The mastermind behind England's World Cup-winning defence left a remarkable legacy for the game. Here he discusses the biggest issues facing Eddie Jones's Six Nations team
Eighteen years separate the appointments of Phil Larder and Paul Gustard as England defence coach but a strand exists between the two, because Gustard was a Leicester player during their glory years of 1999-2002 when Larder oversaw the meanest defence in the land.
Gustard remembers fondly the infamous Wednesday defence sessions at Leicester but what he may not have been aware of at the time was the innovative nature of Larder’s work, because defence in union as we know it today was still in its infancy.
Nothing illustrates that better than the try Ben Tune scored against England in Clive Woodward’s first Test in charge, a 15-15 draw on 15 November 1997. Scrum-half George Gregan picked the ball up at a ruck near England’s 22 and ran laterally, being tracked all the way by Lawrence Dallaglio. A simple swivel and inside pass by Gregan gave blindside wing Tune the ball with clear space before him and he cantered to the try-line.
Larder was watching that game from the Huddersfield YMCA clubhouse and it was his son Matt, a dual-code player, who was first to articulate a defensive solution to this problem. Namely, that the ruck appeared to be the equivalent of rugby league’s play-the-ball and that in league you had two markers stationed there who would have stopped the Wallaby move dead in its tracks.
And so was born the guard system in union, with Larder, starting employment with England the following Monday, able to implement this and many other new practices in a coaching revolution.
England forwards were still following the ball, instead of dropping into channels and covering the width of the pitch, when they played New Zealand at Old Trafford – with obvious consequences.
But gradually the systems bedded in: the front-row forwards, who at first would pull fellow defenders tight to them, were forced to spread wider and their tackle count doubled in a trice.
The sliding defence advanced to such an extent that the last defender could stand 20 metres inside the outside attacker and still be confident of snuffing out the move. And Larder introduced a sweeper – capitalising on Austin Healey’s reading of the game – to patrol the space just behind the line and alert team-mates to opposition overloads.
By the time England arrived at the 2003 World Cup, they were the best defensive side in world rugby bar none. Such was their line speed that they were getting penalised when onside, so they started shouting “back foot” and checking with referees even as they prepared to fly forward.
England missed only six tackles in 100 minutes during their World Cup final triumph and Larder’s preachings surfaced all around the globe, hastened in large part by his role on the 2001 Lions tour – head coach Graham Henry adapted Larder’s ideas in his next job in Auckland and then installed the system with the All Blacks.
The international ‘brick wall’ that Larder helped build created a need for enhanced skill levels when attacking, and in particular better footwork, handling and power running from tight-five forwards who had previously been expected to do little more than push in the scrum and get to the breakdowns.
In his fascinating book The Iron Curtain, written with award-winning author Nick Bishop, Larder relates an exchange between attack coach Brian Ashton and Martin Johnson in training.
“Brian, do you really want me to run and pass the ball?” asked the England captain.
“Of course I do, Johnno, can you handle it?”
“Course I can,” said Johnno, his face lit up, “but no one has allowed me to pass the ball before.”
Talk to Larder now and he sees an urgent need for England to rediscover some of the ways of that all-conquering team of Johnson’s.
“The evidence of the (2015) World Cup is that the northern hemisphere teams, especially England, tended to play the old-fashioned way: the forwards were there to win the set-piece,” he says.
“In every sport, numbers are so important. In my early years with England, especially when playing teams from the northern hemisphere, we would have 15 defenders defending against a set of backs and two forwards, because five or six forwards never did anything apart from hit rucks.
“But New Zealand players can all pass before contact and offload and read the game. Eddie Jones has to solve that problem, as we did in 2003. Phil Vickery, Trevor Woodman, Steve Thompson, Ben Kay and Johnno could all play football. You can change players’ skill levels, although you can’t do it for this Six Nations (because it takes time). It must be top of Eddie’s list.”
The good news for England fans is that Larder believes Jones will do just that, and indeed the Australian has already expressed his admiration for the team that defeated his Wallabies in that 2003 final, one that Bob Dwyer called probably “the first in rugby history to attack through all 15 players”.
