“FOR ME, THE biggest work-on at the moment – with the tight-five forwards and everyone – is ‘seeing the game.’ It’s all about the decisions people make on the field, under pressure.
“The more you focus on that, the more all the players start ‘seeing it.’”
So said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt of what he’s attempting to achieve with the group of players head coach Stuart Lancaster has identified as good enough to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
An intelligent second-five-eighth in his time, Catt wants England to eventually emulate what the All Blacks are doing with their simple, skills-based approach to rugby.
“The beauty about what we currently have here is that it’s a young enough team for us to work on developing that.”
There certainly have been signs that Catt’s focused work is bringing about improvements in England’s ability to make more intuitive decisions on the pitch but they remain, for now, a side who rely on a fairly rigid structure in attack.
Ireland will know what’s coming on Saturday; but knowing what’s coming and actually stopping it are two very different things.
There is nothing revolutionary about the way England set up in attacking phase play. Lancaster’s men haven’t attempted to play very expansively over the course of their last five games, including the 2013 November Tests.
Source: ©INPHO/Andrew Fosker
Lancaster and Catt are aware that England’s real strength at present is their physical power. Men like Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and now Luther Burrell are exemplary specimens, and they are more than capable of winning collisions with regularity.
Oftentimes, England’s best route forward is by keeping things simple, with each player knowing their roles in the patterns, understanding where to be on the next phase and doing everything with aggression and power.
Run hard, beat defenders, clean out rucks viciously and move the ball away to the next attacking target; it’s a simple and common basis for an attack to function from. England certainly have added flourishes to that structure in recent times, which we’ll also address here.
Hitting up off set-piece play
England like to set a firm target from their set-pieces, with a strong, direct carry often following immediately after completion of their line-outs and scrums. They’re excellent in those areas, so it’s often good quality ball for their big carriers to run onto, meaning they can get over the gainline to kick off each new attacking passage.
It’s no surprise that No. 8 Billy Vunipola [or Ben Morgan when he comes on] is asked to do a lot of the carrying in this regard. Over the last two seasons, we have seen Ireland attempting to use Sean O’Brien to carry from possession ‘hot off the top’ close in to attacking line-outs.
The example below, from the win over Australia last November gives us a typical example of how England look to use Vunipola in a similar role.
It’s an effective line-out [a hallmark of this England team], followed by the ball being transferred to Vunipola through the scrum-half [Ben Youngs in this instance.] From there, the 21-year-old can run directly at the out-half in order to get over the gainline.
Quade Cooper’s tackle is obviously weak in the example above, and Ireland should be confident in Jonny Sexton’s ability to bring the No. 8 down more effectively. Gordon D’Arcy and Chris Henry will have a role to play in these instances too, probably going in low on Vunipola, especially since Sexton likes to tackle high and look to strip the ball.
We see the same line-out play in operation against France in round one of the Six Nations below, although Jules Plisson does a better job of making his tackle.
The intention here is not to note this particular move that the English use from their line-out, but rather what they’re looking to achieve through it. Vunipola gets over the gainline, the ruck is blasted with speed and the ball is available to be moved away quickly.
England will most likely look for similar on their attacking scrums; we haven’t seen them shift the ball wide on first phase very often at all. It’s about getting over the gainline quickly and directly, sending England straight on to the front foot.
Playing off the out-half
England play off their out-half a lot more than many other teams, including Ireland. That is, they send ball carriers running into the defence directly after passes from their out-half, rather than the scrum-half.
We’ll see later that they do play off their nine as well, but a large portion of their attacking play comes outside Owen Farrell. That doesn’t necessarily mean huge width on their attack, but rather the direct carrying that so many teams do from the scrum-half’s passes comes a few metres wider for England.
The shape in the picture below is fairly typical.
Farrell [circled] acts as the link between the previous ruck and the next ball carrier, with the intention again being to batter into and over the defence to keep the forward momentum going. By running off Farrell, rather than scrum-half Danny Care, England’s ball carriers are more likely to have one-on-one situations that favour their power.
