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Analysis: England's aggressive defence can be broken down by Ireland

With Stuart Lancaster’s men rushing up, there may be space for Ireland on the outside edges and in behind.

Jonny Sexton may be asked to kick the ball in a different manner against England.
Jonny Sexton may be asked to kick the ball in a different manner against England.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan


That was one of the messages Andy Farrell gave to his Lions charges during 2013′s tour to Australia, where he played the role of defence coach. The former rugby league star has the same job for England and the mentality he wants from his players is similar too.

The 38-year-old believes in “try-scoring defence.” That is, Farrell wants England’s players to force errors from the opposition attack through their pressure and aggression, mistakes that can eventually lead to tries for England.

We don’t see defence in isolation at all,” he told the Lions squad last summer. “We see defence as the start of our attack.”

While he was obviously working under a different head coach on that tour, Farrell’s defensive mentality as Stuart Lancaster’s defensive coach is much the same. He demands “urgency and energy” from the players in getting into position defensively, ensuring that they can get set early and come off the line with aggressive line speed.

“On D, we cannot afford to allow our emotional energy to dip whatsoever,” Farrell told the Lions. “We are taking them to the hurt arena.”

‘No dead legs – first five metres’

That’s what Farrell asks of his England players too; to be physically intimidating and aggressive, smashing attackers behind the gainline and thus starving them of the kind of momentum that allows backlines to prosper.

Having switched into union from league [Farrell was a legend in league, winning two Man of Steel awards and playing for Great Britain 34 times, among many other achievements], it is obvious that Farrell’s defensive mindset is influenced by the 13-man code of rugby.

League demands rapid line speed, with defenders coming off the defensive line to ensure that the attack does not get over the gainline too often. In order to do that successfully, the defence has to work very hard to get into shape early after each new tackle.

Those attributes are clear in many, many union defences now, with England’s providing a stand-out example. There are similarities to the way Wales defend [Shaun Edwards is in charge of the Welsh defence and came from league too], although there are some differences also.

We see a rough example of how England operate in the animation above, with their defensive line working hard to make the tackle beyond the advantage line. Scotland then have to work hard to get back to the following ruck, but England’s defenders can move forward to set up for the next phase of defence.

As we discussed last week, Wales look to do much the same with their defensive system and they get the confidence to sprint up by having lots of bodies in the front-up line in ‘D’. England also pack their defensive line at times, allowing them to get up and make strong tackles behind the gainline.

However, England are a little more fluid in the number of defenders they leave in the front-line defence, with scrum-half Danny Care [or Lee Dickson] alternating between joining that initial line and sweeping in behind the defence to cover kicks, as well as supporting attackers breaking through after offloads.

Care Sweeping 2

We get an example of Care in that position in the screengrab above, with the scrum-half hovering in behind the defence. Again, this is fairly standard stuff in rugby, but the real issue here are the times when Care does and doesn’t take up this position. [We'll come back to both.]

Wingers and reading body language

Looking at the Welsh defensive system last week, we outlined how Warren Gatland’s side push their wingers up into the front-line, adding those extra bodies that allow them to rush up aggressively in defence. That’s a standard shape for them, with the wide men expected to push forward and pressurise the opposition.

As a result, Ireland kicked a lot of ball into the spaces behind Wales in a game plan that worked wonderfully efficiently. While England do push their wingers up into the defensive line, it is less of a pre-decided set-up and more based on the back three’s reading of the game.

Jonny May and Jack Nowell are both excellent players, but they are inexperienced at international level. Reading the body language of attacking players is key in deciding when to hang back deep and when to rush up to join the defensive line, and something that is learned by playing games at this level.

‘Does the out-half look like he’s shaping to kick? If so, I need to hang back and get ready to field the ball and start a counter-attack. Or does the movement in their backline suggest they will spin the ball wide? In that case, I need to cover ground quickly to get on the outside shoulder of my 13 and then be part of that aggressive defensive line.’

These thoughts flash through the wingers’ heads as the game unfolds and making those decisions can be difficult in such a pressurised environment. In the video above we see May getting such a call wrong.

Pause the clip after a second and you can see May hanging back covering the space deep on England’s left. However, when the camera pans back out, the Gloucester winger is working hard to get up to the front-line defence, in order to play a role in that ‘hammer’ line speed, as he ‘reads’ Scotland moving the ball wide.

Stuart Hogg’s kick in behind is not a particularly good one, but you can imagine Jonny Sexton getting more distance with the boot and pinning England back into their 22. There was another example of something similar on May’s wing against Scotland, with Duncan Weir finding a decent touch [below].

May Up in Line Scotland (8)

Wingers alternating between staying deep and joining the defensive line is nothing that Ireland haven’t comes up against repeatedly in the past, but the point is that May and Nowell are adapting to the demands of international rugby in a defensive sense.

Ireland halfbacks will be on the look out for chance to kick in behind the English wingers, just as they did against Wales and, to a lesser extent, Scotland.

No sweeper and the space behind

Speaking of Ireland’s halfback partnership, their tactical decision-making is going to be vital against this England defence. Because Farrell’s charges don’t operate with exactly the same set-up on every phase of play or in each specific area of the field, Conor Murray and Sexton will have to react swiftly to the openings presented.

When England do stack their line with the extra man in scrum-half Care, they deprive themselves of that security of a sweeper in behind and there is an open area of the field just behind their defensive line. That much is evident in the screengrab below.

Space Behind Front Line

Care is positioned on the right-hand side of England’s defensive ruck, marking up that space in case of any late switch of attack by Scotland. The Harlequins man will make a late move to cover across in behind, but if Scotland were flatter in attack, there is certainly space behind England to chip or grubber into.

