Old Foe, New Tricks

England v Ireland - Match Preview (Old Foe, New Tricks) Header Photo
Moving The Point of Contact: Elliot Daly draws Jacob Stockdale before passing in the Aviva Stadium 12 months ago. Last year’s dominant victory over England was the statement win that Ireland were looking for since being beaten by the same opposition in February 2019, and proved that they were making good progress under Andy Farrell, but England were somewhat stagnant in terms of their individual performances and tactics back then, and have turned things around since. They may have lost to Scotland in Round 1, but they are an improving team, and are in a state of transition with regards to their game plan. They still have the power up front to hurt teams by playing direct, but their ambition in attack is cause for concern, too.

This Saturday’s game is an important one for Ireland for a couple of reasons. They haven’t yet knocked over the Red Rose on their turf in this World Cup cycle, and after the defeat to France, they need to prove that they can beat the better teams in the Six Nations away from home. There is no question that they have come on in leaps and bounds under Andy Farrell, but the only teams that they have beaten outside the Aviva Stadium under his stewardship are Scotland and Italy.

With regards to their opponent this weekend, it won’t have been forgotten by the Irish players or management that their last visit to Twickenham was not a pleasant one. Their lineout was unreliable on the day, and two early Jonny May tries did their confidence no favours. They barely fired a shot, with several players underperforming, and England beat them soundly, exposing all of their flaws in the process.

The France defeat will have taught Ireland not to be overawed by an intimidating venue or a raucous home crowd, and although their fortunes have changed since 2020, England are on the up, too. They probably aren’t as strong as they were when Ireland last travelled to London, but they will still provide their visitors with a comprehensive examination of every part of their game, as well as throwing more at them in attack than in recent years.

Broadened Horizons

There has been a noticeable shift in England’s playing style since the beginning of last November, with more of an emphasis on subterfuge in their attacking structure and getting the ball into the wider channels. It’s a significant departure from the kick-heavy/defence-oriented game plan that we have seen from Eddie Jones’ side since the start of 2019, and key to it has been an increase in the frequency with which the English forwards pass the ball:

Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are both renowned for their physicality and dynamism in contact, but in the examples above, you can see the benefit of them passing the ball, as the compression that their carrying threat poses has caused the opposition defence to cluster in on them, creating space further out.

Personnel changes in the backline have also facilitated the development of England’s playing philosophy, with Jones favouring multiple distributors through 12-15 instead of the crash-ball centre/strike-running full-back combination that we have seen throughout most of his tenure. Henry Slade, Elliot Daly, Max Malins and Freddie Steward are all excellent passers, and we saw their skills on display against Wales:

When you combine so many playmakers with a 10 who has pace, footwork and incredible sleight of hand, moving the ball from one touch-line to the other happens much more smoothly, and this is why England are more inclined to run the ball from areas of the field that they wouldn’t have even considered before.

The other bonus of having more creative players in the team is that England can use a variety of different kicks from any one of these players. A recurring theme in their performances in this Championship has been their use of long kicks from midfield angled towards the touch-line, a tactic which places opposition wingers under severe pressure:

Even though Scotland gather the ball in the above clip, they are retreating while doing so with the English chase line bearing down on top of them, but the outcome could have been worse. James Lowe and Andrew Conway will have to be mindful of the possibility of England putting the ball in behind them like this, especially with the 50/22 rule, but there’s a greater overall challenge that Ireland’s defensive system will have to overcome.

Now that England can put the ball through the hands more efficiently and thread it through them with the boot, decision-making in defence is going to be challenging for Ireland. If they stand off them and let them play, then their forwards will get over the gain line and around the edge defender too easily, but if they rush up all the time, they will leave themselves vulnerable to the kick in behind. It’s a fine balancing act for Ireland that will more than likely determine the result.

Musical Chairs

The downside of Eddie Jones’ selection policy of backs being used interchangeably is that some of them have been picked in positions that they are not overly familiar with. It’s not the first time we have seen this from the England head coach. When he first took charge, he selected the archetype blindside flanker James Haskell at 7, an aging Mike Brown (an out-and-out full-back) was deployed on the wing during England’s 2018 summer tour of South Africa, and Tom Curry has played numerous games at number eight post-RWC 2019.

England’s Round 1 clash against Scotland saw Joe Marchant playing on the left wing with Elliot Daly at 13, even though Daly has started British and Irish Lions Tests on the wing and performed superbly, and Marchant, a clear-cut outside centre, has never demonstrated the top-end pace or aerial prowess required to be an international-standard winger. The loss to Scotland looks to have ended that particular experiment, but Jones’ persistence with Max Malins on the right wing is something that Ireland should try to exploit.

Malins is pacy and elusive enough to be effective when getting the ball at the end of a flowing movement, but his main strength is being a Damian McKenzie-style playmaking full-back, and he plays the majority of his club rugby at 15. He has come in off his wing regularly to distribute to good effect, but there are other aspects of the position that I don’t think he is proficient at.

Playing 15 does involve backfield coverage and in turn catching high balls, but doing so on the wing is a bit different. Because the winger has to alternate between being in the front line of the defence or dropping back to cover kicks depending on their team’s defensive system and what picture the opposition is presenting to them, there is more on-the-hoof decision-making and movement up and down the pitch involved when the other team is in possession.

