England beat Ireland with heavy-metal rugby

Even the most myopic of England fans didn’t see that coming. I am still enjoying the warm afterglow of the comprehensive manner of England’s 32-20 win over Ireland on Saturday.

I had an inkling we may see something special and, like Hutch, had gone against the bookies to predict a narrow England win. But this was something else. Coming off the back of a disappointing 2018 and taking on the defending grand slam champions, featuring the reigning world player and coach of the year; the team which had just defeated the All Blacks and had some calling the best in the world (whatever the IRB ranking may say), England took the form book and dropped it in the shredder. England have had some amazing results under Eddie Jones – as well as some tough times – but for me, this was the most impressive English performance since that victory over the All Blacks in 2012.

It was a performance built on defence. A brutal, hustling, suffocating display for which one of the best touchstone I can find belongs to our round-ball cousins and Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp’s ‘gegenpress’. If that is heavy-metal football, this was heavy-metal rugby, turned up to eleven and played with a ferocity of which Slayer would be proud.

I was concerned about England’s defensive issues as recently last summer’s South Africa tour, writing ‘I was left questioning just what defensive system they were trying to employ. It did not seem to be a blitz defence, or a more traditional drift. With the best defensive teams, there is a discernible pattern – just look at the Saracens team – but it is absent at the moment with England.’

But here there was a clear pattern and structure. England’s line-speed was transformed – more reminiscent of Wales in their pomp of 2012 than the England of recent years. In total, England made 181 tackles to Ireland’s 117, but more importantly they made 48 dominant tackles to Ireland’s eight. Players were flying up and hitting hard, often in pairs, to stop Ireland’s powerful ball carrier in their tracks. Mako Vunipola was the pinnacle of this approach. He was simply world class – to make 27 thudding tackles as a loosehead is astonishing. He also made 11 carries and was only denied a try by the tightest of referee calls.

Interestingly England only had a tackle completion of 87%, missing 28, but that is a by-product of that approach. Even if the first up player missed, the effect was to disrupt the attacking play and put doubt in the Irish minds. They also trusted in the second or third player to make the tackle.

This was partly made possible by clever breakdown work. England were more restrained at the contact area than I have seen in a while; shouts of ‘dead!’ could be heard, signalling the ruck was lost and rather than over-commit players, the defensive line fanned out in preparation for the next opportunity.

This tactic, combined with some exceptionally smart kicking and an all-out kick chase, meant England were constantly harrying the Irish line. When that level of pressure is applied it is only natural that mistakes happen and England were happy to wait and pounce on those moments with an unfamiliar efficiency.

John Mitchell needs to take big helping of the credit for this. Whether this evolution of England’s game is completely his brainchild, his appointment as defence coach has clearly had an impact. That England were playing with such steel is no coincidence when you have a hard nut like Mitchell in your corner.

Then there is the Manu effect. He wasn’t England’s best player – and he wouldn’t have even started had Ben Te’o been fit – but from the moment he took a thundering ball off a long lineout and crashed into two Irish players, he set the tone. And what he brings beyond that is a fear factor. It’s been said before how he draws defenders to him and creates space for his teammates, whether he touches the ball or not. For Elliot Daly’s try he actually plays as a first receiver, taking the ball a couple of steps before flipping it to Farrell who wraps around from the blindside. Although Manu doesn’t take contact, two Irish defenders are fixed by him.

England were very smart in this aspect throughout. For all the talk of the power game in the run up to the match, and after several early big collisions, often England opted to switch the angle of play, use the bulldozers as distributers, or put the kick through into space behind the line. Ireland didn’t know where to look, let alone take up position in defence.

It is no coincidence Henry Slade enjoyed the best England game of his career alongside Manu and (whisper it quietly) maybe England have finally found the long-term combination they have been searching for since Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood went their separate ways. Hopefully Manu can enjoy an extended spell of fitness and allow this combination time to blossom. Although if England are settling on this style – a ball carrier at 12 and playmaker at 13 – then we do have reserves to fit this structure. What has partly hurt England in the past is an injury to a first-choice centre has necessitated a change in style because we haven’t had good enough like-for-like replacements.

