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