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FEATURE Why England can still be a force to be reckoned with

Why England can still be a force to be reckoned with
9 months ago

It is very hard indeed for a true rugby follower to accept either of rugby’s traditional superpowers, England or Australia, as underdogs at the group stage of a World Cup. Between them they won three of the first five tournaments up until 2003, but since then the well has run dry.

England have reached two finals (in 2007 and 2019) and Australia one (in 2015) but since then, a desert of underachievement by both nations over the past two or three seasons had, on the eve of the 2023 World Cup, dropped the Red Rose to a lowly eighth in the world rankings, with the Wallabies languishing one spot below them.

Coaching mirages have appeared and vanished with frightening regularity during that period for both countries, with the life-giving water of fresh ideas mostly a figment of the imagination.

Both of their last-minute head-coaching appointees – Eddie Jones with the Wallabies and Steve Borthwick with England – had some cause for celebration after the first round of matches at the group stage, which saw Australia beating Georgia by 35 points to 15 and England overcoming Argentine with some room to spare, winning 27-10 despite playing all but three minutes of the game with only 14 men on the field.

Both Jones and Borthwick will be relieved. It was Eddie’s first victory in six outings since his return home after being sacked by the RFU, and the big Cumbrian’s fourth in 10 attempts after replacing Jones in the England hot-seat.

Borthwick England <a href=
Rugby World Cup injury update” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Steve Borthwick hasn’t enjoyed an easy season as head coach of the England national side. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Both men referenced a couple of areas of improvement in their post-match pressers. For Jones it was the scrum and the attacking kicking game:

“Our attacking kicking was really good. We put [right wing] Mark [Nawaqanitawase] in a number of situations where he really caused the opposition a lot of trouble. Those [the kicking game and the scrum] were two key and promising areas for us.”

For Borthwick it was defence and the kicking game, as implemented in all its forms by his No 10 George Ford:

“I’m sure you [the assembled press] all know there is a higher incidence of drop-goals at World Cups than there is in Test rugby outside of them, and I thought George [Ford] took the [three] opportunities really well today…

“I see his all-round ability as top-class – to run, pass, kick – all top-class. His ability to think clearly in the highest-pressure circumstances is exemplary.

“When he was kicking those drop-goals, he had more time. When he was kicking those high balls, it looked like he had more time. He has more time than other players do, and that is the sign of a top-quality player.”

The common denominator was the influence of the kicking game. For Australia, it is becoming a weapon in attack. The Wallabies have two outstanding aerial receivers in the form of Nawaqanitawase and Suliasi Vunivalu, and they make liberal use of them on the kick-pass to the corners or the quick lob over the top of the line against shorter opponents.

But it was England, rather than Australia who took the most definitive stride forward on the first weekend of the competition. Where the Wallabies overcame a second-tier nation two spots below them in the world rankings, the men in white beat the Pumas – a side ranked two places above them, and one who were installed by popular opinion as the favourites to win pool D. Moreover, they did it with only 14 men on the field, after Tom Curry’s red card in the third minute of the game:

A low ball-in-play match (just under 32 minutes) showcased ‘the best of Leicester’ in all facets of the game.

  • Set piece: England won the scrum penalties by two to one while enjoying a 100 per cent return on their own lineout throw – tick.
  • Kicking game: they launched 43 kicks for 1074 metres (Tigers were the only side in the Premiership to average over 35 kicks and 1000m per game in 2022-23) – tick.
  • Defence: they made 147 tackles at an impressive completion rate of 86 per cent while building 27 fewer rucks than their opponents – tick.

The most impressive aspect of England’s effort was the way in which the kicking game, featuring a high proportion of contestable kicks, protected the defence – either by winning the ball back directly, or by denying any opportunity for a significant return at source.