In times gone past, Farrell was quite ineffective in his role as a conduit for the ball, simply because it was so obvious that he was going to pass to the direct runners outside him. However, this season we have seen the Saracens man get a little more ‘square’ and interest defenders.
The clip below gives us an example of that, as Farrell keeps his body pointing ‘up’ the pitch towards the try-line and thus offering a running threat himself. That gives Dylan Hartley a better chance to pick out a ‘soft shoulder’ and crash over the gainline.
Indeed, Farrell showed against France that he can break the line and he is an example of what Catt is striving for in terms of improving that ‘seeing the game,’ Farrell is still a long way off having the vision of someone like Jonny Sexton or George Ford, but he is showing development in that area.
The video below gives us the prototype of what England are looking for when they play off Farrell, as well as a demonstration that the out-half is ‘seeing’ more on the pitch.
On the face of things, it’s all about Billy Vunipola’s power and offloading ability, but realistically this try is also down to a major error from Plisson in the French defensive line. Huge credit goes to England for exploiting that mistake to ruthless effect, but this is an example of what Ireland don’t want to do in these situations.
Joe Schmidt’s men showed great trust in their defensive line against Wales, maintaining their shape and knowing that they would have the bodies in the right places to make tackles. In the clip above, Plisson just doesn’t have that patience and trust.
He breaks out ahead of the rest of the defensive line, looking for an unrealistic interception and leaves a huge hole in behind himself. The screengrab below illustrates that perfectly as Vunipola accepts Farrell’s delayed pass. Plisson is in a bizarre-looking position beyond the England No. 8.
It’s poor discipline from the inexperience Plisson and it costs his team a try. Another angle on the error [below] really highlights how far ahead of his fellow defenders Plisson gets, creating a huge ‘dog-leg’ for England to exploit.
Ireland must maintain their line when England play off 10, they have to trust the men inside and outside them to be in the right place. The signs from the games against Scotland and Wales have been hugely positive in that regard, but England’s running power will be another step up.
Going out the back door
The majority of the time England play off Farrell in standard phase play, he hits a runner coming on hard direct line, but there are occasions when he looks to use those men as decoys and play out the ‘back door’.
Usually, the man he finds behind the forward runners with that screen pass is Billy Twelvetrees, whom Catt and Lancaster view as something of a playmaker. We get an example of exactly that in the video below.
While highlighting how England look to use the back door option outside Farrell, the video above also gives us a strong example of how to defend against such a tactic. Notice how Ma’a Nonu and Ben Smith, the All Blacks centres, deal with the situation.
Nonu takes a powerful step outside the decoy runner in front of him, almost moving backwards to ensure he doesn’t get blocked by Chris Robshaw. Meanwhile, Smith actually pushes Joel Tomkins with his right arm to be certain that he doesn’t get tangled up.
That ‘fight’ off the ball in defence is something D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll specialise in, so Ireland should be comfortable in dealing with this little add-on that England like to use outside Farrell.
Playing off the scrum-half
Of course, everything doesn’t go through Owen Farrell when England have the ball in their hands. Scrum-half Care is in fine attacking form and Lancaster asks the Harlequins tempo-setter to hit forward runners closer in to rucks too.
Again, Vunipola is a key man in this regard, but Robshaw, Lawes, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola [when he's on the pitch] all make big contributions too. The example below shows what is as basic a play as it gets in attack.
The intention is clear and obvious; to bash over the gainline and tie in defenders, thus creating more space for the next wave of England attack. Every team in the world uses forward runners off their scrum-half and there is nothing new here for Ireland to defend against.
Adding in the link passes
However, it’s not always as obvious with England as just hitting the man to carry the ball up. They are quite good at using little link passes to shift the point of attack at the last moment before contact.
