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FEATURE How England reverse-engineered unlikely attacking change

How England reverse-engineered unlikely attacking change
4 months ago

Six Nations Championships pitched after a season which includes a British and Irish Lions tour or Rugby World Cup are notorious flatliners. Players are fatigued mentally and physically, and the only number on the ‘up’ tends to be the injuries suffered in the five rounds the tournament lasts.

The 2024 Six Nations went against type and provided a welcome breath of fresh air in its second half, with one side beginning to mature on the international stage [Italy] and two others [France and England] adding considerable flesh to the bones of a tactical reset after the World Cup.

Italy will be celebrating the first Six Nations in which they finished with a 50% record of two wins, two defeats and one draw, while both England and France will be cheered immensely by the positive attacking auguries of the last two rounds. Between them, the two European giants scored 15 of a combined total of 29 tries in their final two matches.

France edged England in a nail-biting Six Nations finale on Saturday night (Photo by PA)

Cometh the hour, and the traditional northern hemisphere big boys reasserted themselves in no uncertain terms. They fully justified the ‘Probables’ status I gave them before the competition by finishing in the top three, and as also – probably – the two most dangerous attacking teams in the competition by the close of play.

For Les Bleus, it meant a journey of rediscovery. In the second of two statistical analyses, I illustrated how France’s ability to score from kick and turnover returns had fallen through the floor with Maxime Lucu filling in for Antoine Dupont at scrum-half. Their 2023 average of 2.4 tries per game scored from ‘unstructured’ attack had plummeted to just 0.3 per game in the first three rounds.

The ailing patient jumped off the operating table and back to life with three unstructured tries in the last two rounds. Four tries originated, if not quite ‘from the ends of the Earth’, at least from positions inside France’s own half. By the end of the Six Nations, the French were kicking slightly less [an average of 28 kicks per game] and holding on to more ball – from 45% possession after three rounds to 51% by the finish.

My mid-season analysis ended with a summary: “The coaching staff urgently need to get the French rugby public back onside, and committing to attack will be a key criterion in selection for Fabien Galthié in the last two rounds of the tournament.”

Defence coach Shaun Edwards’ evident dissatisfaction after the narrow win over England hinted heavily the new movement was underway. In a post-match interview on ITV, he said: “I thought our attack was fantastic, particularly our maul, driven line-out. We dominated, we did very well in that area.

“But I was very disappointed with our defence. I thought the England attack was all over us, particularly their midfield, so we have got a lot of work to do. You should not have to score 30 points to win a game, as exciting as it is.

“We were missing tackles, not being aggressive enough. A lot of tries are being scored in modern-day rugby but I thought today was probably our worst defensive performance since I’ve been here. We cannot always rely on [ourselves] to score 30 points every game if we want to start winning trophies again.”

Shaun Edwards
Shaun Edwards gave a withering assessment of his French team’s defence in Lyon (Photo Warren Little/Getty Images)

The French backline in the last two rounds was packed with excellent attacking players starting out of position. Fly-half Thomas Ramos is typically shielded in the second line of defence as a full-back for his club Toulouse, while debutant centre Nicolas Depoortère plays exclusively at 13 for Bordeaux but featured at 12 for Les Bleus. With that midfield group, it was left to Edwards to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Steve Borthwick’s England likewise made big positive strides on attack in the final two rounds. England dominated the line breaks 8-2 against the modern masters of possession Ireland in round four. Only five of England 16 major attacking possessions ran for more than four phases, and the kick-return was England’s chosen weapon of [counter] attack. England had six primary kick-return platforms and made significant yardage, clean breaks or scored tries from all of them.

The selection of George Furbank ahead of Freddie Steward at full-back sent a clear message from Borthwick. The England coach was marching against type in the interests of building a formidable new offence.

Size, expertise in defence and under the high ball was being sacrificed for attacking fluency. When Furbank was injured early in the match at Lyon, it was not Steward who replaced him, but Harlequins playmaker Marcus Smith. That gave England three backs who had played a significant portion of their career at 10 [George Ford, Henry Slade and Smith]. It connected the attack together and offered a strong cohesive ‘glue’.

