Former England fly-half Toby Flood takes a look England's overarching tactic
England’s attack right now is systematic and formulaic. It’s so process driven.
What I found very interesting at the weekend was Elliot Daly in the outside channel turning down the opportunity – with his speed and his ability – to take a three-on-two. The one time they do, Ben Earl runs on the outside, carves through and off you go and they score a try from a nice kick from George Ford.
But it all feels a little bit negative. It feels a little bit like ‘we’re just gonna play the percentages and see what happens…’ You hear the French crowd booing because England are kicking in the final third.
I understand the rationale is to build pressure. But when the opportunity comes, once you have won the ball back 25 or 30 yards out from someone’s line, there’s still the propensity to kick the ball. I understand making a team exit over and over again because this becomes so fatigued, but surely there’s a time when you actually have to cut your teeth on it and take that opportunity.
It feels like there is no desire to take any risk whatsoever. The only risk England seem willing to take is one five yards out from somebody’s line, which is odd with the skill-sets of the human beings in the team.
It’s a new era but this is still England and there are a lot of players who put 50 points on Japan last autumn. They got over the line against what is a good Japan team, but they’re not the same as the 2019 Japan team.
England kicking in and out of structure
Now I’ll caveat that there wasn’t always the want to kick – sometimes the disorganisation of the structure meant Ford had to put in a few kicks, a few grubbers, because there was no shape. So keep an eye on the structure outside of George. But I don’t think it’s aimless kicking. There’s a method to the madness.
England want to build pressure and when that pops, the other team will capitulate. It’s borne from statistics more than anything else. Steve Borthwick loves his statistics and he’ll look at several metrics. So you look at the amount of rucks you have in the opposition half and the amount of times you make them exit, the amount of times you kick… Those drive the performance narrative.
And it’s not all exit kicks. The French, for example, notoriously kick more than anyone else. A large proportion are attacking kicks, and England did do that. But the difference between those two organisations is based around the opportunity to attack. When it arises, the French have a nose for it, and understand when to go for it, whereas the England approach – and to an extent we’re all coached like this – is you just do what you’re supposed to do.
The one that got me was when Japan had a goal-line drop-out. George Ford got it in the middle of the field and I thought ‘great, there will be a Billy Vunipola or an Earl or somebody around him who can just jump off him and cart it up’. You can get metres from that, then you can launch an attack. Because it’s really hard to defend, that, when you hit it up and have options both sides of the field.
But George just whacked it back up in the air again.
In my head, you’ve done the job. You make them exit and exit and exit, and then you’re right on top of them, in their territory. You can dictate to them.
It’s not mindless England kicking. They want to squeeze. But when the opportunity arises, you need to take that chance.
Building in carries when pressure tells
So if this is the template England are going to run on – and I think it will be – it works well. You will pressure teams. You just need to draw up plans on how to exploit that. In a situation like the Ford one above, give it to a Vunipola or Earl or Manu Tuilagi or Ollie Lawrence. Let them cart it up and have a shape around that.
Playing this way you will get X amount of lineouts within the opposition 40-yard line. And Y number of kick returns; Freddie Steward returned well against Japan. Then it’s ‘what do you do now?’ You can have organisational structure to a point, a shape you want to run to break a team down…
The one thing England do have in place is the kick-off to the far right of the field. A team exits – like Japan did. Steward carries it. There’s a hit-up and then they run a dummy switch out the back, and they put it back into the back-field.
That was almost a systematic approach. And you think that they can layer on other things from there in terms of keeping the ball in hand and that’s trying to expose mismatches, expose edges, take a chance.
Perhaps they are missing a secondary organiser. Owen Farrell comes in no matter what, and Ford is the best fly-half in England, so do you bring Owen in to try and loosen up the attack, or do you go with the guys who have played well with George in midfield?
It’s a big decision. Either way, England need carry options when the pressure has told and they’ve got the ball back in opposition territory. You can have options either side. We just want to see England take the opportunities when they are on offer.