Another dose of meaningful stats:

  • England won all four of the contestable kicks launched by Argentina for a 100 per cent return.
  • They achieved positive outcomes on 12 of the 18 contestable kicks that they sent skywards themselves, and 67 per cent represents a significantly above-average dividend.
  • Among those positive outcomes, England (partly) balanced the books in the 9th minutes, by drawing a yellow card on Santiago Carreras for a charging foul on Ford in the action of launching the ‘bomb’; they added four more penalties and six other first touches from situational spin-offs during or after high kicks.

Let’s take a look at some samples, where England did the basics on kick and kick-chase very well indeed; and other areas where they have further scope to improve on counter-attack from the turnover shrapnel derived from them:

 

From a box-kick by No 9 Alex Mitchell, England are not able to achieve either of their primary directives – to get first touch to the ball by the main chaser (fullback Freddie Steward) or to latch their first jackler (No 8 Ben Earl) on to the first tackle successfully and manufacture a turnover. Nonetheless, this scenario still represents a ‘win’ for the men in white (dressed in blue).

Steward doesn’t win the ball, but he makes the tackle as the first man up. Earl doesn’t pilfer the ball, but he does achieve a five-second slow-down in the recycle. When the ball finally emerges it is both laboured and uncontrolled, and the England D is set up more coherently than the Argentine attack for the next phase:

 

Ollie Chessum is in the line of sight between the Argentine scrumhalf and his target pod, and a handling error duly results. So far, so good. The problems begin with England’s efforts to convert the resulting five-on-two overlap:

Joe Marchant’s pass stops Elliot Daly in his tracks, and by the time he has regripped the ball precious time has been lost, and Jonny May no longer has a free run down the right side-line.

In the voluntary absence of England’s only other naturally left-sided back (Exeter’s Henry Slade) Daly has a critical role to play moving forward in the tournament, but England still need to learn how best to utilise his passing talents:

 

This time the boot is on the other foot, with Steward catching a high ball from the Pumas safely. England again have a favourable countering situation with the width of the field available, but in order to get the ball out to May on the wide right it has to move through Daly, not Manu Tuilagi in the passing chain. Daly can make that long cut-out delivery off his left hand, but Manu can only give it straight to Marchant, and the chance evaporates into the thin air of the Stade Marseille.

The final sequence derives from a scrum rather than a kick, but it still announces very much the same theme:

 

On this occasion England are in good shape with Ford playing behind a pod of forwards and Daly alongside him. If May keeps his depth on the right touch-line there is the option of a kick-pass off Daly’s left boot, and if the ball is moved by hand there is every likelihood of a penetration deep into the Pumas’ 22, but a promising picture is roughly ripped up when Earl unaccountably kicks the ball straight into touch.

Both of the under-pressure head coaches of England and Australia will be relieved that a long-awaited ‘W’ in the win-loss column has kept their critics at arm’s length – at least for the time being.

The Wallabies put away Georgia with reasonable if not outstanding efficiency, but it was the Red Rose’s triumph over Argentina which really caught the eye. Despite being reduced to 14 men for all but three minutes of the game, Borthwick’s England not only withstood the Pumas’ challenge, they pulled away from it steadily where it mattered, on the scoreboard.

Nobody will be too worried that all their 27 points came from the boot. That doesn’t matter, at least for now. They only conceded one try themselves, and the England contestable kicking game and defence worked in well-oiled harmony throughout to deny Argentina easy opportunities to counter. The Pumas were gradually squeezed and suffocated into submission.

It was the closest Steve Borthwick and his assistants have come to replicating their Leicester template successfully on the international stage. England controlled the kicking game at both ends of the field and they set up countering opportunities off the pressure they created, even if they could not take them.

Notice was served that as fast as Australia are developing their attack, England’s defence may be improving even quicker. If those two countries meet at the quarter-final stage, the battle will distinctly historical in character and we will hear the Judge’s gavel – the defence and conservative gameplan of the old country pitched against the youthful attacking vigour of Eddie’s New Age protégés. That would be a battle for the ages indeed.

