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FEATURE How France's kicking masterclass eliminated England's deadliest weapon

How France's kicking masterclass eliminated England's deadliest weapon
11 months ago

It sounded like rugby’s version of PTSD after the game.

In his efforts to deflect questions about the selection of Marcus Smith at number 10, England head coach Steve Borthwick probably went too far in the opposite direction with his post-match assessment:

“The main bearer on the game was around that contact area where you saw almost from the first couple of scores in the first couple of breaks where France were able to dominate the tackle area and offload. While we understood that was a major threat, off the back of that with [Gregory] Alldritt carrying and offloading and [Antoine] Dupont playing off that quick ball, we weren’t able to stop it.

“… When you lose the collision that badly in defence and give the opposition opportunity, quick ball, offloads, and you lose it in attack where you are not able to generate quick ball and it turns into turnovers at the breakdown, especially in conditions like that, then it is hard to get a foothold in the game and that was exactly the case today.”

While there was a measure of truth in Borthwick’s comments, they did not touch the crux of the game. The Leicester side he coached to an English Premiership title kicked the ball more and kicked it better than anyone else.

George Ford’s kicking game proved vital to Leicester’s 2021-22 Premiership title win. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

In the 2021-2022 season, Tigers put boot to ball an average of 33 times per game, had the lowest ratio of rucks set to kicks made (five rucks to every three kicks), and most of their tries derived from close-range lineout drives. One season later, the number of kicks had increased to 35 and Leicester were the only club to kick for over 1,000 metres per game.

The teams that Steve Borthwick coaches like to exert a tactical clamp on territory via the boot, and that is why George Ford will come back into the reckoning for the final round of the Six Nations in Dublin.

As his coach at Sale, Alex Sanderson, put it, “George will definitely go back and train with England.

“It looks like Steve’s got a really difficult job now – to rebuild or rotate. If I’m in his shoes I think you fall back to people you know and trust, and George ticks both of those boxes.”

The most salient and painful fact to be gleaned from the massacre in West London was that France out-kicked England. The raw stats show that the visitors launched 10 more kicks than the hosts (42 to 32 ), racking up a colossal 1,350 metres off the boot in the process – over 300 metres more than the men in white.

The story was not just about the frequency of French kicking, but far more about its variety and tactical intelligence. In the previous round in Cardiff, Wales had played the outstanding England fullback Freddie Steward into the game via the box-kick, executed parallel to touch. Steward ate them all for breakfast, winning 11 of 12 kicks sent his way, and 9 of the 10 under challenge. He did not make his first mistake until the 68th minute of the match, and by then it didn’t matter:

Steward takes the ball imperiously above his head, and proceeds to set up an ideal attacking position well across halfway in the middle of the park.

Right from the opening kick-off receipt, France set out their stall to move Steward away from his armchair on the near side line. When England kicked to their left, they shifted the ball into midfield before kicking out to the right:

First Steward has to run across-field to receive the ball, then he has to return on an angle to get to the midfield, where French defensive breakdown hulks, like centre Jonathan Danty and hooker Julien Marchand, were waiting to rob him of the ball:

The theme of kicking from midfield on an angle towards the touch-line, rather than parallel to it, stretched Steward far beyond the comfort zone he had discovered versus Wales:

Whenever possible, France went further, kicking away from the Leicester back-stop entirely and towards the other members of the English backfield. They squeezed one mistake out of Anthony Watson, and another out of Marcus Smith:

This is Antoine Dupont, kicking off his left foot on the diagonal to pierce the gap between Max Malins and Jack van Poortvliet, with Freddie Steward no more than an interested bystander. The outcome was a 50/22 and a turnover lineout throw to Les Bleus.

France’s short attacking kicks were planned and executed with the same meticulous attention to detail, and most of them came from the boot of scrum-half Dupont:

England are in a two-man backfield in their own last third of the field, with Watson (out of shot) on the left and Steward on the right. Dupont’s motto can be summarised: ‘Anywhere but Freddie’. His right-foot chip neatly bisects the zone and forced the Tigers man to deal not with a straightforward receipt in the air, but move towards a ball which has hit grass first. Romain Ntamack gets the first touch and Thibault Flament does the rest.

Antoine Dupont also used the shorter kick when that two-man backfield was set deep, expecting a longer clearance:

The power-packed French halfback chips ahead and regathers the ball well in front of Freddie Steward coming out of the England backfield to set up another great scoring chance for the men in blue. Again, ‘Anywhere but Freddie’.

The final score of the game was no more than the icing on the tactical cake for France:

When France centre Gaël Fickou gets to midfield, his first instinct is to deliver a diagonal kick towards the right sideline, where England number 8 Alex Dombrandt is trying manfully to defend probably the most lethal finisher in world rugby, Damian Penaud. The Harlequins man cannot get close, and neither can Steward, looking to cover the left corner from the other side of the field as Penaud canters home. Once more, ‘Anywhere but Freddie’:

The game between England and France was not just a straightforward victory for collision-winning and breakdown pilfers – far from it. In his post-match comments, Steve Borthwick may have been trying to mask the reality that England were outkicked at both 9 and 10, and his star man in Cardiff, fullback Freddie Steward, was out-manoeuvred by the sheer quality of the French tactical kicking game.

Instead of standing and receiving down the touch-line, and defending the catch against all-comers as he had against Wales, Steward was forced to chase the ball across field and react to the bounce. He was pulled from midfield to edge, from north to south and east to west. Les Bleus did not give the Leicester man a moment’s peace.

It raises fascinating questions about selection ahead of England’s final-round finale against the world’s number-one ranked team in Dublin. Does Borthwick dump Marcus Smith for a second time in three matches and restore George Ford, the best tactical kicker in the English domestic game? Does he pick Owen Farrell instead of the Sale outside half, or alongside him? How does he cope with an opponent which comes in with the idea of beating England at their own game, and nullifying the strong suit of a Steve Borthwick team? Whatever short honeymoon period there was, it is now conclusively over. At least for the England head honcho, Welford Road must look a whole lot more forgiving than West London does right now.

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