England’s defence will come in for closer examination this season.
Although most commentators were not blown away by England’s performance against Scotland on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, it was clear that Eddie Jones had instilled a resilience amongst his players that had sometimes been missing under Stuart Lancaster.
As the Championship progressed, so did England, with their defence the standout feature of their Grand Slam winning season. Indeed, from the outset, Paul Gustard’s finger prints were evident. However, rugby does not stand still. England’s opponents will not accept the fact the Gustard’s “wolfpack” defensive system is impenetrable.
In this regard, the process of picking the lock is already underway. During the Six Nations, Ireland lost out to England in an intense encounter in Twickenham.
Although their 11 point winning margin suggests England came away with straightforward win, it was anything but. Ireland’s lineout malfunctioned on a number of key moments, had a try ruled out despite evidence of a clear grounding and, on another day, Mike Brown could have been sin binned.
Ireland also tested England’s defensive structure like no other side in the Championship. Prior to the game, Joe Schmidt surprised many observers by starting the inexperienced Josh van der Flier. Although many questioned the selection of the Leinster openside, Schmidt’s logic quickly became apparent.
From the early stages, Ireland dispensed with their established box kicking strategy and opted to move the ball wide, using the flanker to clean out rucks and produce a quick recycle. During the game Ireland recorded the quickest ruck speed in the Championship, spending on average 2.906 seconds cleaning out before making the ball available to Conor Murray.
This, of course, made it difficult for England’s bigger backrow to dominate the breakdown and created space for Ireland to attack before Gustard’s defensive system had time to realign. Despite England’s dominance on the scoreboard, Ireland dominated the second half with 71% possession 73% territory.
In short, outside of a flurry of scores midway through the second half, England couldn’t get near Ireland. What Schmidt had done was to identify a weakness in England’s defensive system, but couldn’t prise it open.
A perfect example of which occurred between the 63rd and 65th minutes. During those two minutes Ireland brought England through ten phases, producing quick ball while also committing Gustard’s famed midfield press before creating space in the wider channels.
Throughout that phase of play, Ireland didn’t commit England’s midfield press by running straight into the like of Maro Itoje and James Haskell, but through the use of clever footwork, attacked their inside shoulders.
Before the tackled player hit the ground, England’s counter ruckers were neutralised by immediate support, which resulted in the production of quick ball. Murray didn’t waste any time moving it either, and when he wasn’t available, Keith Earls carried through the middle.
Although Ireland appeared to be going backwards, England’s defenders were struggling to keep up with the play. Consequently, nine phases into the attack Anthony Watson can be seen shouting for support as he stands alone in front of four Irish attackers all standing at depth.
From here it was easy for Ireland, who isolated a tired Mako Vunipola against Johnny Sexton and the line break followed. Had it not been for Jack Nowell’s try-saving tackle, the game could very well have swung in Ireland’s favour.
This bring us nicely on to last season’s Premiership final, where the Exeter Chiefs adopted a similar strategy against Saracens. Although Gustard may no longer be part of Mark McCall’s coaching set-up, his influence on their defensive system remains.
Although the Chiefs were missing Thomas Waldrom, they still managed to fix the Sarries midfield defence, produce quick ball and create space in the wider channels for the Jack Nowell.
Again like the encounter between England and Ireland, once the Saracens defensive system was brought through the phase chain, the Chiefs were able to expose space in the wider channels.
Nowell’s second half try is testament to this, when the Chiefs continually committed the Saracens defence, before a dummy run from Dave Ewers drew the midfield press, allowing Nowell finish in the corner.
Australia employed a variation of the above strategy against England last June, when it was noticeable that Michael Cheika had stationed his backrow players in the wider channels.
Once again, England’s opponents fix the midfield defence over a number of phases, before moving the ball wide.
The decision to use David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy as ball carriers is an interesting one, as it offered the Wallabies some security that an otherwise smaller back might not have been able to provide. However like with Ireland, Cheika’s strategy was based on producing quick ruck ball so as to create the space for Wallabies to exploit.
Michael Hooper’s try in the opening game of the three match series is a perfect example of this.
Not only did Australia use dummy runners to great effect, but the player in possession. Just before Israel Folau broke through the England defence, Bernard Foley drew four defenders toward him, with players on both shoulders offering themselves as ball carriers.
This created the space for Folau to isolate and beat the poorly positioned Luther Burrell, and the try subsequently followed. While the English centre did deserve a great deal of criticism after the game, in Burrell’s defence, he was attempting to deal with a four on two overlap.
This overlap was created by the speed at which Australia attacked, fixed defenders and moved the ball during earlier phases. Indeed, the position in which Burrell found himself was reminiscent to that of Anthony Watson against Ireland.
Although Australia were forced to attack in much narrower patterns without Matt Giteau and Matt Toomua, they continued to exploit gaps in the wider channels during the subsequent tests.
While it is easy to dismiss such observations by stating that England and Saracens ultimately beat their opponents, teams will be looking to attack using similar patterns in future.
However, there are few teams with the ability to completely expose this flaw. Ireland have demonstrated an ability to do so, so have Australia, Argentina have the skill set required, but each of those sides will struggle to deal with England’s power in attack.
This leaves New Zealand, a team which produces quicker ruck ball than any other side in the game, and have players who fix defenders for fun before putting away dangerous strike runners such as Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea and Ben Smith.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena