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Mitchell's 'clutch' defence key to English war machine

As England headed from the Twickenham pitch on Sunday afternoon, their second bonus point win of the Guinness Six Nations secured, there was plenty to takeaway from their one-sided game against France.

The most obvious was the kicking game. The likes of Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Ben Youngs repeatedly exploited the makeshift French back three, where coach Jacques Brunel had, rather bizarrely given his abundance of options in the Top 14, selected two centres on the wings and a wing at full-back.

Ok, Damian Penaud has played on the wing for Clermont before, as has Gaël Fickou back when he was at Toulouse, and maybe they had trained the house down during the week and were ready for the pressure England were clearly going to try and exert on them in those areas. It seemed unlikely, but it was fair enough to give France and Brunel the benefit of the doubt prior to kick-off.

After about 15 minutes at Twickenham, it was clearly too generous of an assessment.

Every time they could, England were kicking in behind Penaud on France’s right wing, exploiting both his naivety at the position and Yoann Huget’s, well, spectacular ‘Hugetness’, for want of a better word. The vibrant attacking spark plug of a player that he may be, Huget is not the most reliable last line of defence in the game.

Two of Jonny May’s three tries came from kicks in behind Penaud, whilst the other was from a Farrell pass that many wings would have been intercepting and taking the other way, but it found Penaud flat-footed and it allowed May to step him on the outside and cross the whitewash. England’s fourth try of the game came in his vicinity, too, with Kyle Sinckler popping up as an impromptu scrum-half and allowing Slade to go over for England’s fourth.

Jonny May of England celebrates scoring his sides first try during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Of England’s four first half tries, they were all scored within 5m of the left-hand touchline. Farrell’s kicking success rate clearly wasn’t in these try-happy lads’ minds.

It was a well-executed gameplan from England and one it took France until the second half to really deal with, and then that was only because Huget was forced from the field due to failing his HIA, an issue which prompted the introduction of Thomas Ramos at full-back. That said, there were moments in the first half where it was like shooting fish in a barrel for England.

So, putting aside that effective kicking game and clinical finishing, another standout for the hosts was the defensive display they turned in. An infringement from Tom Curry at the breakdown gave France three points early in the game, before a rare aerial contest lost allowed France to counter-attack, with Huget brushing off May and sending Penaud through for a try in the corner. It added up to eight points.

Eight points and a scoreless second half.

You can focus on the French errors and shortcomings, but that is no mean feat from the English defence, especially backing up a performance in Dublin which saw them only concede one try in the opening 79 minutes, before John Cooney grabbed a consolation score for the reigning champions.

Three tries and 28 points conceded in those two games doesn’t sound exemplary on paper, more like reasonable, but that is without the context of the two games in mind, not to mention the leaps made over the last year.

Back in 2018, there was a fair amount of scepticism surrounding John Mitchell’s hire as England’s defence coach, following Paul Gustard’s move to become Head of Rugby at Harlequins.

He was contracted at the Bulls, where he had enjoyed nothing exceeding a solid season in 2018, so had to come with a sizeable payoff to the South African franchise, and his international experience was questioned by many. The Kiwi had jumped from job to job, rarely staying anywhere for longer than two or three seasons and there were stories of players not responding to his methods. In fact, they were stories not too dissimilar to the ones circulating about Eddie Jones at the time, who was stuck in the midst of a year-long slump with England.

Was hiring Mitchell just going to add to the problems in the England camp, rather than helping to solve the malaise that had seemed, externally at least, to have seeped into the team? It was certainly heavily debated.

One phrase kept popping up, however. Transition rugby.

The art of turning defence into attack and catching teams when they are unprepared to defend. If there were critiques of Mitchell’s coaching style doing the rounds, this was the countering positive that he was expected to bring to England.

There were glimpses and flashes of it in the autumn. A resiliency in defence at the very least, if not quite the ability to force those turnovers and hurt teams on the transition. A “bend but don’t break” mentality to England had them mixing it with South Africa and New Zealand and sure, they rode their luck at times, but there was a growing solidity on that side of the ball that had been missing earlier in 2018.

Fast-forward to the Six Nations and it seems as if Mitchell’s ideas and philosophy are becoming embedded within the England squad, his presence is complementing, not compounding, that of Jones’ and the number three side in the world are becoming a more seamless entity, with defence feeding into attack, rather than being two distinct facets to the team.

