Remove the emotion from Ireland’s victory over England on Saturday and it remains a fascinating case study surrounding the difficulty of thinking clearly under pressure. As I mentioned on Friday, meticulous situational preparation can be a very real aid when best-case scenarios dissolve but no coach can cover everything.
What I found most interesting was how ordinary England looked on the back foot. So intense and so relentless was the Irish defence and organisation, that England were forced to play from their heels, and I wonder how much they practice this. I wonder how much any team practice this.
As a player, I remember preparing for the periods in which we had to weather oppositions’ storms but never can I recall being coached in how to win a game when you’re being battered.
Carrying the ball into contact on your own terms, rocking them back at the set-piece, separating defenders with full bore and fully choreographed decoy lines — these are all non-negotiables in big-match preparation. Yet, when things didn’t go England’s way, much of the fluency of thought and motion one might expect from a side on such a winning run evaporated.
Now think back to the Italy match at Twickenham. The Italian tactics around the tackle were ultimately overcome by England but for long swathes of that match they caused carnage. Italy, a side so poor that this tournament might well still be considered the Five Nations, shone a bright light through a chink in The Unbeatables’ armour.
Every team have weaknesses, of course, and it would be ridiculous to join in with the loud but minuscule minority claiming that England were never that good anyway. But I do think that England’s biggest issue is one that will continue to cost them until it is either improved or fixed. When the big lads are winning clean ball and the first designated carrier is bashing onto and over the gain line, England can appear irresistible.
George Ford taking the ball and loping menacingly to within an inch of his markers’ grasp must truly be a terrifying thing to defend. In these moments, he is a wonder, perhaps even the best there is.
However, there will always be times at the top level when the pressure being drilled into you does not relent, and the back foot is all you’ve got. To this end, think back to Rob Andrew, Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Goode even.
These are players who, despite of course preferring life to move forward as planned, offered something hugely valuable in trickier times.
And what they offered was more than a big right (or left) boot. Well, a big boot certainly constituted sections of their respective arsenals but it was more than that. It was a level of authority, assumed by them whether everyone else liked it or not, that pervaded their respective teams’ psyches and that served to remove much of the doubt and panic that comes from being unexpectedly harried and hammered.
If England get torn into, I feel they look somewhat more vulnerable than a team should if it truly wants to win a World Cup. They have many wonderful assets and they are, of course, a top-of-the-range squad. But we’re talking about becoming the very best and part of that journey is facing sides that want to rip into you as if their very survival depends on it.
So dealing with such onslaughts must become a strength and this is where I see the most work needing to be done.
I feel confident that Owen Farrell would have coped better at fly-half than Ford did in Dublin, purely because of that ferocious, uncomplicated approach he so often and so effectively shows us.
In this area Ford — and England — need to improve. Whether they do or not is largely down to coaching and, while it’s impossible to prepare to escape infinite tight corners, Italy and Ireland have shown just how valuable humble, rounded thinking and strict planning really are.
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