After all this praise, it is important to temper the mood a little. England were good. Very good. And Ireland were poor. But England are not suddenly world-beaters, just as they weren’t a poor side after last year’s 5th place finish or as Ireland aren’t after this loss. But there are further signs of improvement after a strong Autumn series and the challenge will be to sustain that over the coming games.

There is a danger, particularly with the way it was billed as England’s defining game of 2019 before the World Cup, that emotionally they won’t be able to replicate that intensity in the remaining games. That is important as next up they face a very dangerous French team.

Let’s be honest, France should have beaten Wales. They (literally) threw the game away thank to two moments of madness; Yoann Huget’s buttery fingers and Sebastien Vahaamahina’s senseless looping pass. Prior to that they were impressive and they will be no walk-over this weekend, even back in the relative comforts of Twickenham HQ. The injured Maro Itoje will also be a huge loss – although thankfully England are well blessed in the lock-reserves.

The clash between these two heavy-weight packs will be a sight to behold and there is enough trickery in both backlines to play some scintillating rugby. There is also the added spice of England and France being pool-mates at the World Cup. These are the kind of bragging rights you want. Time for England to put on another thundering display.

By Henry Ker

41 thoughts on “England beat Ireland with heavy-metal rugby

  1. You ask about replacements for the centres.
    There’s Teo at 12 but beyond that I can’t think of anyone.
    At 13 there is Daly – although I just can’t see EJ selecting him there. Otherwise there is Joseph who though not exactly a playmaker, isn’t a bosher either. Joe Marchant who probably sits somewhere between Joseph and Slade, Nick Tompkins and Sam James.
    So the answer is that I can only think of one like for like replacement in Teo and Daly

    1. Ollie Lawrence in the U20s has got a bit a heft about him. Although he seems to be playing 13 mostly. Also Fraser Dingwall at Saints looks pretty classy, and is a similar style to Daly/Joseph at 13.

  2. I was also thinking of Alex Lozowski as a replacement for Slade. He’s had a blip in form – and he didn’t do the best in the Japan game (where he played 12) but I think that was a result of the whole backline, not just him – but I still really rate him.

    Manu or Te’o at 12 and Slade, Lozowski or Daly at 13. And as you say Joseph I don’t think would upset the system too much fitting in at 13, although he won’t fizz passes about in the manner of Slade on Saturday. Still not the deepest reserve list, but in the past with Manu out, Te’o was the only ‘bosher’ we had available full stop (Jones’ brief recall Luther Burrell aside) .

    (Technically there is also Piers Francis but I wouldn’t consider him).

    1. Exactly right, Lozowski would fill Slade’s role very well. Twelvetrees is currently enjoying himself at 13 for Glos.

      Sam Hill’s maybe the next cab off the rank as a hard runner at 12, though it’s a fair drop down from Tuilagi/Te’o.

  3. Will the heavy metal approach work against France? They have a huge pack and Picamoles is almost impossible to stop dead. If we adopt this method the intensity will have to be even higher than last week if that’s possible.
    i think Eddie needs to be canny with his bench for this one. We are fitter than the French so a bench with nimbler,quicker reps could wreak havoc in the last twenty.#
    Re the centres, It’s the old, old story. As Pablito says, after Teo and possibly Marchant we are very thin on choices. What happened to Devoto?

    1. Good shout on Devoto. He has actually been playing pretty well for Exeter recently and was recalled for this 6N squad.

      Like your point about picking a quick and nimble bench – maybe Clifford or Shields in for Hughes?

      1. Are both fit?
        I would have either on the bench over Hughes – with a preference for Shields due to his lineout ability and because Clifford is on his way back after injury
        Both can cover 8 as well

      2. It’s a difficult call, unless Clifford is still in recovery but definitely either of those two or even Kvesic.

    2. Acee. Unlikely, away, that the French will compete for 80. Lost to Fiji & Wales after a 16 pt 1/2 time lead. Inexperienced midfield back line combo’s, some new fwds too. Don’t think you need fret too much. Only likely banana skin is English complacence.. if the voluminous bigging it up here is anything to go by. Never know until the day with the bounce of the ball, ref, etc, but I doubt whether God will be an Englishman on Sun.

