After a tumultuous couple of years characterised by mixed performances, an unclear game plan and Eddie Jones making it his business to spar with the media at every available opportunity, the RFU decided to part ways with the controversial Australian, and turned to his long-serving assistant to steady the ship. An opening round defeat to Scotland and a hammering at the hands of an angry French side were the last things that a new-look English coaching ticket and playing squad needed, but their victories over Italy and Wales revealed notable changes to their game plan, and there were signs of it in the losses to Scotland and France, too.
With such a limited window to prepare England for a World Cup following Jones’ dismissal, Steve Borthwick was in hindsight the ideal candidate. His involvement with the team as forwards/lineout coach beforehand ensured a degree of continuity, and the brand of rugby that delivered silverware for him recently as a coach in the Aviva Premiership is straightforward and easy to implement in a short space of time, and despite it not being anywhere near enough to trouble a resurgent French side last week, England’s players have adapted to it within a few games.
Since taking charge, Borthwick has introduced the same strategy that saw him rejuvenate Leicester Tigers over the last two and a half seasons. From the beginning of this year’s Championship, England have looked to engage their opponents in territorial kicking duels, with a view to making consecutive net gains in order to get into the opposition half.
Most of their kicks out of hand are too long to be contestable, but that’s not what they’re trying to do; the idea is to put the ball as far down the pitch as possible while giving their well-organised chase-line time to flood through to pressurise the receiver deep in their own half, leaving the opposition with no option but to kick back:
Once England end up getting the ball inside the opposition half, they use some rudimentary attacking ploys to get themselves motoring, alternating between one-out caries, deft short-range passes from forwards, crash balls from 12 running off 10’s shoulder in midfield or an inside trailing runner off 10:
There’s not much in the way of subterfuge to it, even though there has been more frequent (albeit janky) use of the ‘stack’ pattern from them as the Championship has progressed, and their habit of passing back inside off a scrum did set up Anthony Watson’s try against Wales, but England aren’t trying to score tries through multi-phase.
The above ploys are designed to get themselves on the front foot, and when they do so deep inside the opposition half, they use the boot again, but instead of high-hanging garryowens down the middle, they opt for low, stabbing grubber kicks towards the corners:
This might seem like England are kicking away possession, but it’s actually a tactic that is geared towards their strengths.
If an opposition backfield player tries to pick up one of the awkward, scraping kicks shown above and fumbles it, England get a scrum in the red zone (and they have been back to their destructive best in that department), but if the backfield cover decide to not take that risk and let the ball bounce out of play, then their pack has to face the prospect of securing their own lineout ball in the face of strong competition from Maro Itoje and co.
Ireland must prevent England from imposing this game plan on them, but the question is how? We have seen all Championship that they aren’t afraid of running the ball back at teams and will probably do so on at least one or two occasions, but doing that too often will get them into trouble, and every team has to kick at some point.
One feature of England’s territorial strategy that could be exploited is that if their back three do get the ball from a kick with space in front of them, they run it straight back in an attempt to make as many metres as they can before setting themselves to kick again. This can sometimes lead to them getting isolated and in doing so handing the opposition opportunities to jackal:
Peter O’Mahony’s reestablishment as one of Ireland’s starting back rowers owes a lot to his lineout prowess and how that balances out the strengths of Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, but his work on the deck is just as (if not more) valuable. Ireland need to ensure that he is in the vicinity to poach whenever England run the ball back at them from a kick because they have to avoid being pinned back in their own half against a team who will exert pressure on them through set-pieces and the boot.
As mentioned earlier, England’s scrum is an attacking weapon again, and in line with their reversion to tactics that suit their traditional strengths, their lineout maul has been revitalised under Borthwick. In spite of having a carrier-heavy back row, efficient schemes and Maro Itoje’s nous have enabled England to be quite comfortable out of touch, making it easy for them impose their eight-man drive on opposition packs.
The most noteworthy detail of the English maul is that rather than forming a strong core and pushing straight through the middle of the opposition counter-shove and trying to outmuscle them into giving away a penalty for collapsing or side entry, once England set themselves, they immediately shear around the front or the tail:
It’s a creative approach towards an aspect of forward play that is viewed as all bludgeon; instead of making it an arm-wrestle, England are trying to target space as opposed to bodies with their maul and as demonstrated above, and it’s paying dividends for them. Much the same as with nullifying their kicking tactics, though, the key to stopping England from getting the upper hand in the maul is to shut it down before it picks up a head of steam.
In Round 1, Scotland disrupted an English maul by hitting it while it was still forming, and even though England may have been planning an early maul feint anyway, Lewis Ludlam opted to bounce out of it as soon as he felt the pressure come on as to not get tangled up in it and potentially concede a turnover:
England’s defence has also been given a jolt, with Kevin Sinfield bringing about the return of the hyper-aggressive line speed that we saw from them in their pomp under Eddie Jones in 2019. A standout characteristic of what England do off the ball is the speed off the mark of their pillar defenders, particularly the ‘C’ defender:
Using a forward at first-receiver to execute a pull-back pass behind their pod is a staple of most teams’ attack nowadays because of how it draws the inside defenders up and holds them, thereby creating space on the outside, and the above makes it difficult to get the ball beyond that player by pressurising their skill execution and/or blocking the passing lane outside them.
It’s an oppressive system to contend with from an attacking perspective, but it’s not necessarily perfect. Having the pillar defenders shoot up so quickly creates separation between them and the ruck, and this gap can be capitalised on if the attacking scrum-half takes a step or feints to pass but then snipes:
Jamison Gibson-Park and Conor Murray are past masters at darting around the fringes of the breakdown in the same manner as Ben White does in the above clip, and although it won’t always generate a line break or a try, both players will need to do so frequently over the course of the game even just to keep the English line speed in check.
England haven’t been competitive at the breakdown and generally try to stay out of rucks and get back on their feet and fan out in order to have maximum numbers in the defensive line, so there should be space to go up through the middle of them, especially when they bring Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole off the bench. England’s bench props are dominant set-piece operators but are not mobile at this stage of their careers, and have struggled to get back into position defensively at times in this tournament, and that’s on top of their back row getting caught out badly for pace against France last weekend.
England have received their fair share of criticism for employing such relatively basic tactics, and while a lot of that comes down to a certain portion of their fanbase wanting to see Marcus Smith at the helm and given full license to get England playing an exciting, ball-in-hand style of rugby similar to Harlequins, it also contrasts with the varied attacking game plans that other sides in the Championship are using.
There’s a perception that going up against a team like the current version of England just comes down to matching them in the forwards and dealing with their kicking, and although doing both would negate them significantly, it’s an awful lot easier said than done. A simple strategy has an advantage over a complex one in that it is easier to execute as there is less thinking involved, and when a team are doing what they do to a high degree of accuracy, they can be hard to stop, regardless of level of intricacy.
When you add in the anxiety of a huge prize being at stake, the desire to give Johnny Sexton the Six Nations send-off he deserves and their injury count, this Saturday’s fixture becomes even more of a challenge for Ireland, and that’s not even factoring in how the outcome of this game and this Championship will go a long way towards determining where they stand heading into France in September. Ireland still have a reputation for underperforming at (or leading up to) World Cups or on other big occasions, so a statement win on Saturday would be an important step towards banishing that theory and setting them up for their greatest ever World Cup performance.