Tuesday 16 July 2019

Ian McGeechan: 'Jones' side kick champions into submission'

England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Getty Images
England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Getty Images

Ian McGeechan

This was a serious statement of intent by England, who completely dominated the collisions in attack and defence against Ireland.

The first 90 seconds set the tone for the rest of the game. In what was clearly a preplanned move, Jamie George threw over the top of the lineout to Manu Tuilagi, who got over the gainline straight away. In that same move, Tuilagi and Kyle Sinckler carried twice and Billy Vunipola once, getting all their big ball-carriers in the heart of the action. That then allowed Owen Farrell to pick an outstanding pass to Elliot Daly who put Jonny May away.

It was incredibly well executed and set a marker for what followed for the rest of the game.

That power was replicated in defence. Ireland just could not get over the gainline. Even someone like Tadhg Furlong, usually one of their strongest ball carriers, was being knocked back in the tackle. When that happens it creates a ripple effect for the rest of the team which is why Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were far less effective than we are used to seeing.

Even when Ireland had their best spell of the match in the first half, they could not really get across the gainline. Even though they did score from a driving lineout, they never managed to create any momentum. Crucially, England combined that physicality with composure. They seemed in control at every point, even when Ireland scored or when Tom Curry was in the sin-bin. Even when they lost both their starting second rows in George Kruis and Maro Itoje, you almost would not have noticed. Ireland, by contrast, were forced into rushing decisions as a result of suffocating defence.

England deployed a very clever tactic to isolate Robbie Henshaw's positional uncertainty at full-back. Rather than exposing him under the high ball, they made a conscious decision to test his decision making and timing of when to cover the channels. Henshaw is an excellent footballer, but he is primarily a centre. Even though he is a strong catcher, there is a huge difference between playing regularly at centre and full-back, where positioning is everything.

We saw an example of that when Farrell kicked through from a lineout and Henshaw had to double back to get the kick. He actually did very well not to be carried over his own tryline but it came from Farrell recognising that Henshaw was already on his way to the openside. Even with the second try, although it was Jacob Stockdale's mistake, Henshaw should have been much closer to him. These are tiny margins that denote the difference between the unique decisions a full-back has to make and any other position on the field.

That was just one facet of a superb kicking game, embodied by Ben Youngs who outkicked Murray, which takes some doing. I would say that is the best I have seen him. It was not just one or two kicks that were outstanding, it was a whole series.

The whole focus coming into the game was how much pressure England's back three was going to be under. Instead, England turned the tables on Ireland while Jonny May was superb under the high ball.

There were some outstanding individual performances, and not just from England's established stars. In spite of his yellow card, I thought Curry was outstanding. His work-rate in making tackle after tackle was phenomenal. At 20, his future is incredibly bright. I also thought Henry Slade had his best game in an England shirt. His combination with Manu Tuilagi looked really balanced with the power and playmaking contrast.

I was just as impressed by them in defence. They shut down Ireland's midfield and Slade's second try came as a result of that. They just seemed to have a very good awareness together. For so long openside and the centre partnership have been England's problem positions. This performance showed real hope for the future.

Earlier, Scotland delivered a really clever, disciplined game plan to nullify Italy for all but 10 minutes of the match at Murrayfield. They had a very clear tactic to take away possession and territory from Italy. In the past, Scotland have played too fast and loose in these games and that has let Italy in through the back door. Instead, Italy barely had any meaningful possession in any meaningful areas until the game was gone.

This was as a mature a performance as I have seen from Scotland in quite some time and Gregor Townsend will be delighted with the first 70 minutes before they lost a bit of their discipline and composure in the final 10 minutes.

Secretly, Townsend might even be pleased about that as he can say this is what we cannot afford to do next week against Ireland. Defensively, they made life very difficult for Italy's halfbacks and were smart in choosing which breakdowns to attack.

As soon as Italy were slow in getting their numbers there, that's when they struck. This is a great starting point for Scotland taking five points in what could have been a banana-skin fixture. Ireland will be a significant step up, but this laid a blueprint for what they need to do against the Six Nations champions.

I was particularly impressed by Scotland's key decision-makers in Greig Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg. We all know how talented Russell and Hogg are, but they were both really disciplined in waiting for the opportunities to present themselves rather than trying to force something from nothing. Their kicking game was also excellent and they clearly targeted the outside channels behind the wingers to keep them turning around.

Early on, Scotland were trying to get the ball wide and Italy were firing players up and shortening the defensive lines. Crucially, Scotland adapted to that by kicking behind them and building through the phases. That forced Italy to hold off.

Suddenly, Scotland found more room on the outside which then became very exploitable for the back three players. It was very clever rugby. Then when Italy started to slow around the 60-minute mark, they upped the tempo, which is when you saw Russell and Hogg really dip into their bag of tricks. with grubbers and delayed passes.



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