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Analysis: England's clever kicking pressures Sexton and Stockdale into errors

The English intelligently picked apart Ireland’s defence with some clever touches.

Updated Feb 24th 2020, 12:06 PM

THE FIRST HALF of England’s win over Ireland at Twickenham yesterday was remarkably similar to their victory in the Six Nations in Dublin last year.

Eddie Jones’ men were physically dominant as they built a 17-0 lead by the half-time break but their fast start once again included big aerial wins and some clever attacking kicking to apply major pressure to Ireland’s defence.

With less possession than Ireland – 14 minutes and 21 seconds to Ireland’s 19 minutes and 52 seconds – Jones’ side kicked 24 times compared to Ireland’s 17. That shows England’s intent to kick from hand, but also indicates that the visitors possibly could have looked for more opportunities in this area. 

Many of those 24 England kicks were devastatingly effective, with Ben Youngs, George Ford, Owen Farrell, and Elliot Daly all contributing. Having multiple kickers across the backline is obviously a real positive for Jones’ team.

England won two important early aerial contests – using their very first possession of the game for Ford to hang a garryowen over Jordan Larmour as Daly came forward to make a confidence-lifting win.

Kick

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Larmour will feel he could have been more assertive in this early contest, particularly after Bundee Aki had made life difficult for Daly by impeding his chase.

Second row George Kruis attempted to grubber in behind Ireland directly off this Daly win – a good decision with Larmour now gone from the backfield – but his execution was off and Conor Murray gratefully gathered in the ball.

Ireland kick back at England, who then repeat their high-ball tactic after Cian Healy and James Ryan smash Sam Underhill in a tackle.

This time, Jonny May regains the ball under Ford’s hanging kick.

Kick 2

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Left wing Jacob Stockdale could have helped Larmour out more in this instance, making it more difficult for May as he chases the ball.

Stockdale’s job is to ‘escort’ May here, subtly impeding him from getting a direct running line onto the ball.

Escotr

Instead, May has a free run in to get up into a one-on-one contest with Larmour and he wins the ball back again.

Two phases after May’s aerial success, we see the first clever grubber kick from England through fullback Daly, who uses his left foot to great effect.

Grubber

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Ireland are defending with a 13+2 set-up here, meaning 13 defenders in the frontline while Murray and Larmour cover the backfield.

The threat of England passing out to their left-hand side draws Murray up from the backfield towards the edge of Ireland’s frontline [red below].

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Here we see the advantage of having multiple kickers in a backline as Daly instead grubbers back to the inside of Murray, targeting the space the scrum-half has just vacated to move upfield.

It’s intelligent play from England and again leaves Ireland under pressure, with Murray turning to scramble back to the kick as Larmour works across to support him.

Ireland clear to touch and the English go close to scoring from the resulting lineout attack, only for Andrew Conway to make a fine tackle on Manu Tuilagi before Courtney Lawes knocks-on Youngs’ inaccurate pass.

The English kicking onslaught continues from another attacking lineout minutes later, though, as Ford again launches the ball over Larmour.

Mark

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The Ireland fullback has to turn and track the ball as it comes from behind him – a very difficult thing to do – but manages to get into a good position to field it.

The surprise here is that Larmour doesn’t call a ‘mark’ after catching, allowing himself and Ireland time to regather themselves before clearing to touch.

Instead, Larmour looks to run back at the English and Ireland’s exiting kick ends up being scrappy and failing to find the touchline.

Exit

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One could argue that Maro Itoje is slightly offside in pressuring Murray here and that May’s foot perhaps just nicks the touchline, but the outcome is that Ireland need to react defensively as the ball remains in play.

Ireland don’t get their defensive set-up right and England wonderfully exploit it.

After Murray kicks, Johnny Sexton briefly appears to hold in the backfield along with Larmour to form up a 13+2 set-up. 

But as England play a phase infield after May’s carry, we can see Sexton [yellow below] advancing up towards the frontline, while Murray [red] is already up on the left-hand side of the frontline.

Larmour

We can also see Larmour signalling and presumably communicating here.

We obviously don’t know whether he is calling for an additional body to remain in the backfield or letting his team-mates know they can advance up, but even as Kyle Sinckler makes the next English carry, Larmour is still beckoning…

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The issue here for Larmour may be that they Ireland in or around the area of the pitch where they have previously shifted to a 14+1 set-up, meaning that Larmour is the only defender in the backfield.

Ireland, like the majority of teams, defend with a 14+1 system when they are inside their own 22, where they need a very strong and aggressive frontline. 

We get an example below against Wales, with Larmour the sole defender in behind a frontline of 14 players.

14:1

We don’t know Ireland’s exact marker on the pitch for changing systems but they had perhaps painted a picture before yesterday that led England to believe there was opportunity.

We see once such possible example against Wales below.

Initially, Stockdale [red] is working the backfield with Larmour, who is just out of shot…

JS

Wales play our to the left and then come back to their right via two carries to a midfield ruck.

By this point, we can see that Stockdale [red below] has advanced up to the left edge of the frontline defence, with Larmour [white] in behind on his own.

141

This is actually the phase where Wales score through scrum-half Tomos Williams after Dan Biggar accepts an offload back inside from Alun Wyn Jones before feeding his scrum-half on the inside after drawing Larmour in.

