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FEATURE How England can upset Irish apple cart

How England can upset Irish apple cart
4 months ago

Hold the confetti, don’t pop the champagne corks, leave the booking of an open-top bus for another day. Ireland’s advance towards a second-straight Grand Slam may look inevitable, but there is every chance for England to upset the apple cart when the two nations meet at Twickenham this weekend.

If the old aphorism that ‘styles make fights’ has any residual truth, then the men in white have just the right style to make life extremely awkward for Ireland. In fact, they have done just that for the past two seasons: they were only 10-9 down after an hour in Dublin in 2023, despite losing Freddie Steward to an unfortunate red card just before half-time. They had played all but 82 seconds of the game the year before without Bath lock Charlie Ewels. Even with 14 men, England were well in touch at the 60-minute mark at 15-15, only for Ireland to pull away in the final stages.

If England can keep a full complement of players on the field, they are in with a genuine shout of turning the odds on the casino. The England players are unlikely to be experiencing any psychological inferiority complex, given they have been competing short-handed for 118 out of 160 minutes, and so it will become motivational fuel instead. That is how negatives become positive mental anchors.

England Wigglesworth verdict
England lost 30-21 at Murrayfield, ensuring the Calcutta Cup was in Scottish hands for the fourth year running (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

The frustrations of defeat at Murrayfield will only pour gasoline on the open furnace of perceived inequities against Ireland. England coach Steve Borthwick expressed those frustrations after the game.

“After a defeat, and performance where you don’t think you’ve maximised your potential, it’s always disappointment.

“We’d all love progression to be a nice linear path but ultimately it’s not, especially when you are trying to do it at this level. What you saw is a team that is trying to develop, a team that is trying to add layers to their game.”

Borthwick was right in everything he said. England didn’t maximise their potential – [but there is much more in their tank]. England made too many turnovers which led to Scottish scores directly – [their game is developing quicker in defence than attack]. Development is a staircase – [they might just be ready to jump to the next level].

It did not sound as if Borthwick’s opposite number Gregor Townsend was simply mouthing soundbites when he commented: “I thought England were hugely competitive. They started with an intensity in their defence, and [in their] contact [work].

“They were getting quick ball and scored 10 points. They kept competing hard at the breakdown and set-piece, so a lot of credit goes to our forwards.

“England are a very good team with a strong pack, and while it wasn’t the cleanest of games at times, it was really intense. A proper Calcutta Cup fixture.”

Freddie Steward
Freddie Steward cuts a dejected figure after being sent off against Ireland in last year’s fixture (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Why can England make a fight of it against Ireland? The reigning champions have the highest proportion of active time-in-possession [22.5 minutes per game], building the most average rucks [116] with the highest ratio of lightning quick ball [63%]. They score the most tries from lineout [13 out of 15], and they are multi-phase, converting 60% of their tries after third phase.

How can England hope to compete with those stats? The hosts have the lowest ratio of tries allowed from lineout [25%], coupled with the lowest average number of rucks allowed to an opponent [75 per game]. Only two of England’s eight tries have been conceded after third phase. Their Felix Jones-manufactured defence has allowed the slowest average ruck delivery [a paltry 4.8 seconds per ruck] and the lowest ratio of LQB [43%] permitted to any opponent in the championship. England are currently the only team allowing a sub-50% percentage of 1-3 second rucks to the opposition.

English defensive trumps therefore tend to land directly on top of the KPIs of Ireland’s attack. Andy Farrell’s side builds their rhythm through ruck control and long phase-counts, looking for width early. England’s defence will tend to break up that rhythm, suffocate the width and force the game back to source, and they have always been well-equipped for a set-piece battle. Just for good measure, they have a penalty-winning scrum; +3 penalties in the championship thus far versus Ireland’s overall count of -1 at the set-piece. It promises to be the most fascinating chess game of the entire championship.

In the first half in Edinburgh, seven of Scotland’s eight attacking platforms [from their own 40m line outwards] ended in turnover, the other in a first-phase try from scrum. Even by full-time, Scotland had scored two tries from 16 primary attacking possessions, with four balls kicked away and 10 lost to turnover.

The major problem for England is their attack is far less coordinated than their defence, and is haemorrhaging the points their D denies. Tighten down those nuts and bolts, and Jones’ defence promises to create problems for Ireland. It is likely to be especially strong from lineout, the major Irish attacking platform.



The first hurdle is beating Maro Itoje and Olly Chessum in the air [in the first example]; the second, moving the ball forward at mauls [in the second instance]. The third is how to navigate the defensive web spun by England’s two natural open-sides, Sam Underhill and Ben Earl – plus 10 George Ford – in midfield on those occasions when the ball does emerge from set-piece. Although it is Scotland’s two most powerful backs taking contact [Duhan van der Merwe and Sione Tuipulotu], the combination of Earl tackling and Underhill jackaling is entirely too much for the home cleanout.

The actions of Ford offer a great read on Jones’ changes to the English defensive pattern.


Another excellent attacking lineout platform breaks down on the very first phase. Ford’s movements are key: instead of drifting back to the short side edge as he might have done in a more conservative defence, he sticks close to the ruck and attacks Scotland’s acting half-back: it is all about stopping the play at source, and disrupting it as early as possible.

There were also some definite signals England are beginning to read the key receivers much more actively than they were in the opening round against Italy.



In the two ‘live’ clips, England centre Henry Slade only has eyes for Finn Russell and pours straight through on to the Scotland magician, whatever the depth of his positioning, while in the screenshot England have correctly identified the twin Scotland receivers at the gain line and pushed out on to both of them.

With lineout and long phase counts ruled out, Scotland’s scores came from first-phase scrums, or quick turnover strikes after England had coughed up possession.


