(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
The Eddie Jones era by general consensus has started well. The honeymoon period will end when England arrive in Australia and they take on Michael Cheika’s new and improved Wallaby side. In the meantime one of the biggest dilemmas facing Eddie Jones and his English team has to be his back row selection and combination. Ben Pegna looks at the conundrum in detail…
There are two significant factors that should influence the shape of this back row.
The first is England’s attack shape.
England’s attack like most of the worlds’ top teams is heavily reliant on second man plays or the block move with two lines of attack and a potential receiver in the front line of attack and a second potential receiver out the back – hence why they call it a second man play in the Southern Hemisphere and a Block in rugby league, where it originates from.
The front line of attack ensures that the opposing defensive line can’t press forward as aggressively as they would if they weren’t there, and the player with the ball, the distributor, selects his preferred option, pass to the player out the back in the second wave of runners so the attack can go wide and around the defence or to the front player in the first line of attack, to take the line on and try and hit a weak shoulder or punch a hole in the defence.
Teams will keep utilising this shape and attack strategy throughout a game until there is a numerical advantage and they ‘double up’ on a defender or until a defender that they choose to target makes an incorrect ‘defensive read’ or wrong decision, choosing to hinge in, shoot up out of the line or hold back.
The best teams, New Zealand obviously come to mind, have an ability to utilise this attack but they are not solely reliant upon it as a strategy to break down the defence.
They unlike the majority of the top professional teams use the individual skill of their players to try and evade and beat a defender and create a half break which will hopefully lead to a full clean line break, or at the least create a chink in the defence that support runners can exploit.
Without relying solely on this second man structure the Kiwis as individual ball carriers take on the line and attempt to beat the defender in front of them and then utilise support players running lines off them.
This inevitably means that their attack isn’t just always spread across the field as two lines – a front line and second line behind, and as a result they are able to make line breaks in the middle area of the field and not solely on the wider axis and in the wider channels of the field.
They present a multiple threat attack.
England on the other hand, have had an attack that for quite some time is primarily reliant on the rugby league Block shape and on these two attacking lines spread across the field.
This is primarily due to their inability to be able to take the defence on as individuals through some form of evasion – side stepping, attacking a weak shoulder etc.
In general England’s players don’t have a ‘duel’ with an opponent – where a player takes on and beats a man or at least creates a half-gap in the defence and then passes to a support player penetrating the hole that has been created by the first player’s side step and skill.
Billy Vunipola is the one large exception to this in the current England pack of forwards.
He is a player that can perform this role as the ball carrier on this narrow axis in the channels closer to the ruck.
In the main though the support is lacking to exploit this strategy or way of taking on the defensive line.
Instead the rest of England’s attack is spread across the field keeping width to their attack whilst they wait to use their 2nd man plays.
As a result, Vunipola has on most occasions no one to pass to after breaching the line, and he is tackled, and with no support running a line off him has to set up a ruck and England start the attack all over again.
Here’s the juxtaposition, England’s reliance on this attack shape and an attack spread across the field requires a mobile back row, one that can help the team retain the ball in the wider channels and allow the team to build momentum and pressure by ensuring the recycling speed of the ruck is fast. A backrow that contains balance and a genuine openside flanker, but England don’t play one.
If the back row contains players who in the main see themselves as ball carriers and it doesn’t contain players who have the mobility and most importantly the natural inclination to play to the ball and win the ball on the ground, then the team is immediately limited in the quick ball it can generate.
Furthermore, if the back row can’t fulfil this role and ensure quick recycled ball then the onus and responsibility is greater on the back line players to win the ball near them and to help create quick ball.
This lack of support by the back row in these wider channels means that the team’s better runners with the ball in hand are not being properly utilised in performing their primary roles. Instead the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, are being utilised to clear more rucks and secure the ball than they are to run with the ball and beat defenders and do what they are excellent at, and were selected for.
To redress this balance and free up other players, England’s back row needs to have a player who has a natural inclination to play to the ball, a Fetcher in South African terminology, a good old openside flanker, who prides himself on always being 1 metre away from the ball and who knows his primary role is the dark arts at the bottom of the ruck.
This need for a genuine openside flanker is further reinforced by England’s reliance on a rucking game, the ball is rarely kept off the ground.
This is seen across all parts of the park but especially when the ball is moved wide via the use of 2nd man plays and the ball carrier is tackled, there is no deep support behind the ball carrier for a pass to be made, and the ball inevitably ends up on the ground and a ruck is created – a breakdown of the attack.
Perhaps under Eddie Jones England will evolve their attack and look to pass more often and keep the ball alive but at present in the main rucks are created.
Going to ground and recycling the ball through phases is deemed to build pressure and to be the higher percentage less risky option, preferable to attempting to make a pass.
However, every time the tackled player goes to ground the laws of the game instruct the ball carrier to release the ball, and this creates and permits a contest for possession of the ball.
When England play Australia this summer, Australia will have at least one genuine openside flanker on the field, and perhaps two.
In David Pocock they probably have the best in the business post Richie McCaw’s retirement, and they could have Michael Hooper on the field alongside him or perhaps one of the other brilliant openside flankers Liam Gill, Matt Hodgson and Sean McMahon who have all shown excellent form so far this season for their respective Super Rugby franchises.
England’s conservative reliance on ruck ball, borne from a fear of losing the ball actually ironically provides plenty of opportunities for these excellent ruck exponents to compete to win possession when the ball is released by the English tackled player on the ground.
This way of playing further highlights the necessity for England to select a genuine openside flanker to battle on the ground for the ball at the rucks that are currently central to England’s play.
To create a game based on playing in wide channels with a gameplan that is dependent on going to ground and creating rucks, and then selecting a back row without an openside flanker against a team with two openside flankers – Pocock and Hooper or Gill will at best challenge England sternly and at worst put a serious dent in their progress.
How Eddie Jones chooses to address this lack of balance in the England back row especially in his own back yard in Australia on harder pitches with conditions suited to quicker rugby will be very interesting to see.
You get the feeling the back row at present is makeshift and there will be significant changes taking place soon.
It would be excellent to see the 19 years old Ospreys openside flanker Sam Underhill making the tour and getting an opportunity to start.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Maro Itoje get game time at blindside flanker, fulfilling a role similar to that of Scott Fardy the hardworking Australian number 6.
Both Scott Fardy and Maro Itoje are surprisingly good over the ball for such tall men, play similarly and have outstanding work rates.
A back row of Maro Itoje at 6, Sam Underhill at 7 and Billy Vunipola at 8 would be very exciting to see. It would offer work rate on defence and attack, ball carrying and linking ability and crucially that ability to secure and maintain possession at ruck time. Critics might point to the fewer lineout options this combination offers with the shorter Underhill and the heavier Vunipola and this would strengthen the case for Jack Clifford’s inclusion at 7.
Maro Itoje’s inclusion at 6 would allow space for the inclusion of Joe Launchbury or Courtney Lawes to stake a claim in the second row alongside George Kruis, although Lawes himself has been playing for Northampton at 6 lately.
In the meantime, James Haskell and also Chris Robshaw I am sure, will have something to say about all of this!
Over to you Eddie.