    1. Lozowski is likely going to get less game time at Sarries with Daly moving there to play 13. He could do with moving elsewhere and settling on a position.

      1. I think if Daly moves to Sarries we will see Lozowski play more at 10, where he was first used as back up for Farrell. He has been played all across the back line this season from 10 to 15, and has done a good job in all.
        We may also see Daly at 15 for Sarries?

        Is Daly definitely on the move?

          1. Assuming Liam Williams stays fit, where does this leave EJ and Daly playing at 15? Surely he’ll be at 13 for Sarries?

            1. Listening to Andy Goode, who has some decent insight into the Wasps camp, Daly wants to play 13 (and be with his mate Jamie George).

              The last thing Sarries need is another 15. Not ideal from an England perspective as he could really do with playing there regularly, and dislodging Lozowski from that spot doesn’t help either, given that he’s a pretty close alternative to Slade.

              Maybe Sarries see Lozowski taking over from Barritt at 12 but the poor guy could really do with settling on a position.

    2. As i remember Devoto went to Portugal with the squad. Maybe EJ saw something about him that he didn’t like during the warm weather camp?

  4. If Manu, Teo Slade and Daly are not available the best 12 in the Premiership is still Brad Barritt, and either Marchant or Lozowski would be perfectly OK outside him. You have the added bonus that Barritt plays with Farrell and Lozowski every week so the combination would not need so much squad time to settle in. My greater concern would now be who plays 6 if Wilson is injured or 8 if Billy is out? Another problem for EJ is whether to bring Hartley and Robshaw back when they are fit. For me Hartley definitely not, Robshaw possibly because he has so much to prove after the last WC. We live in interesting times!

    1. I think Barritt is nearing the end of his career and not sure EJ will be giving him any more caps.

      Outside of Manu and T’eo we are struggling for boshers. Sam Hill is the only other player i can think of in a similar mould but is nowhere near that level.
      I do wonder if Cockansaiga could be converted to a 12?

        1. Outside of Tui and Teo we don’t have a realistic bosher 12 so we are back to a Ford/Farrell combo so lets hope they both remain fit

      1. For strong, direct running centres, there are numerous; Williams at Newcastle, Hurrell at Bristol, Clarke at Bath, Burrell, Atkinson at Gloucester, Devoto, and the guy at Worcester whose name escapes me.

        Probably more, and i’m not suggesting they should all be in the England squad, but they do exist.

        1. yes but of that list how many would make the grade at international level
          Burrell has had his chances i don’t think we will see him in white again soon
          Devoto is probably the next cab off the rank but is more of a hybrid 12 and doesn’t quite fit either style of play.

          1. Well probably all of them ahead of Cokanasiga as an International 12.

            The point is though, there is no-one quite like Tuilagi, not even Te’o, so as with every position they all bring something slightly different, and with the younger ones – who knows whether they suit the international game. We’ll never know until they get the opportunity.

            I would add also, that Burrell had a good couple of season for England, maybe two, although I wouldn’t suggest he is close right now.

      2. I concur Dazza, but for a short term fix to plug a gap after a spate of injuries one could do a lot worse. Don’t see Cockanasinga as converting to 12, particularly in the light of the limited time frame before the WC.

  5. HK. Did you mention yr ‘inkling’ BEFORE the match? Also, have you suddenly started listening to Steppenwolf music? Hutch mentions my tedium in bringing up the subject of the AB’s, but how many times do YOU for instance & YR lot bring their name up? Why, if they’re so tedious? BTW, it’s WR rankings, not IRB rankings. And despite what you state about rankings, do you suppose that these are accidental? If yr England were No. 1, I wonder, would you also be so dismissive of them? Unbluddylikely methinks! Despite yr initial gushingly over egging of England’s display (possession, territory, etc stats contradict this of course), @ least you had a scintilla of wisdom to state that they ain’t W beaters yet. Correct! And perhaps you’ve too had a day or so to reflect with a degree of objectivity on last Sat’s match? As already mentioned elsewhere, I expect England to now win the 6N, with a likely GS (along with everyone else?), but then I (along with..) thought Ireland would stick it to England too. Therefore we’ll see. No pressure then.

