How England modify their attack?
ANALYSIS: In English Rugby since 2014, the most prominent subject line has been the consistent debate between the two English 10’s; George Ford, and Owen Farrell.
The mainstream media were incredibly quick to vilify George Ford for England’s losing streak last year. He was blamed for nearly everything that happened on the pitch when England were being over-trained and his forwards couldn’t give him the momentum needed for any team to succeed.
He was made a scapegoat, and personally this did annoy, as no one seemed to want to credit him for his role in steering the team and his pivotal influence in England’s attacking play.
In contrast, whilst Owen Farrell is an incredible player, the same media were guilty of ignoring any mistakes that he may have done during tests. When questioned, they cited generic qualities like leadership, competitiveness and defensive grit. All said to establish themselves as the authority to end any argument in the supporter’s mind as to who is the best 10.
Whilst Farrell has these in abundance, this should be the minimum for any professional rugby player and not credentials to a player’s ability at 10, but we all have our favourites.
I have been firmly in the “Ford at 10 camp” for a very long time due to the attacking variation he brings and make no apologies for it.
A look at how England’s attack that has developed under Scott Wisemantel and how it varies between the Ford-Farell, Farrell-Tuilagi, and Farrell-Daly axes.
10-12 (Owen Farrell – Manu Tuilagi)
England are for the most part, a team that plays off 9. Ben Youngs and his injury in 2018 showed England’s’ reliance on him in a big way. However, there have been changes elsewhere.
Unless you have been living under a rock, it is obvious that the Ford and Farrell axis whilst still an option, is no longer the be-all and end-all it once was. Eddie Jones has stated that England needed to learn to play multiple ways, hence developing the astute, highly effective kicking game, combined with unshakeable intensity and physicality in defence.
Without the Ford-Farrell axis, the variation and deception England can bring to their game is reduced. Under this dynamic, it is quite evident that the kicking game is the primary attacking foci. Even if there’s an overlap on, the ball is often kicked away at 10 for a chase game, as seen in the Six Nations.
As a romantic, this may not seem appealing, but in the harsh realities of test match rugby where defences are only getting better, and tries are becoming more of a premium. We can understand the thinking. This is even the case with the All Blacks, having been outscored by England and Ireland last year. (Though with their new dynamics this may not be for long).
However, there is still a need for a ball in hand attack. A possession-based game where England are able to attack over multiple phases. This has lost its edge without Ford at the helm. The reasoning being is that Ford and Farrell, are both fly-halves, and both very good playmakers.
Under the new system Farrell has taken over the 10’s role, Tuilagi has taken the 12’s, and the ball-playing duties that come with it.
Tuilagi is still learning the role of playmaker. Farrell can buy him space, but as he takes the screen passes, we can see he hasn’t organised the line outside him the way it should be for Catch and Pass. Nor has a play been called to try to pressure the defence.
He needs to be a little more vocal in the attacking role to be effective. As can be seen, Tuilagi more often than not takes Farrell’s place in the previous 10-12 system, ready to take the back pass off the second pod.
However, he is not the playmaker that Farrell is, resulting in seeking contact and ignoring space out wide.
In the above example, Tuilagi is the first screen option.
We will see the exact setup run with Ford and Farrell later on, and what they do that makes this so effective.
This for me is a waste of Tuilagi’s ability and reputation as a runner to a certain degree. He is a runner, and whilst giving him playmaking duties is impressive, Tuilagi at 13 could be brutal. Slade at 13 is very impressive, to mention Slade is phenomenal on the outside break and instrumental in John Mitchells’ defensive organisation. But Tuilagi out wide against thinned defensive zones could be simply devastating.
10-15 (Owen Farrell – Elliot Daly)
In the case of the 10-15 dynamic of Farrell and Daly, this is ofttimes very effective.
I have argued before that Daly at some point in future could be trialled at 10. His skillset is more than capable, he’s an incredibly intelligent footballer and kicker, and he has the attacking mindset of a Stephen Larkham or Beauden Barrett, all having played 15.
Regardless, he is the cemented 15 without a shadow of a doubt, as entire structures depend on his abilities.
With the stacking principle employed by England and development of the team to play flat, Daly at 10 could take England to the next level.
At 15 though, whilst he can take the “12” positioning in phase play and even pop up at 1st receiver on set piece, he usually forms a very unique alignment.
You’ll often see Daly position himself 10-metres behind Farrell for the pass. Outside him, a flat line of backs is often waiting, with a loose forward to assist. This is an incredibly unique alignment as a gap of 10-metres is a huge level of depth for any player to keep.
Before we can explain this level of depth, we must understand that England’s forward play off 9 is now incredibly constricted, and often on one side of the field. It involves switches, inside passes, out-in lines and running onto the ball and taking it right at the line with maximum physicality.
The pods normally hit very close to the ruck and can often be seen using footwork to move back towards the fringe defence as their strike point. With players like Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipola’s, Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill and Jamie George, it is very hard to contain.
This means a vast majority of the defence are drawn in, allowing England a huge overlap. However, most defences are overlapped at one point or another. Ireland’s has been, Wales has been, and yet the opposition don’t score. This is because the last man in the Rush Defence often shoots up at sprint-like levels, catching the transition play before the ball can get out to the wide channels.
