Following England’s dominant win over Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup, lock Maro Itoje won all the praise for his standout defensive performance completing 25 of 25 tackles and winning two turnover.
On this week’s Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Blues hooker James Parsons and Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall discussed the role of Itoje in England’s team and how England’s entire pack feeds into their game plan.
Parsons likened their approach to the one Argentina has taken in this year’s Tri-Nations, building a game on the back of defence in order to grind out test rugby wins.
“He is certainly doing extremely well, we spoke about the top five defenders for Six Nations and he was the top dominant tackler, and there were three out of the five that were England players,” James Parsons explained.
“I think they are basing a lot of their success, similar to Argentina, on ‘defence wins championships’ and their defence is pretty formidable.
Although Itoje’s performance was impressive, Parsons used Argentina’s flanker Marcos Kremer’s performance against the All Blacks two weeks ago as a yardstick comparison.
“I just want to put a bit of context to it, I’m not being negative to the 25 tackles, I think it’s exceptional and he did put line out pressure on. Jonny May scored an exceptional try off the back of that line out pressure.
“He got the two turnovers but I actually want to give award to the other seven men on the park. So, 208 tackles England had. They had 32% of the ball, so they are on defence a helluva lot.
“If you look at Kremer, he made 28 tackles and it was 50-50. The balance of possession is key there, because 28 tackles when it’s 50-50 is pretty impressive. When it’s 70-30, 25 tackles isn’t as impressive. It’s impressive but I just want to put it in context.
“So Itoje had 25, you got Billy Vunipola with 25, you got Underhill 16, Curry 19, Launchbury 16, Sinckler 16, George 18 and Mako Vunipola on 15. It’s just to put it in context, that when you don’t have the ball, there is a lot of men working really hard in that engine room taking a lot of those tackles.
“It was an exceptional performance from Itoje, he’s been doing it for a number of years and I think he is a great player but numbers 1-8 for England are winning them titles, on the back of set-piece work, and defence.
But what made England’s defence work was the game management of captain Owen Farrell said Parsons, who is able to put his side into the areas of the field that they need to with his kicking game.
“And they have the skillset, when they want to pull trigger, that they are run and led so well by Owen Farrell,” Parsons said.
“His game management is off the back of their hard work, but he doesn’t waste their hard work. He’s been exceptional at making sure they get rewarded for their hard work via his boot.
“We talked about Sanchez, well, Farrell kicks them from anywhere and also by his attacking kicks, Jonny May’s first try was from a cross-field kick. Yes he did some exceptional work in the air, but it was a pinpoint kick.
“From that turnover at the lineout, it was Farrell who spread it to the width. They had one crack.
“By balance of attack, I just want to point out that only 11.8 percent of their 32 percent possession, so a third of their third, was in their half.
“If it’s not turnover ball, they are getting out of there. They don’t play rugby in their half, so that’s what I mean about Owen Farrell. His ability and management of his game is so exceptional.
“As a forward, I look back at him and just say thanks mate. I’m rolling up my sleeves for you, and you are rewarding me. Constantly putting the ball in front of me.”
Bryn Hall explained that this is part of Farrell’s ‘DNA’ and he is world-class at managing territory for his side, whether for England or the British and Irish Lions.
“And that’s Farrell’s DNA, isn’t it? Whenever he played the All Blacks with England, and even the Lions, they were able to put defensive pressure on teams with Farrell who is world class at it.
“Put them in the right areas of the field and be disciplined enough not to give away penalties, and just tackle and dominate teams. They make a lot of tackles, but they want to do it.
“When they do get the turnover ball they get the penalty, they’ve got Farrell to kick to the corner or Farrell to kick the points away.
Hall added that he believes the gap between sides like England and the All Blacks has closed, with their ability to attack matching that of the New Zealand side. That is why it is so tough to beat them now as they also bring a dominant defence giving them the best of both worlds.
“I think this is where Northern Hemisphere rugby has got so much better, they have the ability to play [ball-in-hand] as well. In the past, they would be very forward-orientated, they’d kick their threes. Whereas now where their game is growing, they’ve got phase play shape, cross field kicks, attacking kicks, so they’ve got the best of both worlds.
“I just think the progression of Northern Hemisphere rugby, especially England, and that’s why when the All Blacks play them it’s so much harder.
“You talk about triple threats – run, pass, kick – they’ve got the ability to do that and they are brutal when it comes to defence.
Listen to the full episode of the Aotearoa Rugby pod below
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