Tuesday 22 May 2018

Talking point: England can be a threat - but only if they fix breakdown

Jones has failed to address obvious weakness and Schmidt's men are primed to punish

England coach Eddie Jones set to face a backlash after his 'jokes' about Ireland and Wales. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
England coach Eddie Jones set to face a backlash after his 'jokes' about Ireland and Wales. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

England's only chance of beating Ireland this weekend will be based upon their attempts to focus on the one glaring weakness that has been regularly exposed, and occasionally punished, in the course of Joe Schmidt's championship-winning campaign.

Ireland's defence on the edges has seen them cough up tries to Italy and Wales and, albeit in a different manner but in the same area of the field, scores from France and Scotland.

It has been a readily identifiable flaw and one freely admitted as such by the Irish coaching staff and their players, but it is a flaw that has been masked by supreme excellence in all other factors of the game.

And this is England's dilemma because, in order to test Ireland's defensive width, they need to ensure they earn the right on the ball to do so but, as the evidence of their startling recent decline has demonstrated, they have palpably failed to generate enough momentum in the collisions and the breakdown to do so.

And so, while England's greatest strength is capable of inflicting maximum exposure of Ireland's weakness, their own greatest weakness will veto them that opportunity because Schmidt's men, on all recent form, will deny them that platform.

No team can attempt to play expansive, attacking, wide rugby without winning collisions and you can't control play with a beaten pack and half-backs that can't manage the game.

Tinker

This is the problem that Eddie Jones's men need to fix urgently because, even if he does tinker with his side - Owen Farrell shifting to out-half, Elliot Daly to full-back and Don Ammond into the back-row the leading expected changes - the broken down breakdown will continue to undermine their challenge.

Compared to Ireland, who balance a microscopic attention to detail and supreme power to every ruck, England are lacking the intelligent management and controlled physicality in how they are approaching the breakdown.

The coach acknowledges it is an issue that must be sorted before the World Cup but can he find a quick fix before Saturday?

If he does, there is little doubt that his team can produce a performance with the ball to do Ireland damage. But first they must protect the ball.

Ireland's ability to control possession is in stark contrast to England at the moment. An astonishing total of 29 penalties in the last two matches reflects ill-discipline and ill-judgment at the breakdown, where Scotland and France have been rampant.

Nineteen turnovers in those two defeats is a criminally high figure; given Ireland's slavish ability to retain possession, a turnover is quite likely to concede several minutes of game-time and, given Ireland's clinical scoring ability in this campaign, more often than not that will lead to points.

Unlike the Irish, England's players are appearing to work in isolation, a recidivist habit which seems to have been fed by the manner in which the breakdown is refereed in their Premiership.

The PRO14 sides adapted to the tinkering of the breakdown rules at the start of the season; in England, it appears, most sides - and crucially their referees - seemed to ignore them and, by implication, ignored the breakdown.

The fruits of this blissful ignorance have been witnessed in England's dire performances of late.

Throughout England's back-to-back championship successes, they often relied on sheer power to dictate the terms of the physical engagement but, notwithstanding the absence of punishing ball-players like Billy Vunipola, even this element of brute force has been out-gunned by their tactical superiors.

Scotland, for example, often ceded ground in the collision and, even if their attempted poacher was cleared by the late-arriving clear-out, they always seemed to have the potential to send another man in to swoop for the turnover.

England, lacking the physical intensity to either dominate the collision on their terms or win the engagement on the ground, never adapted their game to the fact that they were struggling to reverse the tide on the floor.

Their weakness fed Scotland's strength - and subsequently France's - and, instead of trying to off-load before contact or simply change the point of attack, they merely ran into repeated brick walls of resistance.

For such an intelligent coach, it was a mind-numbing approach from his team who are lacking the power and skills that once suffused them with so much confidence during their long run of wins.

Now that their inability to specialise in the art of the jackal - those players who can sweep over the ball and thieve it - has been brutally exposed by opponents, England have lacked the platform to adhere to any game plan, let alone an expansive one.

Development

In selection terms, Jones has failed to cut their cloth and, respectfully, that James Haskell remains an option reflects poorly on the development of back-row alternatives ahead of the next World Cup.

Locks have been shoe-horned into the back-row and vice versa; the lack of speed in the efforts to produce recycled ball has been hence quite startling.

The fact that England haven't managed to find a solution in the fortnight between the Scottish and French defeats means it is highly unlikely they will do so in half that time.

Now the media chatter clamours for the recall of Danny Cipriani but even Dan Carter couldn't flourish without the ball.

Drafting in Ammond as a potential silver bullet will be one attempt to remedy the problem while England also need much more ball-carrying intent; Kyle Sinckler should start.

But Jones must issue a much clearer template to his players in how they approach the breakdown and in turn the players must grasp the instructions given to them.

The simplest thing for Jones and his coaching staff would be to analyse Ireland's work in this area and seek to mimic it, for Schmidt's men are the masters.

If England fix the breakdown, they may have a chance to wreak party-pooping revenge. If they cannot, their race is run.

Irish Independent

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