitchell, who was finally promoted at the World Cup. At Welford Road last Saturday, they dominated the number of carries and rucks, and won the line-break battle by seven breaks to two.

It mattered not one whit. Northampton conceded a grand total of seven penalties and two free-kicks at scrum-time (three of which played through to Tigers’ advantage) in a game where less than 50% of the scrums were completed. As an afterthought, they also gave up three forced fumbles and another six turnovers in the tackle area. As their head coach Phil Dowson commented ruefully: “We didn’t deal with the breakdown in the first half. Discipline in the second half, going down to 13 men, giving 20 penalties away to their 10, makes it very tricky to get a result.

“That penalty count gives them all the pressure and field position and puts us under some heat…

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“That anticipation at the breakdown wasn’t good enough and we gave [Tommy] Reffell and [Jasper] Wiese time to get over the ball.”

The cold hard fact is a coach like Borthwick will never embrace a more sophisticated attacking philosophy as long as there are far easier ways to score tries with minimal risk.

 

Northampton confidently shift the ball into the hands of one of their strongest runners on first phase (Lewis Ludlam), but three Leicester tacklers ensure they create enough ‘litter’ on the wrong side of the tackle area to force the first cleanout player (#7 Tom Pearson) into a winding slalom through bodies. There is no straight shot at the breakdown for Pearson and that gives Wiese time to get on-ball and win the penalty.

Fellow Springbok Handre Pollard stepped up to spear the ball into the left corner, and Tigers finished a 60m scoring ‘move’ via the driving lineout.

 

Although the try was disallowed for an illegal block ahead of the ball-carrier, that set the tone for the game: over two minutes of ‘play’ with one breakdown pilfer penalty, one kick to the corner and a lineout drive try. Why pick the Arundells and the Smiths of this world, when rugby can be this simple, and so risk-free?

Leicester found an even safer way to score in the second period.

 

Wait for a penalty advantage to accrue from your scrum before you launch your hulking South African number eight off the base of the set-piece, and convert a zero-risk try from short range a few phases later.

Like Saints, a tranche of Quins’ backs have been touted for national duty – Cadan Murley, Luke Northmore, Lennox Anyanwu and the ubiquitous Smith among them. Even allowing for a new-model red and black army unafraid of launching long-range forays of their own, victory was still based squarely on the ability of North London defence to resist West London attack. Harlequins did not score a try until the 73rd minute of the game, and by that stage the result had long been decided.

Owen Farrell is often criticised for failure to lower his tackle height, but there is very little wrong with his sheer work-rate in defence. It was his appetite to reload which helped deny Quins the edges of the field in which they do their best work.

 

 

There are three Quins attackers packed into the left five metre corridor, but because Farrell has covered half the width of the pitch, and run all the way from ruck-side out to the right sideline, the overlap is shut down comprehensively on Alex Dombrandt. In the second instance, he is part of the initial stop on Andre Esterhuizen, but somehow extricates himself from the tackle to cover the space out wide to the next ruck.

Two last-quarter attacks illustrated just how effective Farrell can be with ball in hand when he is supported by a lieutenant as able as Saracens full-back Alex Goode.

 

 

In the first example, Farrell is missed out entirely, and although the ball hits Goode high on the inside shoulder he still manages to collect it in stride and shift it on in one slick motion to the wing. In the second Farrell and Goode are split to either side of the ruck, and that creates problems of identification for the defence, with nobody present in the backfield to cover the kick-through on the short-side by Saracens’ full-back.

Every time it looks like Borthwick might be wavering, or growing out and away from his roots in set-piece, defence and the kicking game, something happens to pull him back to the basics. At the World Cup, the sprigs of hope peeping up from the pool match against Chile were snowed under by the spectre of South Africa looming in a tournament semi-final. Borthwick went tumbling back, all the way back to the zero-risk game he truly trusts his charges to play.

Any notion he might have had of introducing new attacking blood for the Six Nations received a swift rebuke – a sharp, burning slap in the chops in round six of the Premiership. Northampton and Harlequins may be regarded as the standard-bearers for a new generation of gallant, devil-may-care young musketeers, but they were put in their place in no uncertain terms by the ‘old firm’ of Tigers and Sarries at Welford Road and the Stoop respectively.

As long as the virtues represented by those two clubs keep winning the silverware, there will be precious little wriggle room in selection for the England head coach, should he decide to squirm, twist and turn on the horns of the dilemma.

Maybe no English supporter can really draw a line through the end of the Eddie Jones era when the ball was “like a ticking time bomb” and all of that. Maybe it really does take an outlier like Woodward to buck the trend. From the lips of the man himself: “There is a big part of me that really wants England to win the World Cup because it allows you to move on.

“While they keep stuffing it up – and they do keep stuffing it up – you look in the mirror and think: ‘I should still be there’.”

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Poorfour 5 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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