In late December 2015, England’s new head coach Eddie Jones was appraising the backroom staff in Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup group. As part of that process, as a consultant/analyst I was invited to preview England’s first opponent in the upcoming 2016 Six Nations tournament.
I ended up writing three separate pieces for Eddie Jones, including a short report identifying three areas of the game which were likely to be key against Scotland. Those areas were:
- Effective high kicking game versus Scotland’s backfield
- Ball retention in the 13 channel
- Neutralising WP Nel at the scrum
So how did those areas work out in the game? As it turned out (and it doesn’t always turn out this way!), the research and analysis paid into these areas was decisive.
England’s high kicking strategy
England kicked a massive 41 times in total, but the key sub-section of the kicking game was the decision to kick high and contestably in midfield, outside the England exit zone. I found that Wales especially had achieved a lot of success in their 2015 Six Nations game against Scotland by kicking on to the Scotland backfield when it contained their full back Stuart Hogg and No 10 Finn Russell. In fact Russell had been yellow-carded in that match for a poorly-timed challenge on Dan Biggar while defending the high ball, and he was the main target.
England put up 9 high contestable kicks at Murrayfield from positions anywhere between the two 40m lines – six were launched from the Scottish side of halfway – and they achieved 5 positive results.
They scored their second try in the sequence immediately after a high ball repossession over Russell, created another prime attacking position at midfield on the Scotland 22 after a Scotland error on the receipt, and three other Scottish handling mistakes led to England scrums. That represented an excellent return on England’s investment so this area was a ‘win’.
Ball retention in the 13 channel
In the ten previous Scotland games I examined in the course of my reports, I found that 50% of their tries had been scored from turnover. Moreover, 42% had been generated by Scotland’s outside backs – number 13 Mark Bennett and their back three – mostly by interception. Bennett’s interception try against Australia in the World Cup quarter-final could and should have won that match for the Scots. It was clearly very hazardous to make the second or third pass successfully against Scotland without falling into the defensive traps they set in the 13 channel and beyond it! Jones’ solution was to keep the ball inside Scotland’s pressure off the edge with a big majority of one-pass or pick and go plays, and no offloads:
- One-pass plays – 57 (59%)
- Pick & Go plays – 19 (20%)
- 2+ pass plays – 21 (21%)
- Offloads – 1
England’s attacking focus was very tight, with four out of every five carries being one-out or pick plays and no offloads to speak of. This not only made England’s No 8 Billy Vunipola by far the game’s key ball-carrier with 22 rumbles, it restricted Scotland to one interception, by Russell in the second half off a pass by England’s replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs. Scotland didn’t handle Vunipola well defensively at first receiver and they didn’t create any turnovers off the second pass or beyond, so this area was another conclusive England win.
Neutralising WP Nel at the scrum
The third key area was neutralising Scotland’s South Africa-born tight-head Willem Nel at the scrum. Nel has had a huge impact on Scotland’s scrum, with Scotland winning 14 scrum penalties (nearly all on their own feed) since his debut in the summer warm-up against Italy. With 11 of those penalties, they were called on the loose-head directly opposing Nel. Add in England’s well-publicised problems at the World Cup against Australia and this could easily have become a platform off which Scotland could dominate the match.
In the event, with England either kicking the ball high or keeping it tight, Scotland made most of the errors in the game, which meant that England had 11 feeds to a mere one put-in for Scotland. This restricted Nel’s range of domination (although he still won two penalties) and allowed England to hang on well in the scrum. England won two penalties as opposed to four for Scotland, which included two at the base of the set-piece in situations where England had lost control. Not a win for England, but manageable – a losing draw.
This game proved the value of a sound knowledge of your opponent and showed how it can have a decisive influence on the outcome of a match. On the other hand, the result was no more than a solid 6 out of 10 for Eddie Jones’ England. Scotland made twice the number of line-breaks, beat more defenders and made more offloads, and they were never more than one score away right to the end. Looking forward to the sterner challenges ahead, England did not quite get the balance right. They
- Kicked away too much ball
- Were probably too reluctant to make the second pass
- Depend too heavily on Bill Vunipola to carry at first receiver
- Still show signs of fragility at scrum-time