Comments

39 Comments
J
Jon 279 days ago

England look to have found a strategy that could work for them. Now the temp is dropping they will find it hard to get so much kicking distance, which is probably more influential to any possible drop goal game, but I don't think they should bother trying to find any cohesion in attack like Wales have done. Just stick to the predictable and do it extremely well. Does that mean no Farrell?

That said the Argies were poor and still England might feel they looked a bit too threatened by them. If it hadn't been for those 3 consecutive drop goals both building and relieving pressure (of having to play rugby) if could easily have been a different result. And wasn't it fantastic to see that mounting pressure from an underdog bare fruit in the FijivWales game at the end!

N
Nick 279 days ago

What do you think of Argentina under Chieka, Nick?
It seems like they are becoming a bit more predictable, and that they don't have too much of a game plan. Similar to when Chieka coached Australia, it seems like he just hypes them up. I have heard that he doesn't like game plans, and wants everything to be spur of the moment.. which might work for a short while, but seems to get diminishing returns in the long run.
Eddie will definitely be hoping for Argentina in the quarters, if it gets to that, because England are improving quicker than Australia, I think, and Australia's chances rest on 2 or 3 player's shoulders.

d
dan 280 days ago

I thought the Argentinian attack was slavish and predictable, swinging from one side to the other and going nowhere. Their rucking was poor too. I don’t think the England defence were really tested. I cannot see where Englands tries are going to come from?? As for Wallabies, they look defensively vulnerable on the fringes of their lines. They will need to sort this if they are going to beat Argentina.

M
Mitch 280 days ago

England's forwards performed well but their backs were clunky when it came bringing some width into their play. It's very hard to attack well if the players' passing skills aren't up to scratch.

As well as England performed with 14 men for 77 minutes to get the win, I'd fancy any of the top 5 sides in the world to have comfortably beaten a 14 man England side which is an indictment on Argentina and their coaching group.

Argentina were so poor it brought back horrible memories of some of the dumb rugby the Wallabies served up under Michael Cheika post the 2015 World Cup. During the match, Referee Raynal said the words ''we play'' which also brought back some unwanted memories of the Bledisloe Cup test in Melbourne last year.

J
John 280 days ago

As per usual, quality analysis Nick. Hard for yours truly to draw too much from either England or Australia’s games. Aus vs tier 2 Georgia and Argentina were just so poor. But very impressive win for England and at this point I imagine that they will probably be too disciplined for Australia if they get through to the QF.

George Ford has always been an excellent 10. Feel like too often he hasn’t gotten the respect he deserved, like Quade in Aus.

S
Shaylen 280 days ago

The world cup is so fascinating, its almost like an arms race where different teams are in a race to develop the various aspects of their game to completion so that they can become the best version of themselves and claim the prize. England were really impressive and made massive improvements in defense, line speed, kick chase, all round intensity and game management. The Aussies just improved across the park and look like a team with clear direction now who are working to a defined set of strengths. Will be really interesting to see how England and the Aussies develop their game going forward. Nobody can discount them as a threat and if they make it to a Semi Final there is every chance that one of them could go on to win the whole thing.

p
philip 281 days ago

As always a very satisfying analysis of what was. Now, I wonder what can be, when you find competence hiding a lack of fundamental creativity. If that be the case then how long can you pretend before you stumble over a simple playing puzzle. We don't have clever boys or clever master coaches....sadly.

T
Tom 281 days ago

Great read Nick. The English are a good shot to go all the way to the final based on that, can’t see them winning. Shades of 2007. Will be a tantalising battle should they men Aust, couldn’t script it better.

J
JD Kiwi 281 days ago

Top analysis Nick, especially on the bombed counter attack opportunities that were earned by the big boys. England have such a well balanced 4/5/6 and Tuilagi was the power 12 every team needs nowadays but boy are they missing a ball playing 13 or 15.

M
Mark 281 days ago

Good analysis.
As you allude to Englands defence was markedly improved, although frankly it couldn't have got any worse, and while Ford's game management and ability to maintain scoreboard pressure was notable, the fact remains that englands attacking game and catch pass ability remains woefull.
Perspective is everything.

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