How a little attention to detail is refining England’s attack ahead of the World Cup

After taking a while to get going against a stubborn Italian defence last Friday, England ran out comfortable 37-0 winners in their final warm-up game before heading to the World Cup. With three wins from four games in the warm-ups and England averaging 35.2 points scored per test in 2019, Eddie Jones will have every right to be pleased with his team’s attacking efforts approaching the tournament. This article will take a quick look how England’s attack fared against Italy and specifically the build-up leading to the last try scored by Anthony Watson.

To fully appreciate Watson’s try, we first need to go back to the 62nd minute of the game with England 23-0 up. Despite having 94% of the possession in the previous 10 minutes, England had not quite managed to get into an attacking rhythm at this stage of the game and were struggling to keep the ball for more than 4 rucks.

After a strong lineout and three decent carries from Owen Farrell, Charlie Ewels and Joe Marchant, England look to work the ball back into the midfield and split the Italy defence. As the image above shows, with Matt Kvesic securing the ruck, Willi Heinz plays a long pass behind a pod of three England forwards to George Ford-circled.

To explain why England are doing this; teams are generally at their strongest defensively in the position shown below. With the ruck near the side line, it’s easier for Italy to rush up as a cohesive defensive line and stop the attack behind the gain line. The idea behind decoy lines like the England forwards are running is to both stop a full Italian defensive line rushing up and give George Ford more time to pass the ball into midfield. We can see this in practice in the clip below.

Once England are in the centre of the pitch, Italy then have to split their defensive line and can’t rush up as cohesively on the next phase.

As a side note, it’s worth pointing out the work of England’s Ellis Genge here-no.17 and circled in the image below-after the pass as part of the group of three forwards running decoy lines.

By continuing his running line and getting a shoulder on the Italian defender, Genge delays the Italian defence from getting to the far side of the pitch where England are looking to attack. It might seem like a small detail but that one-second delay can have a big impact as we will see later.

Moving the game on a few seconds, England see the benefit of the decoy runners work as Luke Cowan-Dickie receives the ball at pace and manages to earn a 5th phase, get over the gain line and set up a midfield ruck just inside the Italy 22.

Mark Wilson in the 7 jersey has run another decoy line to sit down the defence and England now have Ford-circled-running at Italy’s Maxime Mbanda with an overlap of 5 English attackers against 3 Italy defenders outside him. Have a look at the following clip and see what happens next.

Despite having a clear numerical advantage, England get their running lines muddled and Farrell’s disguised pop pass to Anthony Watson is well read by the Italian defence.

Let’s take a look back at that play in the image above and see what might have gone wrong. While you could argue that Owen Farrell may have played the pass earlier to Courtney Lawes instead, Lawes is a little too flat and Italy’s Edoardo Padovani-circled in blue-does a good job of getting in Farrell’s eyeline and making the pass too risky. As a result, Lawes and Tom Curry-circled in yellow-find themselves in a position where they are neither an attacking option for Farrell to pass to, or a threat to distract Padovani, and the chance is wasted.

11 minutes later, England find themselves in a similar attacking position again.

Heinz plays the ball to Ford and again Ford has a midfield pod of three forwards set up outside him to split the Italian defensive line. As we bring the game forward a few seconds, the work of England’s Kyle Sinckler here is notably excellent.

By popping a short pass off to Lawes, Sinckler stops Italy from making the big hit in midfield, guarantees a quick next ruck and allows the next wave of English attackers to run onto the ball.

With another midfield ruck now set up, England reach the 5th phase of attack and look to go left again. Although they don’t have the same numerical advantage as before, England are far more accurate this time.

That pass from Farrell to Watson looks quite familiar, doesn’t it? Rather than sitting back as the two forwards did in the previous example we’ve highlighted, Genge and Curry this time run decoy lines ahead of Farrell and fix the Italian defence.

Crucially, both Curry and Genge-as he did 11 minutes previous on the other side of the pitch-also get a block on the Italian defenders to open up the half gap for Watson to scythe through and score.

Although they were only 9-0 up against Italy at half-time and making hard work of it, England still showed glimpses of the attacking ability that has them scoring more points than any team in international rugby this year. An array of attacking threats, an ability to problem-solve on the run and a little attention to detail will make England a serious threat to any defence at this year’s World Cup.

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