“I know Eddie as a competitor trying to beat the teams I worked with and I have a lot of respect for him,” says Larder, 70. “He’s an outstanding coach and gets the best out of his players. He plays a very entertaining game. When England played Australia in my time, apart from Melbourne in 2003, they always gave us one hell of a game; in the 2003 World Cup final they played out of their skins. I think he’ll do a superb job.”
As Wallaby coach, Jones took the view that if you could keep the ball for three minutes, or 20-plus phases, a defensive system would crack under the strain. Larder countered that by getting England to do a four-minute defensive drill where spacings had to be maintained and tackles made despite non-stop ball for the attack.
South Africa used to present few difficulties in Larder’s era because of the route-one nature of their rugby. England would happily pick Julian White, very strong but immobile, against the Springboks and let the Leicester prop defend a very narrow channel close to the ruck.
That all changed when South Africa employed Jones on a consultancy basis in the run-up to the 2007 World Cup.
“He made a massive difference to them,” says Larder. “South Africa were very physical but they would always try to run over you. Eddie worked on their passing and offloading skills and they became much more difficult to defend against. I think he’ll adapt the same strategy with England.”
The No 12 position has been a bone of contention since Will Greenwood retired more than a decade ago, and Larder agrees that it’s fundamental to how Jones’s England will operate.
“Inside-centre is a unique role and very important,” says the Lancastrian. “A 12 should have very fluid attacking skills. It’s not a fly-half and not an outside-centre. You need good passing, vision, decision-making.
“Will Greenwood was the perfect type of player in this position, very helpful to Jonny Wilkinson’s decision-making but also with sublime handling skills.
“The inside-centre shouldn’t just be a tough defender, he has got to ask questions. I always looked at it as what would I least like to defend against, and playing two footballers at ten-12 asks far more difficult questions of a defence.”
Larder says the injured Henry Slade is top of England’s pecking order at the moment, but he has no issue should Owen Farrell, as predicted, take the shirt for this weekend’s Calcutta Cup match. “George Ford and Owen Farrell are both footballers and of course played together as ten-12 for England U20s.”
He is also a firm advocate of the specialist No 7, and was mystified by Matt Kvesic’s early cut from England’s squad last summer ahead of the World Cup – “Something must have happened there,” he says.
Larder’s esteem for Neil Back knows no bounds. In his book he salutes the flanker’s “work-rate, speed to the ball and tackling technique” and labels him the only member of that great England team who could have played rugby league straightaway.
“If he’d been playing league, his name would have been the first on my team-sheet. I fought tooth and nail to keep him in the England team, though not for long because pretty soon everyone realised what an outstanding player he was. An out-and-out seven is dangerous around the contact area and I believe a team should have one.”
Back’s relative smallness, at 5ft 10in, led some coaches to doubt him but the only real side effect was a question of balance in the lineout, something the current England team can relate to without a lithe Tom Croft- or Jamie Gibson-style No 6, or indeed a jumper like Josh Beaumont at No 8.
A seven needs to get away from the set-piece quickly, so in Back’s era he would lift Dallaglio and often shoot off even before the No 8 had landed!
James Haskell looks set to get first dibs on the No 7 shirt in the Jones era, with Jack Clifford waiting in the wings and Kvesic seemingly third in line, but it’s fair to say this remains an area of concern for the Red Rosers.
Larder has no concerns about the need for Gustard to transfer his ‘connected line speed’ from the club to international environment – “He’s a bright bloke and won’t change too much too quickly” – but asked to pinpoint the area most in need of attention for England and he doesn’t hesitate.
“How players handle pressure. Stuart Lancaster’s team severely underperformed in that area. Some of the people we pushed out were outstanding attackers or defenders but they couldn’t handle the pressure. You need to make quick, correct decisions when the pressure is on, and we did a lot of work on decision-making and putting players in pressure situations – mental pressure, not physical.”
He continues: “The lack of player access will hit Eddie more than anything else because in Australia he had far more time with his players as they were contracted to the union. The Six Nations will be coming round too soon for him.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him, especially because in the UK the media can quickly turn. But he’s a very good coach and he’s one of those who has always liked to get involved on the training pitch; it’s good that he will be running the attack.”
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And what would constitute an acceptable result in Jones’s first Six Nations? “England need to win it,” comes the answer.
The Iron Curtain: My Rugby Journey From League to Union is published by Pitch, priced £18.99. To purchase, click here.