After their four try 40-16 win over Australia, England can go into their World Cup semi-final with more than a little confidence. In a strong all-round performance that included a solid set-piece, stout defence and varied kicking strategy, England were comfortable winners over the 2015 finalists in the end. Although two tries also came from intercepts, this analysis will focus on the role of the screen play in the build-up to England’s first and third tries.
To start things off, what is a screen play and what does it look like? Lets watch the following clip from the 16th minute and see.
Originally a product of rugby league, the screen play involves one player running a flat ‘screen’ line beside the ball-carrier, while another runs a deeper support line behind them. In the example above, Ben Youngs is the ball-carrier with Henry Slade running the screen line and Owen Farrell running in support. The screen pass happens when the ball-carrier passes behind the screen runner to the support runner standing deep.
So why use the screen play? As we can see in the clip above, the screen play slows the defensive line from rushing up, narrows the defence and gives the deeper support runner more time to pass out wide.
Even thought the ensuing pass from Farrell isn’t the best here, the screen pass before it still affords winger Anthony Watson time to skirt the first tackle and make progress.
Now that we’ve established the basics of what a screen play looks like and why it is used, let’s take a look at the part it plays in the build-up to England’s first try.
Having won a lineout inside Australia’s half, England call a 5 man lineout. The reason for this is that, as we can see in the image below, it allows England to put two forwards in the backline and get into their screen structures quickly.
The two forwards in this instance are Billy Vunipola and Sam Underhill-circled in red. As Australia shoot up off the line here, it ostensibly looks like Jonny May-circled in yellow-is the deeper support option for the screen pass.
Rolling the play on, it’s actually Farrell who drops off into the support role. While England don’t use the screen pass here, the amount of disruption that it’s potential causes is palpable in the Australian defence; as can be seen below with Christian Lealiifano and Samu Kerevi sitting on their heels.
Having threatened Australia with the screen pass initially, England can now use it to it’s full effect in the next phase.
As we come to that next phase, now’s a good time to highlight the decision-making process behind the screen play.
In a screen play, there are two players who can decide whether to pass the ball to the screen or support runner. These are the ball carrier-circled in blue-and the support runner-circled in yellow.
Regardless of who makes the decision, the ‘cue’ for them to decide to pass to either the screen or the support is the body position of the second and third defenders in the line. If the defenders body is facing outwards; the red screen runner-Underhill in this case-is passed to. If the defenders body is facing inwards; the ball goes wide with the yellow support runner.
As we can see above, Farrell in the support role is looking at the two circled Australian defenders here and has assumed the decision-maker role. If we look at the body positions of the Australians above, take a guess at where the pass ends up going.
Although they are initially neutral, consecutive Australian defenders eventually face inwards, allowing England take advantage of the narrowing defence to go wide twice. This allows the the ball to get to Anthony Watson, who stagger-steps into the 22.
Watch the work of Henry Slade in the following phases as he offers himself as a screen play support option off the second and third ruck. This threat of the ball going wider twice stops the Australian defensive line from rushing up as one.
From the ensuing ruck ball, Farrell again has a screen play set with Elliot Daly in the deeper support role and Tom Curry running the screen line.
With the shoulders of Izack Rodda and Reece Hodge both facing the touchline in defence, it’s an easy decision for Farrell to hit Curry on the screen line and England convert the 4 vs. 2 in the corner for their first try.
After another quick-fire try from Jonny May and a series of Australian points to bring the scoreline back to 17-16, England find themselves back in the Australian half with another lineout in the 45th minute. Once more they call a 5-man lineout and throw to Courtney Lawes, moving the ball swiftly across the pitch to May again using simple hands.
Australia manage to slow the ball somewhat from here and set their defence, compelling England to go back to the screen play again, this time hitting Mako Vunipola as the ball-carrier.
Having forwards who can keep a straight running line while passing is invaluable in screen play situations and Vunipola shows his value in that regard here by fixing two defenders.
With all of the Australian defenders in the vicinity pointing their shoulders inwards, Farrell calls the ball to himself once more and hits Underhill running a line from the second wave of attack.
England are on the front foot now, giving Owen Farrell time and space to continue setting screen plays while checking and narrowing the Australian defence. Farrell again scans the shoulders of Kerevi and Genia quickly before releasing Daly on the deep support line.
As some eagle-eyed readers may remember, much like the previous time England made a half-break through Watson on the right wing, the English forwards again organise themselves into two pods of three for the following phases in the 22. This allows Farrell to scan the defence while still offering the threat of a screen pass.
With the second pod of forwards too flat initially, Mako Vunipola carries the ball once again into the Australian defenders. Having made a dent in the defensive line, Youngs recycles the ball again; giving England the opportunity to set another screen play and deliver the killer blow.
At this stage, it’s a game within a game for Farrell. With both Tolu Latu and Rory Arnold focusing on the English 10 and on their heels, there is an option to hit the double screen of Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, or Tuilagi in behind. With Sinckler running at pace and being ignored by the Wallaby defenders, Farrell makes the right decision with a beautiful pass to the tight-head for England’s third try.
With a myriad of powerful ball carriers in their team and play makers across the park, England have the attacking ability to keep any defence honest. While New Zealand’s experience will see them go into the semi-final as favourites, a little sleight of hand and a screen play might yet spring a surprise tomorrow.
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