England then added a second progression from win over Ireland. Where the chosen platform of attack was the kick-return at Twickenham, in Lyon it was early-phase set-piece, and that meant double trouble for the suspect French midfield defence.

 

It is a simple score and it is based on Gaël Fickou’s need to cover the inexperience of the man inside him, Depoortère.

With all three of France’s big, mobile back-rowers inside him [from left-to-right Charles Ollivon, Greg Alldritt and François Cros], Depoortère should really be able to leave England’s first receiver Slade to them and move out to Ford [circling behind Slade]. He sticks on the Exeter distributor instead and that creates the defensive scenario no 13 wants, trying to mark two attackers on different angles. In the event Fickou looks in on Ford and that allows Lawrence to glide by on his exposed outside shoulder.

Six minutes into the second half, England scored another first-phase try from lineout founded on the unfamiliarity in the French midfield. This time Fickou was a helpless onlooker as the bond between his 10 and 12 fell apart with alarming ease.

 

Alldritt has once again been sidelined as a defender and the gap between Ramos and Depoortère is far too wide as England prop Ellis Genge receives the ball in midfield. That commits the two French backs to ineffective arm-tackles on Ben Earl – and if the Six Nations has proven anything, it is that half-hearted tackles will never be enough to stop the rampaging Saracens number eight. As soon as Earl links with Smith on the pass, it is curtains for the French cover. If he had any hair left on his head, Shaun Edwards would have been pulling it all out on that play.

England also demonstrated they were able to stay in good attacking shape for the first three or four phases from set-piece.

 

 

On this occasion, Alldritt is able to cover the deficiencies of his inside backs and make the first stop on Earl, but England are still able to generate lightning-quick ball at the first two rucks. Moreover, they are unafraid to sit right on top of the defensive line to use it constructively.

The first two receivers [Ford and Slade] are playing flat on the advantage line, and that in turn pulls in the last two defenders towards the Exeter man and releases Tommy Freeman for a gallop down the right.

On next phase, England were in better shape on attack than Les Bleus were on defence.

 

England are going to catch a retreating tight forward [number three Uini Atonio] in the process of regrouping and play through his area on the next phase off lightning-quick ball. The men in white converted the bust by Earl three phases later via a second try for Ollie Lawrence.

The theme of twin receivers playing hard at the line off sub-three-second ball recurred for England’s fourth try.

 

This time it is Ford and Smith playing flat and transferring instantly through the hands, to create room on the right for Freeman to score a maiden try for his country.

The final two rounds of the Six Nations contained liberal doses of the unexpected. Italy won twice to emerge in credit. Both England and France managed to reverse-engineer some significant changes of course, which seemed unlikely at the midpoint of the tournament.

The scene has been well and truly set for two climactic summer series, between Ireland and South Africa in the Republic and England and the All Blacks in New Zealand. England may not yet be world-beaters, but they will give the Kiwis all the hurry-up they can handle in July. Iti noa ana he pito mata, as the Maori saying goes. ‘From the withered tree, a flower blooms.’

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Comments

81 Comments
D
Derek Murray 124 days ago

Thanks Nick. Fascinating to watch how quickly both teams were able to change their attack work.

R
Rugby 124 days ago

No Owen Farrell forced the back line changes. It is totally different.
New back line coaches in the mix -Felix

Against the Pacific LIons they will not revert to a development tour as they have over the years (gonna lose anyway might as well develop). I think the will continue to push to improve their current momentum. However they have the ability to shut up shop, hold the line if need be like they did v Bokke in RWC.