Short chips and grubbers are hugely difficult skills and they are ‘low percentage plays,’ meaning they are hard to actually pull off successfully. Clearly a success would be to reclaim the ball in behind the defensive team, thereby setting up an excellent try-scoring chance against a scattered and panicking defence.

France were frustrated by England’s line speed for much of their clash in round one, but fullback Brice Dulin was the only man to understand that there was space in behind England when Care was not sweeping.

The grubber above obviously failed, as England cleverly blocked Dulin’s attempts to re-gather his own delicate kick through, but it’s obvious what the Castres back was attempting to do.

More successfully, Dulin tried a chip in behind the English defence later in the game, with the French behind on the scoreboard and looking for some inspiration.

Chipping the ball out of their own 22 is clearly not something Ireland will be looking to do very often on Saturday at Twickenham, and the risks here don’t need to be pointed out. That said, England’s penchant for rushing up in defence does leave them vulnerable when Care cannot is not sweeping in behind to clear up.

It’s very difficult for a defender to change direction in a 180 degree manner when they are coming up hard to make a tackle; whereas the intended catcher of a chip simply has to run onto the ball and field it.

The All Blacks demonstrated that against England in November, as Dan Carter placed a gorgeous chip over the English defence. The example below comes from quality line-out ball and with New Zealand knowing that scrum-half Lee Dickson will not be able to sweep across.

England’s line speed makes it impossible for them to turn and even compete with Ben Smith for the weighted kick through, and Steve Hansen’s side are immediately onto the front foot.

It’s worth stressing here that Ireland should not and will not look to chip over or grubber in behind England’s defence at every opportunity. There may only be one strong chance to do so over the course of the 80 minutes, or there may even be none.

However, Sexton and his centres will be scanning that space in behind England, noting whether or not Care is sweeping, and then processing that information into a smart play. Even if they can send an early warning to England [as the All Blacks did above], it could result in a slight reduction in England’s subsequent line speed as they subconsciously worry about that space behind their rush.

If Ireland do go for a short, low contestable kick, they will need to be hugely accurate. The results of a miscued or misjudged chip or grubber can be disastrous, as Care almost demonstrated against France [below].

Getting to the outside edge when Care sweeps

While Ireland were happy to kick repeatedly against Wales, only really spreading the ball wide to memorable effect once in that game, the sense is that there will be more favourable chances to move the ball through the hands against England.

Of course, much will depend on the forwards once again providing a strong platform, but we expect to see a little more from Ireland’s backs this weekend. Running the ball wide against Wales is difficult because they are often quite strong on the outside edge of their rush defence.

Having their wings up in the line quite often helps that general solidity and Ireland just didn’t look to test them in that area. The impression of England is that they are a little more susceptible in the wide channels, if teams can actually get the ball there.

We get an example in the video above. First it’s worth noting that Lee Dickson is sweeping behind the defence [pause the clip at the 1 second mark and there he is]. That means one less man for the French attack to go around in the front-line defence.

It’s also worth pointing out the risk involved in Fofana’s pass over the top; attempting to play around a rush defence leaves the attackers open to being smashed in the tackle or their passes being picked off.

While France don’t make huge ground here or create a line-break, they do set up a favourable situation for Gaël Fickou to use his footwork and power forward over the gainline. The risk is worth the reward in this instance.

The All Blacks attempted to play to the outside edge of England’s aggressive defence too, through a combination of putting their own handling skills under great pressure and maintaining depth across their attacking line.

We see both of those components in the example above, with Ma’a Nonu launching a not-too-accurate pass off his left hand to ensure the ball gets to the outside, around the rushing Billy Twelvetrees, Courtney Lawes and Joe Tomkins.

An important point to note – that England’s rush is so often led up in the middle of the pitch, usually by Twelvetrees. Many other teams who operate with a high line speed will lead it up from the outside, with their 13 or even a winger getting ahead of everyone else to shut down wide passing options.

England’s leader is more often in the middle of their defensive line, which is why teams can make gains in wide channels if they can beat that pressure in the middle. We see another example of that from the All Blacks below, with Brodie Retallick and Nonu taking the risks but backing their passing to get the ball into the wide channel.

This time, there is no sweeping from the England scrum-half, but still New Zealand trust their skills and patience to eventually get over the gainline. That patience is expressed in their depth again.

Keiran Read takes the ball a full 15 metres behind where the phase starts, but having worked outside that rush in the middle of the pitch, Julian Savea then has the space to make positive yardage up the left-hand side beyond the gainline.

Bringing it all together

There is nothing revolutionary in any of the above, nor is there one specific thing that Ireland should look to do whenever they have the ball. England’s defensive system is a strength of their game, and their aggression and power can stifle the attacking team.

From an Irish point of view, success in beating England will come down to intelligent and informed decision-making. Whatever about systems and pre-agreed tactics, rugby so often comes down to the ability to make the right decision in the whirlwind intensity of a Test match.

Ireland were so dominant against Wales because they made good decisions on the pitch. Of course Joe Schmidt identified the space behind the Welsh wingers, but it was Sexton and other Irish players who spotted the openings out on the pitch.

Against England, there may be space in behind the rush when England don’t operate with Care [or Dickson] sweeping in behind. When the scrum-half does drop back from the front-line, then opportunities to work the ball outside England’s rush defence may arise.

Kicking in behind May and Nowell for territory will only work when the English wingers push up into the line. It all may seem simple in written word, but making those decisions in Twickenham on Saturday will be a hugely demanding task.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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