Wednesday 23 October 2019

Will Greenwood: 'Get on top in these key areas and England can take down Ireland at the Aviva'


Eddie Jones. Photo: Reuters
Eddie Jones. Photo: Reuters

Will Greenwood

Scrum-halves and fly-halves in the top sides can now control their ball flight from kicks in the same way Francesco Molinari hits a golf ball on a blustery day at Carnoustie. They have an arsenal of kicks - drop punts, spirals, grubbers, chips, cross-field "forward passes" - you name it, they can do it.

The priority for England today is to avoid the bouncing ball. Real estate must be covered. The maths behind it is compelling. Let us take the area of the field from your try-line to the 10-metre line and the full width of the pitch: 40 metres long by 70 metres across which makes 2,800 sq m. This is normally covered by three players, or four at best - a team's back three and, when you can spare him, your scrum-half to sweep in behind and cover the chip.

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The reality is that in the modern maelstrom of defence at least one of those four is multitasking. This means that a team usually have three players looking after roughly 1,000 sq m each.

When you consider that tight-five forwards used to struggle defending a five-metre channel, the back three's task seems huge. That shows you how good Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney are, and why Mike Brown continues to be relevant to this England side - they all cover vast acres of land and are superb in the air.

England's challenge is to find the back three who give them an attacking threat with the ball and control at the back. It is not good enough to be OK - OK leads to doubt and doubt can rip a team apart.

Keep disciplined

England's discipline needs to be much improved. Against Australia in the autumn it was better, but England were dominant and you are rarely tested in terms of discipline when you are on top. It is when they come under pressure from a good side that England's brain is occasionally turned off. Too often in 2018 we saw the collective on-field lobotomy as players left the script, decided to fix the situation themselves, or felt that they were wearing an invisibility cloak at the breakdown in front of 80,000 fans, four match officials and 25 television cameras.

The inability to trust the system, to stay alive when feeling the heat, to force the attacking team to be perfect or fail, meant England either gave away points they did not need to or released their own build-up of pressure on their opponents. Too often they gave the other team an easy option to exit their own final third.

The world and his dog have decided that England under pressure are ill-disciplined, and it is a hard tag to remove. There is no doubt that the occasional cynical penalty is necessary to dent an opponent's inevitable march to your try line. The ones to avoid are the consecutive pens.

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Lineout solidity

You never know what you have until it is gone. Dylan Hartley is technically brilliant at the set-piece. The scrum is rock-solid, the lineout almost guaranteed. Around the park, when the ball is in play - that is when the debate begins for Dylan.

It is too simplistic to say Jamie George is the opposite. Hartley's ball-carrying and George's set-piece are both good enough for Test success. But when it really mattered against New Zealand, England's lineout went missing.

The competitiveness and movement of opposition lineouts at international level is now extraordinary. The ability of some players to compete with a one-man lift, to get up in the air, to have the apex of fingers at close to 15 feet off the ground means that if a team can guarantee possession from a lineout, it is absolutely priceless.

Remove possession from a team at a line-out, take away the ability of a team to exert long periods of pressure, and you cut their attacking artery. The inevitable conclusion is a slow but entirely predictable defeat.

Ireland have a similar debate when it comes to Rory Best and Seán Cronin - do they go with the gnarly set-piece king or younger cannonball?

Clive Woodward has always said selection is the hardest thing for a coach in a World Cup year. The balance of the side is critical above the merits of the individual.

Quick transition

The All Blacks are undoubtedly market leaders in transition, but what is it exactly? In simple terms it is the switch from attack into defence or vice versa and it is the moment when a team are at their most vulnerable.

Defensive coaches are constantly watching their attack with one eye on their shape, the team's "spread" across the field, in case the bad stuff happens. And bad stuff always happens, whether it be a loose pass, a turnover or a loss of control. Then comes the mad scramble and, if they are unlucky, six seconds later a team who were on the front foot can find themselves under their posts.

England are improving - they have the gas and the firepower - but they can be better. It is not the pace men who are the key - they are just the end result. The key men, more often than not, are your back-row. England's are a fresh group in international terms, so they have to learn quickly.

To be the best you need to be ruthless when in transition from defence to attack. This way you can win the tight games or kill off a team with quick scores.

Strike plays and follow-up phases

The ability to build pressure, go through the phases and maintain possession, is often seen as the best way to score points. But conversely, teams now have a real chance of scoring off set-piece plays and can avoid the slog.

Even with the most imaginative defensive coaches, the chances are slim of an attacking team looking across at a set-piece and seeing a line-up that they have never dealt with before. So why not attack straight away and go for the throat? A team cannot cover all your attacking threats at phase one. There is always a weakness. You know where the ball is going, they do not, so you can have an educated guess at how the defence will operate as the play unfolds.

This game style is very "Irish". The view is that, within reasonable parameters, a team can control or predict what is about to happen. But the further you get from the start of a passage of play, the harder it is to have total control. To ignore the threat of strike plays and to use them as early as possible is to ignore an open goal. England should spend time in the classroom, find the weakness, then rip it open.

Joe Schmidt does not have the monopoly on two- to three-phase plays. But he owns the space right now. England need to reclaim it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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