In the first clip Ford is probably misaligned inside the Scotland first receiver, number 12 Tuipolutu, and that allows the hosts to work a three-on-two over the two English centres. In the second pressure on D has forced a blocked-down kick from Russell only for Cameron Redpath to bust through the chase, straight up the middle of the paddock. Even after such a deep break, England – in the person of Maro Itoje – are still trying to rush off the edge short-handed, leaving ample space for the kick-pass to Van der Merwe from Scotland’s visionary fly-half.

If they can cut out the errors with ball in hand – even if it means returning to the risk-averse formula which was almost enough to tip over the Springboks in a World Cup semi-final – England can play a landmark game of rugby against the Grand Slammers-elect.

Irish half-backs Jamison Gibson-Park and young Jack Crowley will come under pressure they have not experienced in the championship until now, and it will affect everything that happens outside them. Ireland’s will to find space on the field will meet England’s desire to smother it, and that will set the tone for the most intriguing tactical battle of the Six Nations.

A win for Ireland, and the festive procession can continue. A victory for England, and all the ancient tribal rivalries, red in tooth and claw, will stalk the final weekend of the tournament.


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Francisco 130 days ago

Hi Nick, I'm reading your analysis a week after publishing it and it's incredibly accurate...! Vs RSA in RC2023 ENG showed that his defensive plan was preferable to the creative side. They forgot to play offensively. Against IRE in 6Nations, this last aspect of the game managed to overcome and we saw a great game with excessive pressure in the rucks played without possession (+60%) without a doubt must have clouded IRE's speed tactics. Defensively, ENG was more than IRE, he was faster and prevented the sum of IRE's passes from exceeding the number of successful tackles of ENG. A great game, a great show and an excellent example of mental recovery.

Rugby 133 days ago

well done Nic, England could very well win the 6 nations. Great thoughts about the upset over Ireland. Felix was key I think.

Against the bokke in RWC, when they were ahead in that raining game, they should have clipped through one or 2 more drop goal attempts ( as they did v the Pumas). that would have been the game. they chose to defend. they could have won that game.

Mitch 135 days ago

Stylistically, I think England will play like they did in the World Cup SF and Borthwick will revert to what he’s comfortable with. England will want a slugfest that ends 18-15 their way or something. If Ireland dominate the breakdown and the Felix Jones defensive system falls apart, this could be a re-run of the France’s Dupont inspired demolition of England last year.

Great win by the Reds by the way over the Chiefs!

d 136 days ago

Thanks Nick, with the analysis on England breaking up the multiphase attack, is Ireland likely to play more conservatively? More kicks? Or do they simply work harder at what they are doing? Should be a cracking contest

Derek Murray 136 days ago

No doubt it’s a different matchup for Ireland than the other 6N teams. Whether this England side, where they are with their new style of play, can actually get a win is another matter.
I’m genuinely surprised that Borthwick had ignored Steward again and admire him for committing to the programme.
The bigger question for neutrals is who would be the most painful press and fans after a win - living in London, I don’t think I could stand an England win so will go with Ireland and hope my Irish mates don’t follow the way of their brethren in the press and go all SA/NZ on us

Turlough 136 days ago

“What you saw is a team that is trying to develop, a team that is trying to add layers to their game.”

Some indicators (including leaks from English training) suggest training vastly concentrating on the defensive system for the first 3 games. I expect England to have more rounded training more attack/passing time going into the final two fixtures and therefore less handling errors.

I expect a big step up from Scotland with England causing problems to Irelands attack.
Ireland have no equal in my opinion in preparing for these big games. This will be a different Ireland also in some respects.

I expect Ireland to prevail, but with England pushing them hard for most of the game.
England-France last game will also be epic.

Mzilikazi 137 days ago

Win the toss Ireland, kick high and deep. Make England sweat on the exit. No stupid penalties, Andrew Porter, no easy exits. Don’t let the very good and streetwise England pack turn the breakdowns in dockyard brawls at the outset. How this area is refereed will be crucial. Laxity will not be good for Ireland.

I am interested to see Furbank remains at fullback. I had thought Steward might have been brought back for this game. I would see that as a positive on balance for Ireland, kicking high to pressure the England backfield.

I am also relieved that Marcus Smith will start on the bench. That may prove to be a mistake by England, but then again, coming on later he may do damage. However he will face a very strong Irish bench…..Kelleher, Conan, Baird and Frawley are formidable men to bring on at the finish. The other four are no slouches either, though I would personally like to see Casey on the bench instead of Murray. I feel Casey has the better, faster pass, and is the rising player, who needs the game time to develop.

One thing about that Calcutta Cup game, Nick. I thought the handling errors were stratospheric for this modern era of the game. Scotland especially started very badly. And you do allude to the errors by England in saying “England made too many turnovers which led to Scottish scores directly”. I would have thought a more accurate start by the Scots might have denied England that full ten point jump they got.

Roy 137 days ago

It’s pretty easy to beat Ireland. Hope they get 2 red cards in the first 20 minutes, and pick up a couple of injuries.

JD Kiwi 137 days ago

Pressure is certainly the word Nick… they don't play much but they drag you down to their level. I think Borthwick's made England much tougher to beat.

BTW check out the latest Wibble video if you're into that sort of thing - covers the kick chase and defence.

Grant 137 days ago

Ireland being talked about as the best team in the world yet being could bottling it during world cup. Lets not forget it took a home world cup and 30 years for new Zealand to win the world cup. Even though at the time they were considered the best team in the world. For Ireland its a chance to show if they are on their way to being the best in the world. For England it might be the saving grace that Steve needs for this project England. lose badly it could be his job next for discussion

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