England have operated an impressive defence in this year’s 6 Nations, and in the 3 games so far it has been the platform for their success: the intensity that Paul Gustard’s scheme has injected into their play makes it difficult for opponents to get on to the front foot in attack, and with the ball they have been able to feed off the turnover opportunities it creates. Athletes like George Kruis, Maro Itoje and James Haskell thrive in a system that requires them to work off the line, cut down space and win physical battles in the contact area; on the outside, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph couple similarly sound physical capabilities in the tackle with excellent lateral movement and tracking of runners.
This image from the second half at Twickenham is a good example of their excellent defensive structure. This is the third phase after an Ireland scrum on halfway, in the left-hand 15m channel; Andrew Trimble made yards up the right touchline on first phase, and after a carry by Devin Toner off 9 Jonny Sexton (who stood uncharacteristically deep at first receiver for much of the game) knocked on as he shaped to kick towards the right corner over the head of the retreating Mike Brown. England undoubtedly showed good organisation and work rate in thwarting Ireland’s attack for the majority of the game, but there were certain aspects of the away side’s execution that played into their hands.
In the first half, Ireland came out with the intention of moving England’s pack around the field – even in their own 22. On two early attacking sets (beginning inside their own territory after receiving a kick-off or kick from hand) they looked to play a wide pattern, moving the ball from touchline to touchline before setting up in either the left or right 15m channel for a box kick from Conor Murray or a high ball from Sexton in the pocket. In these sequences, they resourced rucks well and did not isolate runners; while on the one hand probing wider channels to see whether England – who started off the game with aggressive – would overcommit, they ensured that the search for space was on their terms.
They continued to look for this space on the outside of the English defence throughout much of the game. A feature of Jonny Sexton’s play was a tendency to transfer the ball to the second receiver from a deep position and without taking a step towards the gain line, likely in order to work the ball to the outside of England’s forwards who were swarming the inside with good line speed:
You can see from Sexton’s footwork and body position in the above image the desire to spread the ball early to the outside of a defensive line comprising Robshaw, Kruis, Vunipola and Hartley inside the excellent Joseph. The spacing of the four players forming the first attacking pod, however, is far from optimal. Josh van der Flier offers himself on a decent line, but Mike Ross is static. In order to get the outside edge of England’s initial line of defenders, the backs should look to hit the ball at pace behind the screening forwards and run straight in order to hold the inside defenders; here, Andrew Trimble is too close to the forward pod to offer a viable option out the back, and he also cuts off the wider pass to Henshaw.
Both Ireland’s centres and their outside backs hampered attempts to play in the wider channels with their initial alignment and consequent lateral movement during this match. On numerous occasions they started too flat and were catching the ball on the back foot, as we can see in the examples below.
Alignment and timing problems on first phase are particularly criminal: off a decent lineout platform inside their own half, and with George Ford in his crosshairs, debutant Stuart McCloskey has already had to plant his left foot to check his run by the time the ball leaves Conor Murray’s hands. There is always another side to the analysis of the timing of a run – the scrum half hesitating a split second can have the same effect as a runner starting too flat – but McCloskey and the other Irish backs found themselves in this position too often over the course of the 80 minutes.
The second image is also from a set piece move, with Josh van der Flier peeling off the back of the maul and looking to hit Trimble (or Murray) behind the screen of Henshaw. The target here is likely George Ford’s channel, and Dylan Hartley’s planted feet here show that the first part of the move has worked well. The flanker has straightened towards Haskell, and the England captain has been held by Henshaw’s strong run, but Trimble is set up slightly narrow and shallow and ends up running into Henshaw’s space – if he is even a pace wider, he is likely to make Ford execute a one-on-one tackle. However, his alignment causes hesitation and the running lines do not flow in harmony as planned, and the pass from van der Flier to Trimble is spilled.
Joe Schmidt’s backline selection for this weekend’s game has become even more of a hot topic now that Jared Payne has been declared fully fit, and it will be interesting to see how the New Zealander – whose reading of the game and defensive composure have made him a firm favourite of his compatriot since he became eligible for Ireland – fits into the picture against Italy. The two most likely scenarios are Payne replacing Stuart McCloskey and reprising a partnership with Robbie Henshaw in the midfield, and a straight swap with Rob Kearney at fullback, allowing Schmidt to retain his promising midfield duo. Kearney is one of the former Leinster coach’s most trusted lieutenants – he had not missed a minute of 6 Nations rugby under his leadership coming into this campaign – but Payne has impressed in his natural position when given the opportunity for Ulster. One of his best attributes is the ability to straighten the attack and pick good angles from both 13 and 15, and at times the alignment of both the fullback and the centres limited Ireland’s attacking opportunities at Twickenham.
