Discussion in the rugby community has been focusing recently on England’s backs – particularly now that the headline-grabbing Danny Cipriani has been dropped to the Saxons – but it’s the eight men up front that need to front up in this year’s Six Nations.
England’s forwards have looked under-powered and toothless in recent outings in the white shirt, representing a significant shift away from previous dominance. Take England’s destruction in the scrum against Australia at Twickenham as all the evidence you need of their decline.
Before anyone can consider seeing backs like Riki Flutey, Paul Sackey and Delon Armitage – possibly even Andy Goode – in full flight, the pack must provide quick ball by clearing men out at the breakdown, committing to rucks and making sure that defenders cannot get their hands anywhere near to slow it down. The lumbering into contact that has been a feature of internationals for the last few years just doesn’t cut it at the highest level – they need to attack with pace and ruthlessness.
England’s pack should watch footage of Munster’s efforts in the Heineken Cup to remember how to exert control over a game whilst remembering to provide fast possession to the backs whenever appropriate. Paul O’Connell’s men concede so few turnovers that any team they play almost need to score every time they get the ball, since it happens so rarely. The back row is nearly always first to the breakdown rather than standing in the backs waiting to carry, and they clear defenders with a combination of expert technique and physical strength to ensure that the ball is protected and recycled quickly.
There are lessons to be learned, and Johnson may well have watched Munster’s fixtures and remembered that that is how the team used to play when he was a part of it – the England pack of 2003 was fitter, faster and stronger than teams they came up against and they rarely gave away possession cheaply. Forwards coach John Wells should be watching the same footage and coaching these techniques, because otherwise he isn’t doing his job.
Munster are also experts in defence, masters of the almost-forgotten skill of turning a man in the tackle, confident of support so that when the man is turned, possession is almost guaranteed. Richard Hill was a specialist in this technique that contributed to his belated accolade as the unsung hero, but the idea seems to have been lost somewhere in England’s past, as the preferred option now is to tackle and then fan out at the fringes of the breakdown.
The debut of Steffon Armitage could be the key to England’s performance. If he and James Haskell can secure quick possession at the breakdown in attack, and try to out-muscle the opposition in defence, Goode’s backline may just enjoy some possession. If Armitage ensures that any lingering defenders do not even get a sniff of a turnover by leading the charge into would-be snafflers, life will be far more comfortable than if they allow their opponents to get to every tackle believing they can steal the ball.
Every forward must focus on providing that quick ball, rather than standing out in the backs hoping to run with it. With quality possession, the backs will start on the front foot and they’ll suddenly have options in front of them, but if the likes of Lee Mears and Nick Kennedy spend the afternoon waiting for the ball, it will never come.
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