    1. Ha cheers Don. Think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick on the rugby ranking thing (although thank you for correcting me on the IRB/WR point) – was saying that some (not me) were calling Ireland the best team in the world, despite what the rankings say. And I happen to disagree. Still think the AB are the best, so no need to fret so. Re prediction, had England to win 16-13 via an Elliot Daly long range pen. So not quite accurate but the right sentiment. You’ve accused me of being blinkered about scorelines before (remember when I predicted the Lions would win a test against NZ?) so it shouldn’t surprise you I backed Eng to win!
      And yes, love a bit of Steppenwolf. Although surely you can see from the Slayer reference I prefer a bit of thrash.
      Keep up the good work

      1. Wilco HK. Not fretting over some empty vessels here. Think predictions are often too subjective up north. Reality sometimes has a diff take. Born to be Wild eh?

    2. DP, as an aside, it’s often commented that the ABs are often second best to their opposition in terms of stats, the difference being that when the ABs do get the ball, they will usually come away with points, such is their killer instinct and finishing ability in the red zone.

      This isn’t all the time of course and I’m not for an instant saying that England compare to the All Blacks, but in the Ire game (at least) when England did have the ball they looked deadly. The odd sprinkling of luck, of course, but England never looked like losing that game, even when reduced to 14 men.

      The stats can sometimes be deceiving is my point, I suppose.

      1. Mostly agree E Chaser. Stats CAN be deceiving, esp when cherry picked to suit a belief. They can also be informative. E.g. Ritchie Mc became less effective in terms of his carrying, turnovers etc stats as his career progressed & which concerned him. H’ever, this was because he became more heavily marked & which left more room for his team mates. No, England didn’t look like losing. BTW NZ’s ‘red zone’ is their own goal line. Well, it can be.

  6. Wilco HK. Not fretting over some empty vessels here. Think predictions are often too subjective up north. Reality sometimes has a diff take. Born to be Wild eh?

  7. Eddie ringing the changes again. Cole, Cokanasiga and Moon in the squad,Williams and Genge released! Interestingly, although it probably means nowt, Big Joe is in at Brown’s expense.
    Looks like Cole may start this one and Sincks will be coming off the bench. Not sure where Moon fits in. He’s a brilliant scrummager but hardly dynamic in the loose. It would be harsh on Mako if he’s benched but with Eddie the only thing we can be sure of is the unknown!

    1. Moon and Cole to soak up the pressure of that massive pack, using scrummaging nous to mitigate the weight. Mako and Sincks to come up when their legs are tired, maintain parity in the scrums, but then have the legs in loose play.

      That’d be my guess anyway.

      1. I can’t for the life of me see Mako being benched. More likely another 75 minute plus shift for him with Moon only coming on earlier if Mako’s being out-scrummed. Cole maybe to start for his scrummaging.

        Shields for the bench at most, I hope.

    1. I can just about see why he’s left Genge out but i would have thought Williams twenty and a half stone might come in handy against the even bigger French props.

  8. I think mako might be benched because he played too much and after that intensity it might be good to give hinca little rest and use him as finisher, with a good scrummer like moon starting.
    I also think you are giving way too much crédito to the french kgs. Modern rugby is more about being dynamic than heavy. Just look at france, they have been big for a long time (not as big as now though) and they still do shit. Nz fuck them with a normal (May be even a bit light) pack in 2015. All england Need is dynamism. The french lack legs and breakdown work, so if you move them trough the pítch you fuck their weaknesses twice.

    Pd: why is camile chat not playing? Such a good and modern hooker, Beast at bd, carrying, tackling and dinamyc.


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