England's defence is ferocious - now how do they develop their attack?

Charlie Morgan
·6-min read
Owen Farrell  - Getty Images
Owen Farrell - Getty Images

You can understand a team prioritising territory over possession and trusting their defence when they are so remarkably disruptive without the ball. Even so, Eddie Jones’ admission to Prime Video interviewer Rob Vickerman on Saturday pricked up the ears.

“We’ve got to keep winning,” said England’s head coach. “But we will start doing a lot more work on our attack post the Lions [tour in 2021], when we’ll have the players for a more consistent period of time.”

Now, plenty of Jones’ media musings are best served with a pinch of salt. But this one, effectively suggesting that it will be a year before England do any meaningful work on their attacking game, may be disheartening to their supporters.

Elsewhere on Prime Video over the weekend, Sam Warburton stressed that kicking is vital in Test rugby union – especially in wet conditions – because running into trouble is far more likely than running out of it.

Circumstances have not helped England. The cancellation of both July’s tour to Japan and then the tune-up game against the Barbarians, have limited scope to build cohesion. That said, the next fortnight can bring progress.

More ambition in transition

Jonny May’s second try rewarded England’s opportunism following a botched Ireland lineout. They exploited a transition of possession beautifully. Passes from Maro Itoje, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade swept the ball into the hands of their quickest player and the rest is history.

Over a fantastic defensive display, England forced six turnovers in phase-play – five on the floor and one more with Jonathan Joseph’s early tap-tackle on Keith Earls. One arrived on the stroke of half-time thanks to Sam Underhill jackalling in the middle of the field:

Rugby
Rugby

A phase later, following a Billy Vunipola carry, the ball was moved to Owen Farrell. Organised neatly in two waves, there were six players outside the England skipper including Elliot Daly, Slade, Jamie George and May. Farrell chose to kick:

Rugby
Rugby

Two passes could have cut open Ireland and put the hosts out of sight.

It was interesting to hear Jones concede that England “haven’t been fantastic” at flicking from defence to attack.

They have scored nice tries from these scenarios. Farrell slid a superb grubber to May against Wales during the 2018 Six Nations tie:

A year later, Elliot Daly helped England pick off France to capitalise on a two-man tackle from Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes. May’s pace did the rest:

In the Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Henry Slade snared an interception before threading the ball through. Again, it was May that scored:

When they have pounced on turnovers and scored, they have often relied on a kick to find space – a theme we will return to.

Greater ambition off the back of turnovers, allied to accuracy and invention in unstructured play, would take England to the next level. Because with players like Underhill, Itoje and Curry, they will continue to make steals and cause rivals to cough up possession.

Patience and proactivity over punting

Farrell still appears to be settling at the end of a truncated year. He definitely has another gear. England’s captain nearly released George in the ninth minute against Ireland after Ben Youngs’ quick tap – a moment that demonstrated real urgency . He sliced through Italy last month before releasing Youngs.

However, a grubber against Georgia on September 14, when a pass to Daly appeared to be the better option, reflected a boot-first mentality. That passage started with an innovative lineout. Youngs stood at the front, received a quick throw from Jamie George and swung a pass to Billy Vunipola:

Rugby
Rugby

Ellis Genge, lurking in midfield, was launched from there. Watch Farrell:

Rugby
Rugby

He slides behind the breakdown, with Daly joining him. Jonathan Joseph also backs towards the near touchline:

Rugby
Rugby

From this position, Farrell has just about created a three-on-two. Instead of a pass to Daly, though, he puts the ball on to his boot and the chance dies:

Rugby
Rugby

A week later, England run a first-phase strike-move from this scrum. Youngs’ pass to first-receiver Slade is too high…

Rugby
Rugby

…but the ball is moved to Ollie Lawrence, who fixes Bundee Aki with two options to his right. Daly is flat (A) with Farrell circling around in a second wave (B):

Rugby
Rugby

A ‘B’ pass might have allowed England to outflank Ireland in the same way New Zealand did at Rugby World Cup 2019 with a similar pattern:

England do keep possession though. Two phases later, they come back towards the near touchline and Farrell throws a pull-back to Slade behind Mako Vunipola:

rugby
rugby

George has held his width, a feature of England’s phase-play, and takes a pass from Daly:

Rugby
Rugby

Kyle Sinckler, supported by Itoje and Launchbury, is next to carry as England zig-zag in-field. Meanwhile, four fine ball-players – May, Daly, Slade and George – untangle themselves from the ruck and reload on the short side:

Rugby
Rugby

May adopts the first-receiver slot and holds his arm out, but Daly has already begun to move into the middle of the field. Farrell always seems most confident at fly-half when an assertive second-distributor, such as Alex Goode, is feeding him information from a second wave.

Ireland’s wings are dropping as well. They know what is coming. Rather than probing the short side, England’s half-backs remain reluctant to dally in possession. They are going to kick:

Rugby
Rugby

In this case, the chasing Joseph forced a turnover which eventually led to the hosts’ first try. Kicking works for England. We know that.

Still, it would have been interesting to see May demand the ball at first-receiver and challenge Ireland in conjunction with Daly, Slade, George and Mako Vunipola.

Settling combinations

As early as the eighth minute, Lawrence offered a glimpse of how he can energise England with ball in hand. A strong first-phase carry from the Worcester youngster flattened Ireland fly-half Ross Byrne, allowing his team to flood around the corner with quick ball:

Rugby
Rugby

At the end of the third quarter, during a fleeting but slick period of attack, Lawrence cut a dangerous angle off the shoulder of Mako Vunipola in midfield. England’s loosehead looked surprised, before eventually popping up the pass. Without a fine tackle from James Ryan, Lawrence might have burst through.

George Ford’s arrival from the bench on Saturday came at the expense of Lawrence with Farrell slipping to inside centre. There were glimpses of the zip Farrell brings as a second-receiver and the width England are able to impart:

Farrell second receiver
Farrell second receiver

Jones’ selection for the next two games will be telling. Anthony Watson and Luke Cowan-Dickie, two contrasting yet exciting attackers, are available again. It is clearly worth persevering with Lawrence, although he has been rested for the Wales game.

All the while, Slade is developing as an option at inside centre. Dan Robson, Ben Earl and Max Malins are waiting in the wings. Ollie Thorley and Joe Cokanasiga are yet to be properly unleashed.

Already this autumn, we have seen encouraging sparks. The handling and distribution of England’s forwards is becoming a real strength. This pacey interplay, off the back of a driving maul, caught the eye:

Interplay England
Interplay England

Jones has warned that a dogfight awaits in Llanelli, and knows that building towards the 2023 World Cup is a long game – his first-choice team for 2019 only emerged a few months before the tournament.

Even so, to really achieve the aim of putting smiles on faces, attacking authority feels necessary.

Match images courtesy of Prime Video