Note to Coach
Kick the ball out and get Itoje (new short hair version) competing and getting own ball. They have new locks.
A result of Kicking the ball out is on the set phase, first phase you can control the defence, rush or whatever you like. On return kicks you control nothing. It gets a bit FUBAR.
Do not play return Kick, they love broken lines.
Keep Ollie Chessum at 6 muscle up with Ben Earl
The Pacific Lions do not have the patience and discipline (this will take some time to bring back).
On attack run ches and earl at no 10.
watch their no 9 and you in with a shot.
Take the penalties - shot at goal

I like the 3 vice captains idea

M
Mzilikazi 124 days ago

Thanks, Nick, not only for this fine article, but for all the others during 6N 2024. I really enjoyed this 2024 tournament, and felt it was one of the best for many years. That final match in Lyons was really good. England were certainly unlucky when that speculative hack by Ramos lead to a French try. It could just so easily have landed in English hand.s, and they score at the other end. I did think though that the French played some great rugby, and some of their driving play in the forwards was just fearsome.

I watched Meafou with interest, and he has a good start to his career. It is interesting to compare him with Will Skelton. Lot of similarities, though so far Meafou has not shown any offloading threat.

All credit to Borthwick for being prepared to change, and what great result, even if that last game was lost at the death. I feel they are a real chance to cause the AB’s problems this winter/summer.

Finally a comment on Ireland. I thought their last game was their worst, and they did not look like the world’s No 2 side at all. What really worries me is that the loss to England was, in my view, down to poor decision making by the coaching group, and ofc Andy Farrell wears that. It was a big mistake to move JGP away from scrum half. Murray should have been the one to go to the wing. And the “finishers” should have been on the field earlier. And this is the second time this has happened. The RWC Qf against the AB’s, and not getting Crowley onto the field was a huge mistake.

Finally, finally, watching Italy play was a joy. How wonderful that they are no longer the punchbag of the 6 N.

C
Carlin 124 days ago

I think the last two games England have played is some of their best rugby they have played under Borthwick. There has been a lot more attacking instinct and as a reward have created some well worked tries. Ollie Lawrence is a good foil at 12 as he offers the hard direct lines whilst the rest of the backs can play open. As much as it pains me to say but I do hope England keep playing this way.

On a side note my favourite try of the weekend was Lorenzo Pani’s for the nice loop play that put him away and his finish was excellent.

Thanks as always Nick.

E
Ed the Duck 124 days ago

No Nick, they did not, in fact, justify any ‘probables’ label. At no time did they seriously compete for the championship. Ireland led from start to finish and in the end, as a result of glaring referee errors, were never under serious pressure to lose their crown.

M
Mitch 124 days ago

Steve Borthwick deserves credit for releasing the shackles on his England side and letting them play in a manner that somewhat resembles the top sides in the Gallagher Premiership. Will they revert to type in New Zealand in July.?

J
JD Kiwi 125 days ago

Hi Dr Nick! I'm worried that I've started to enjoy watching England and have actually wanted them to win their last two games. What would you prescribe?

On a more serious note, I've noticed that the standard of play in March is often better than early February. Do you think this is because of the weather or because the players have been together for longer?

R
Rugby 125 days ago

Good bit of te reo maori Nic. Or is that Niko or Nikora?
On the theme of trees the Oaks v Totara.

Game plan would be key. I have one but it would cost you.

R
Rugby 125 days ago

Shaun Edwards’ You should not have to score 30 points to win a game, as exciting as it is.
This statement was surprising to me. It is nonsensical .I guess it is a defence coach speaking.
But head coach, defence and attacking coaches all work together. They are inseparable.
You score more than the opposition to win. It only needs to be one score. You score whatever the game demands, whatever the opposition demand. You defend whatever it takes.

The attack coach needs to be able to clock up 30pts if need be.

T
Tom 125 days ago

Who’d have thought, not having Farrell & Youngs kicking the ball at every possible opportunity and playing flat and allowing your centres to run and pass would pay off? No one could possibly have seen this coming. FML.

It took a LONG time coming but at least that time has finally come.

England need to find a backup to Lawrence. Freeman is the best candidate for me, I see no reason why he can't play 12. He's big, strong, fast and has great hands.

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