The amount of space that Larmour has to cover in behind after the 13+2 suddenly morphs into a 14+1 is clear, though, and England must have taken note.

Coming back to yesterday’s game in Twickenham, it appears that Larmour is initially appealing for a second backfield defender but Murray and Sexton have both joined the frontline to make up 14 defenders facing England.

England continue with another phase to their left and Lawes makes a superb carry, using his footwork to get back inside the linespeed of Peter O’Mahony and hammering through the passive Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander coming across from closer to the ruck.

Lawes

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It’s an excellent carry from the dynamic Lawes and England very intelligently bounce back to their right immediately after the carry for Youngs to strike with a superb grubber kick.

Try

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As we know, Sexton and Murray – as well as wings Stockdale and Conway – have committed up into the frontline before this and so Larmour is the only player in the backfield.

The Ireland fullback is positioned over to the right-hand side of Ireland’s backfield just after the Lawes carry, as we can see below.

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We can see clearly that Ireland don’t have the extra security of a second player in the backfield covering space and England perfectly exploit Larmour’s positioning here.

In hindsight, Larmour will probably feel he should have been in a more central starting position behind the ruck here [as indicated below], rather than this far across to his right.

6

England are well primed to take advantage of this window of opportunity and Youngs, Farrell, and Ford are all on the same wavelength.

As Youngs bounces back to his right and even before he has kicked, Ford [red] and Farrell [white] are already getting up to speed on the chase…

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Youngs’ kick is absolutely superb, dinked in between Rob Herring and Josh van der Flier as Larmour [yellow below] and Sexton [blue] react to the threat…

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But Youngs’ kick makes it a nightmare situation for Ireland, the England scrum-half having put just enough power on the ball to bring it towards the Ireland tryline but only as it’s starting to slow and therefore hop up off the ground.

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The disappointment for Ireland here will be that they did actually cover back towards the ball after initially showing so much space to the English, but then failed to complete their scramble successfully.

With Farrell in close proximity hounding after the ball, it bounces up high and slightly to Sexton’s left just as he goes to gather it in…

Sexton

Sexton makes contact with his left hand and taps the ball over towards his right, but he can’t bring it down and it glances back onto his left side, where he makes one last little bit of contact before it goes to ground for Ford to get his reward for chasing from the left side of the England ruck.

Source: Guinness Six Nations/YouTube

It’s obviously a big error from Sexton as the rugby ball once again proves how tricky it can be when bouncing, but England deserve huge credit for putting Ireland in this high-pressure situation.

They set up the opportunity intelligently by getting the ball to a midfield ruck in the area of the pitch where Ireland’s system shifts from a 13+2 into a 14+1, then perfectly exploit the positioning of Larmour in Ireland’s backfield.

While it does involve an Ireland error, Ford’s try is a triumph of pre-match analysis, planning, and skillful execution.

Stung by the Ford try, it was notable that Ireland set-up with a clear 13+2 in similar situations later in the game, as below in the second half.

13+2

It will be intriguing to note how Ireland operate with the ball just outside their 22 in the future.

Turning back to the first half – with Sexton having missed a straightforward penalty shot at goal, and with it a chance to settle Ireland into the game by getting them on the scoreboard, England continued to look for ways to pressure their visitors with kicks. 

Daly miscued an 18th-minute kick on a scrum attack as he came under pressure from Conway, allowing Larmour to call a ‘mark’ as he fielded the ball in the 22, while Ford also miskicked the ball when attempting to find May with a short kick pass in the 19th minute. 

But Ford delivered the crucial touch for England’s second try as they cleverly used penalty advantage to apply more pressure onto Ireland.

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Ford appreciates that Ireland will come forward with great linespeed this close to their tryline…

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Meanwhile, the positioning of May wide on the right means Larmour has covered out there against the possibility of a cross-field kick…

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At the exact moment above, it does look as though Ford might kick the ball cross-field.

Instead, he caresses it just in behind Ireland’s advancing defence.

The major disappointment for Stockdale here will be the face that he actually gets a good enough read of Ford’s intention. We can see below that he has already started backing off to retreat in the instance below, just after the ball leaves Ford’s foot.

3

Again, it’s a horrible situation for any defender to be in – retreating backwards onto an opposition kick – and, even after giving himself a good head start, Stockdale hesitates.

In hindsight, he will surely feel he needed to use his acceleration to get right underneath the ball and catch it on the full.

4

It would have been a tricky catch on the full but Stockdale appeared to have the time to get there for a take on the full, immediately diffusing the danger and dotting the ball down.

Instead, he allows it to bounce and doesn’t get his body directly in front of Daly, allowing the England fullback to shove past his right-hand side.

5

Stockdale has to watch in horror as Daly grounds the ball skillfully with his right hand, applying real force to make sure.

Source: Guinness Six Nations/YouTube

It’s a very sharp finish from the England fullback, again taking advantage of Ireland’s error in retreating onto an English kick.

With a 14-0 lead after 25 minutes and Ireland struggling for any real foothold in the game against the oppressive English defence, this strong start essentially decided the game.

While Ireland will attempt to learn from their defensive errors and shortcomings, Jones’ men deserve real credit for the planning and execution of an excellent kicking game that had a massive influence on the outcome.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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