This is a perfect example.
New Zealand were in here, but the pressure forced by this rush caused the knock-on.
England’s intention to constrict the defence with their forward play so Daly is near the edge of the line, when he receives the pass this deep it beats the chase. The ball travels quicker than the man, and as can be seen here, he’s so deep that the last defender can’t cut him off in time.
Daly is naturally more agile, faster, and a better distributor and playmaker than Tuilagi, which is why he fills this role. He can pass quickly to his outside men, who when they involve the likes of Tuilagi, Jonny May and Joe Cokanasinga, will be a truly terrifying sight.
Alternatively, his agility means he can step the last defender and go for a run.
In regard to catch and pass, we can see how the speed of the flat line off him, can cause an awful amount of damage.
If you can stand up to this power game however, as Wales did in the Six Nations, you can cause a whole host of problems, and this is where the Ford-Farrell axis can really come into play.
10-12 (George Ford – Owen Farrell)
The 10-12 Axis is still a very valid option, as it allows greater deception and distribution due to the Ford and Farrell connection.
Ford and Farrell can not only each take control of a pod or operate independently on either side of the ruck in phase play, they can operate around a pod together.
What we need to understand is that Ford is a ‘Dancing 10’. His greatest strength is his vision, his distribution, and ability to pick the right pass at the line. He isn’t a 10 who when he receives the ball, everyone knows immediately what the option is due to the structure and shape of his team.
He dances up to the line, scanning his options and sowing as much confusion in the defence as possible, before picking the right option at the last second. This maybe a short pass, the long flat pass, or having a go himself. It varies, as his skillset’s and speed allows him to execute passes to options outside of the English structures.
This is where he differs from Farrell. In phase play, he waits to see what he can get for his men before putting them into space. In the above example, no Wallaby saw that pass coming, he had multiple options off him which were available. Ford considered them, realised the best option mid-run, and with his skillset made it. The try was scored 2 phases later. You feel Farrell often has his man chosen before the run, and whilst the pass is made a lot flatter now, its pre-scripted, even if a better option makes itself available.
This is why Ford is so proficient in phase play and putting his men into half-spaces. His understanding of alignments, space and how to manipulate so late at the line is better than near any 10 in the world.
Under the 10-12 axis, there is greater variation in England’s attack. Whilst the 10-15 Axis will often get around the rush as discussed; the 10-12 axis can stretch the defence when the rush is held and penetrate better.
Against New Zealand, England started playing more off 10 when Ford came on and started varying the attack up from the Box kicking; off-9, defensive game they had been playing. They started stretching the defence, looking more fluent.
However, this wasn’t the only dynamic introduced. The Ford-Farrell axis has the ability to penetrate the seams of the ‘Rush D’ with greater deception. This is a key development under Wisemantel.
Farrell’s presence as the 2nd receiver is a danger sign for defences. It’s another line of attack, and the defence don’t want to give Farrell any time on the ball to work with. England knows this, and as such have worked on plays to fully exploit this keenness to shut him down.
Here we can see the Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi dynamic executed brilliantly, with perfect running lines by all involved. By dancing to the line, Ford manages to commit two men. This is hugely important, Tuilagi’s out-in line manages to draw Samu Kerevi in, who is meant to be marking Farrell’s screen line.
Farrell starts behind Ford and moves towards the space created from the constriction of the defence to cover Ford and Tuilagi. With Ford’s expertise at taking the ball to the line, this gives the defence the greatest amount of time to push up with Folau rushing up to rightly pressure his man in May, opening the seam.
All combined, Farrell hits the gap perfectly, going in for a run in. Ford committing two men, created this try. Hooper was meant to be marking Tuilagi. By forcing Hooper to mark him as well, Kerevi has to come in to cover the big man, inadvertently leaving Farrells run unmarked. It’s this decision making and precision this late at the line, that makes Ford such a brilliant 10.
Farrell was in this case involved in a previous ruck. But we see Sbu Nkosi push up on Slade as a playmaking option. Hence using flat play and a little deception, May goes straight through the seam like a knife in butter.
Moves like these were not seen against New Zealand until Ford came on. This is a perfect example of attacking the seam, and the deception and alignments required to do it. As you might remember earlier, it was set up against Scotland, but not executed.
By having both Ford and Farrell working around the second pod, their ‘dynamic’ is able to manipulate the space for May’s run with accurate passes and fast hands. Again, Ford is able to hold the inside defence with his flat play and the use of his pod, Farrell is able to drag a man out, thinning the defence for the inside pass.
This also allows Daly to be out on the wing as a support option exactly the same as the South Africa example. If May hadn’t been tackled by Retallick, this could’ve been a very likely try.
Whilst I am a keen Ford fan, it’s obvious that all these dynamics are useful in their own way. I admit some games will need to be played defensively, and some in a more attacking style. However, to win a World Cup, a team will need plans A through to H.
It’s taken a while, but it looks like Eddie Jones finally has his different game-plans, and if England are to have a chance at winning the William Web Ellis, you can bet every one of them will be needed.