The flashpoint at Twickenham, among a number of impressive defensive reads – think Slade’s second interception in as many weeks – and dominant tackles, was the creation of May’s opening score.

A dominant double-team tackle on the gain-line by the Vunipola brothers started it, before both Curry and Courtney Lawes displayed the line-speed that shone through in Dublin a week before, hunting down France well behind the gain-line on the next phase and forcing the knock-on in the tackle. Youngs picked up the loose ball and fed it to Daly, with the full-back taking possession just outside of his own 22.

Guilhem Guirado of France tackled by Courtney Lawes of England during the Guinness Six Nations match between England and France at Twickenham Stadium. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Instead of kicking away the ball in a battle for territory, Daly looked up and scanned. He broke into a counter-attacking run that saw him slalom through the impromptu and scrambling French defence and then, with a better picture of the field, put in the pinpoint kick behind Penaud. The wing, more accustomed to defending in the midfield, was turned and May, who had flooded forward in support of Daly’s break, was always going to beat the Clermont man for speed, not to mention the two other French defenders ahead of him at the time of Daly’s kick.

It was a beautiful bit of flowing rugby, aggressive defence seamlessly morphing into attack.

This is what England hired Mitchell for and it seems as though his influence on the team is really beginning to tell and it was evident in every moment of that transition.

The amount of double-team tackles that England have been making, such as the one the Vunipolas put in to start the move, has seemed to skyrocket over the last two weeks. Where England have hunted as individuals over the last few years, they are now hunting as a pack, with one tackler ready to go low and the other to go high, forcing ball-carriers back and denying them the momentum they need in contact to get offloads away. Ireland made just two offloads in Dublin and struggled to stretch England defensively in the process.

Then the line-speed of Lawes and Curry to force the knock-on. In fairness, line-speed is not something England have really lacked at any point over the last few years, it’s just that it now seems to have been taken to a higher level, with the synergy in the defensive line standing out. Even with Maro Itoje out, who is so often the spearhead of the England line, the defence worked in unison with one another, had trust in the inside man when drifting and frequently came at carriers from the inside and the outside, preventing the player from having an obvious route out of the pressure.

Every turnover can’t be turned into points. May’s opening try of the game was a sublime moment for England, but it’s not going to become the standard outcome of every England pilfer or forced knock-on. That physicality and unrelenting line-speed can be, however.

Ireland conceded 14 turnovers in Dublin and France coughed up 21 at Twickenham. Forced or unforced, England are currently averaging just over 17 turnovers from their opposition and if they can turn one of those per game into a try and one or two more into the platform from which to launch into another possible try or even just opportunities to kick points, they are going to be in a very good position.

Couple that with the resiliency of their defence under Mitchell and they are once again becoming a very tough team to beat.

After Farrell’s try in the 55th minute, England had established a 36-point lead and, in all honesty, took their foot off France’s throat. In fact, it was in that final 35 minutes that France enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, to the point where they ultimately racked up over 150 metres more with the ball in hand than England did. Yet, England conceded no points in that period.

They were happy to soak up carries around the fringes, rarely giving up much ground, whilst their midfield defence was chalk and cheese from the unit that kept getting caught tight in the autumn. Slade drifted with complete confidence in Manu Tuilagi on the inside and likewise, May, Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell were happy to push wide and deny France’s wings any space, safe in the knowledge that Slade was in support.

Defensively, it was an 80-minute performance at Twickenham, with Cooney’s late try in Dublin an annoying irritant that would have hung around the camp since the final whistle at the Aviva.

For the second week in a row, England missed more tackles, had a lower overall tackle success rate and had less possession than their opponents, but it mattered for very little as Mitchell’s ‘clutch’ defence continued to take root in the squad.

The group’s biggest challenge of the Six Nations so far now looms on the horizon, with an undefeated Welsh side set to host England in Cardiff, with Warren Gatland and his charges eyeing up one final Grand Slam for the Kiwi coach.

It’s an unenviable task for any side, going to Cardiff in search of a win, but with Mitchell’s ruthless defence giving England a solid foundation, there is no reason why they shouldn’t head into that contest with the confidence they have what it takes to turnover Wales.

Watch: The England squad in training ahead of the game against France

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Mitchell's 'clutch' defence key to English war machine