In the image below, Murray has hit Sexton behind the screen of McCloskey after an attempted lineout maul was collapsed. England show good line speed to quickly cut down space as Sexton attempts to loop around Robbie Henshaw, but it is the positioning of Kearney outside his 13 which could be called into question:
Jonathan Joseph in England’s outside centre channel defended excellently in open space throughout the game, but this is one example where the Irish backline could have challenged him more than they did. After attempting to flood George Ford’s channel with bodies – both McCloskey and Andrew Trimble from the blindside wing – the ideal attacking scenario is isolate Joseph on the outside and force him to commit to a decision before the ball-carrier does. When Robbie Henshaw receives the ball, his three feasible options are to carry hard and straight himself, feed Sexton on the loop behind Kearney or hit Kearney short if Joseph commits to the drift on Sexton. The speed off the line of England’s 10, 12 and 13 here forces Ireland across the pitch, and Kearney is not able to readjust to facilitate Henshaw’s second and third options. We can see above that even before Henshaw receives the ball he has strayed flatter than he would like, and on receiving his centre’s pass Farrell is able to drift off his man to complete a double tackle with Joseph.
In the final five minutes of the second half, the away side looked to a variation of the strike move that has proved so successful for many Irish sides in the last few seasons. Again, however, English line speed has forced Kearney into a position where he was not able to readjust and caused the timing of the move to break down. As Josh van der Flier lurks directly behind the ruck (the role which Kearney himself played so well at Twickenham a few years ago), the fullback cuts back on a switch off Sexton before looking to send the flanker at George Ford’s blind spot:Ford, Daly and Joseph’s line speed is excellent once more, and Kearney once more is not able to readjust; his starting position means that he must cut at too wide an angle (note how his body is pointed back towards the ruck rather than at George Ford, the defender he is looking to attack) to receive Sexton’s pass, and the this adjustment throws off the timing of van der Flier’s run. Again it’s a combination of English intensity and Irish imprecision that causes the play to break down, as Ireland are forced to move laterally in the face of the English defence.
The final example is from Ireland’s final attacking set of the first half. A scrum on the right-hand side of their own 22 seemed to engender indecision in Conor Murray: Heaslip passed right off the base to his scrum-half, who turned back to his left to feed Sexton on the strong side. This immediately put England’s midfield defence on the front foot as Ireland begun to run a loop play in order to move the ball towards the left touchline. In the image below, the most telling aspect is the body position of Owen Farrell:
The backline has been forced to move laterally as a result the work of Haskell, Ford and Farrell even before McCloskey receives the ball as the link man; England are once more dictating the movement of play and moving Ireland’s runners out of their intended channels. McCloskey’s consequent movement into Henshaw’s space removes the threat of the 13 being used as a strike runner, and Farrell can pay him little attention in this phase of play – his eyes are fixed on Sexton arcing behind, and along with Joseph’s lateral quickness the centres have the 25m channel between ball and touchline amply covered. The debutant’s options are limited by the circumstances, but the alternative we might like to see him take is to step off his left and take the ball into contact against Ford – a physical matchup in Ireland’s favour, but one which was perhaps underused in the first half.
England’s midfield defended very well in space for much of the game, and forced Ireland’s runners into taking options that favoured the defending side throughout. The away side’s three best line-breaks came from good one-on-one footwork to beat defenders and cut back against the grain (Henshaw’s carry at the end of the first half), savvy blocking from Nathan White (Sexton’s break before Jack Nowell’s try-saving tackle in the corner) and breaking a first-up tackle (Ultan Dillane’s burst into the England 22 late in the game) – structurally England looked mostly untroubled by Ireland’s set-up in phase play. While the home side’s defensive intensity and organisation played a big part in this, Ireland were undoubtedly not as precise in their execution as Joe Schmidt would have liked; the attacking alignment and running lines which the examples above illustrate will be one aspect that they will be hoping to correct this weekend.