There are lots of different terms used to describe these short, popped passes from forward to forward; tip-ons, tap-ons, whatever you like. The point is that Ireland need to move up as a solid unit to halt England’s runners off the scrum-half.
Chris Robshaw is particularly good at passing in these circumstances, with examples provided above and below. The England captain just shifts the ball at the last second having drawn in a defender, and hoping to give the man who receives his pass that little bit of extra space to power forward.
Robshaw has benefited from the coaching of Conor O’Shea at Harlequins in improving his ability to spot the opening for a pass and then deliver it accurately. He’s not the only one who performs the linking duties in close though, with Vunipola also showing signs of progress.
We see as much in the example below, with the Sarries No. 8 slipping a delicate pass to Robshaw, allowing the flanker to burst forward. While highlighting Vunipola’s ability to shift the ball, this clip also provides Ireland with a demonstration of what not to do.
France just lose a little discipline on their defensive shape again in the example above, leaving an ideal hole for England to send that short link pass into. As Bernard Le Roux races to get back into the defensive line, France simply leave a fairly large gap for England to run into.
You can see as much in the screengrab above. Le Roux needed to communicate better with Nicolas Mas and Louis Picamoles here, one of the latter pair needed to shore up that gap. However France went about it, they simply had to ensure there was no breach in such a dangerous area.
‘Seeing the game’ – the ideal
Lancaster has a more ambitious vision for England in the long-term, with his plans extending as far as 2019. Eventually, he wants his team to play more expansive, skillful rugby, with less reliance on their power to make gainline advances.
There is a slight glimpse of the shape and fluency he is aiming for long-term in the little snippet below.
England play off Care to Vunipola, who then has options. The No. 8 can bosh forward himself, getting over the gainline; he can pop that short linking pass to Hartley just outside him; or, as he does here, he can send the linking pass out the back door to Farrell.
The out-half would then ideally have the option of hitting a forward runner [Joe Launchbury overruns his line on this occasion and is not a viable option] or sending another screen pass to his backs, who would then fix the final defenders before passing to the wide man in space.
It’s multi-option and multi-faceted phase play from England, but it’s not done very well in this instance. When Lancaster’s men do eventually build towards carrying out plays like this one with more competence, they will be extremely difficult to stop.
How effective are England in attack?
The key point in all of this is that, unless England spring major surprises, Ireland know what they will have to defend against. The trust they showed in holding out the Welsh in Dublin last time out needs to be repeated, and there is no reason to believe it won’t be.
Equally as vital is the maintenance of Ireland’s superb discipline of the opening two rounds of the Six Nations. England will batter their way into Ireland’s half, but if there is strong discipline and huge work rate from Ireland, Lancaster’s men can be prevented from scoring tries.
In the video above, we see England working through some of their typical phase play, playing off nine to find Vunipola, as well as sending runners on direct lines outside Farrell. Scotland’s passive and disorganised defence allows the English to bludgeon their way over the gainline and build excellent momentum.
If Ireland perform in the same manner defensively as France and Scotland, then England will win this game. However, if they can show a similar effort as against Wales, in pinning the English back and trusting their defence to get get the job done without giving away penalties, they have an excellent chance of winning in Twickenham.
Even when England get into the opposition 22, they are not hugely effective. Over their last five games, Lancaster’s men have made a total 0f 48 ‘campaigns’ into their opponents 22. They have converted those attacks into points on just 16 occasions.
That merely suggests that England score the majority of their points from further out, by striking from deep for tries [like for the Burrell try above] or through Farrell’s boot from the tee. However, the figures can also back up the overall message.
England are not the most efficient attacking team, they have not been cutting teams apart with their use of the ball. Ireland need to be more disciplined than ever, with huge energy levels to keep their defensive shape and lots of ‘fight’ to shut England down.
If they can do all of that, they will be in good shape to build an away win.
Stats on England’s visits the the opposition 22 via Ruckin’ Good Stats.