We see Malins get caught in no man’s land in this kind of scenario below when Finn Russell chooses to kick cross-field off a scrum. As the edge defender in England’s aggressive defence in this instance, Malins’ job is to rush up and in if the opposition go wide in order to pressurise the pass, but he holds off too long to watch Russell instead of turning and racing out to the zone in the tramlines where the ball should land:

You can understand his hesitancy in pushing across because of Russell’s reputation for misdirection, but he holds his position to keep eyes on the Scottish 10 until well after the ball has left his hands, which affords Duhan van der Merwe the freedom to catch the ball unchallenged. Turning quickly to readjust in these moments is something he wouldn’t be used to, as playing at full-back involves more running directly at a high ball from a long way off, and judging when to turn in situations like the above is difficult for an actual winger at the best of times.

Malins’ work under the high ball isn’t convincing, either. He puts a lot of effort into chasing Harry Randall’s kick below, but he doesn’t time his run properly, getting ahead of the ball, and runs across it instead of in a straight line towards it. His jump isn’t assertive enough and somewhat clumsy, leading to an awkward clash in the air with Monty Ioane that could have been a penalty:

Ireland were guilty of not box-kicking enough against a bigger pack when they played France, and they would be well-served by kicking down Malins’ wing, not just to force errors out of him, but also to keep the English pack moving. In spite the tweaks they have made to how they use their forwards, one-out carries and mauls remain strengths for England, so Ireland must to avoid getting locked into an arm wrestle with them like they did against France.

The other area where moving players around different positions seems to have hurt England is in their chase line. Scotland found big holes in their chase line on transition, which can be very fractured and narrow due to some players not positioning themselves out wide enough, or two players stepping on each other’s running lines some cases:

The improvements that Hugo Keenan has made in his game in passing off both sides accurately and more often, as well as his inclination to scan the opposition chase line for holes when he takes the ball in the backfield means that Ireland could make serious ground by running the ball back at England in these situations, especially if James Lowe and Andrew Conway can hold their width, and if Ireland’s mobile back five can drop into the backfield swiftly.

Navigating The Blitz

One facet of England’s play that hasn’t changed is the aggressive nature of their defence. Ireland’s multi-phase attack struggled against a similar type of defensive effort from France, and this game is going to be another test of their credentials in this department. If Ireland insist on one- or two-out carries or crashing it up in midfield despite being shoved back by England, they will have no chance of winning on Saturday, so they will need to box clever and vary how they use the ball to keep the hosts guessing.

Given that Marcus Smith has been targeted in defence, Henry Slade is playing at 12 instead of his preferred position of 13, and Joe Marchant isn’t the biggest of midfielders, England’s midfield axis tend to be focused on bringing line speed and a high tackle completion rate in defence, particularly in the absence of a bruiser like Manu Tuilagi. The drawback to this is that it can leave a lot of kick-space in behind them, with no sweeper coming across and Freddie Steward standing quite deep.

Italy were alert to this, and almost created a try on the back of putting in a deft chip-kick into this space off a lineout:

For some reason, we have seen precious little of this tactic from Ireland when playing England lately, even when they have found their blitz defence tough to break down.

Ireland did manage to make yards at will by playing multi-phase in their last meeting with England, but they were faltering at the time and are a different beast now. Even if they don’t always regather the ball, short-range kicks from Ireland would force England to check their line speed, giving them more room to operate, and making late, game-ending hits on Johnny Sexton less likely.

There are other ways of outmanoeuvring a blitz defence, of course. The targeting of the blind side and repeated changing of direction that we saw from Ireland against Italy will be useful in this fixture, but Ireland will have to attack the open side at some point, so nullifying the hard press from England’s edge defence will be of huge importance.

Wales opted to use decoy runners in front of the edge defender or at their inside shoulder to draw them up and in before passing the ball beyond them:

The last pass from Jonathan Davies to Josh Adams in the second clip above forces the Welsh winger to check his run, but in both examples, Wales successfully manipulated the last defender into giving up space on their outside.

Ireland will have noted this, and some of their wide plays against Italy looked to have had the same objective in mind, albeit with a slight difference. Instead of using a decoy to coax this defender away from the tramlines against Italy, Ireland actually run at them before giving a short pass to a screened runner arcing around the outside from directly behind:

Italy read this play well and shut it down in the second example above, but in the first clip, it goes according to plan, and Ireland break the line. While England will be more resolute and sangfroid in defence than the Azzurri, their defence operates in the same manner, so Ireland would be well-advised to use the same move against them should the opportunity present itself.

Raised Stakes

This is the last game that Ireland will play against a team with a bigger pack and a stern defence until they face South Africa in November, so it’s crucial that they give a good account of themselves after being beaten up by France in this Championship. Their dispatching of Wales was professional if not impressive, but their performance against Italy is not one that will be remembered fondly.

They will need to up the ante considerably against an English side who have bounced back strongly from their opening round defeat, and under Jones, England have been known for improving exponentially as their confidence grows. Nilling Italy and keeping Wales scoreless until the 54th minute are remarkable feats in their own right, and England managed to achieve both without playing anywhere near their best.

The advantage England have in terms of the quality of their bench means that Ireland will need to be ahead on the scoreboard going into the final quarter if they are going to win, and that will only happen if they start well. The injuries to Rónan Kelleher and Andrew Porter will seriously impact Ireland’s work with ball in hand, but Johnny Sexton coming back into the starting team should give them an assertive presence at 10, and they will need every ounce of his experience and leadership to get through what is going to be a gruelling 80 minutes.

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