Max Malins defends England’s kick-first approach in Six Nations: ‘There’s purpose to it’
Scott Robertson or Ronan O'Gara would have immediately launched England into all-out attacking rugby had either coach replaced Eddie Jones.
Robertson's decorated Crusaders always favour ball in hand, while O'Gara's La Rochelle are in line with his Keep the Ball Alive philosophy.
England's script has been more pragmatic in their opening few weeks under new head coach Steve Borthwick, but they refuse to accept Borthwick's tactical blueprint as simply Kick the Ball Away.
"There's a purpose to it, we don't want to kick for kicking's sake, there's obviously something behind it," said winger Max Malins, after Saturday's 20-10 win over Wales in Cardiff. "I think we got a lot of gains off it actually, we forced a few knock-ons. Even if we got up in the air and disrupted the ball and we knocked it on, we've got a solid scrum now. It's all in the sense of getting better returns elsewhere."
England's tactical kicking failed to yield the desired dividend in the 31-14 win over Italy at Twickenham two weeks ago. But at the Principality Stadium, England exploited the elements of the open roof to launch some horrid spiral bombs that Wales could not handle.
Anthony Watson, Kyle Sinckler and Ollie Lawrence claimed the scores that sealed England's second win in a row, and Malins believes dominating the tactical kicking battle proved pivotal.
And with England always boasting the threat of a defence-turning player in the opposing 22, Malins believes that creates more space to attack with ball in hand in any case.
"Once you've got that kicking threat, it opens up different doors and avenues to attack," he said. "I'm sure people are aware that we like to kick into space in behind, and that means they've got to cover the backfield, have less numbers in the front line and then, when that opens up, we'll take that. I like the way we're evolving our game."
Watson's try was the product of England keeping the ball in hand, the Leicester winger flying into the corner from a fine Alex Dombrandt pass.
The strike move that teed up that score saw Henry Slade's dummy run outfox the Wales defence, leaving Malins and Lawrence to fly through the line.
"If you arrive in the gap too early, the defence sees you, so it's about biding your time," added Malins. "Faz (skipper Owen Farrell) did a great job of fixing the 12 and putting me through nicely. I gave the pass thinking Ollie would be under the sticks, unfortunately that wasn't the case, but thankfully we got them on the next phase."
Borthwick's work-in-progress approach leaves England accepting their limitations, and determined not to fixate on frustrations. Farrell had warned England that they would have to shake off mistakes in Wales, and so it proved amid a messy, but stubborn victory.
Farrell himself failed to land 10 points off the tee, was charged down and even sent one punt out on the full on an afternoon when his kicking was well below par. Malins had the mother of all heart-in-mouth moments when throwing an intercept pass to gift Louis Rees-Zammit Wales's only try.
England's players mobbed him more for that by way of solidarity than when he scored a brace against Scotland. Whatever Borthwick's England will lack in the rebuilding phase, it will not be heart.
"It obviously wasn't great when I gave the intercept!" said Malins. "I thought Henry (Slade) was coming into that next gap, so I gave the pass and quickly realised I'd given it to the quickest man on the pitch, with no one to catch him.
"Those things happen, it's split-second decisions. We talked about mental toughness this week, and that intercept was a prime example. Everyone came up and said, 'don't worry about it, next job'. You drop it and move on, and then at least you're not carrying baggage."
Emotional weight keeps on being lifted for Malins, from moving past challenging times under former boss Jones to shaking off that pass. England now head to Brighton for some sharp training and sea air, before focusing in on hosting France at Twickenham on March 11.