While Wales’ win in Dublin on the weekend may have George Smith feeling a bit nervous about his pool predictions, after watching the replay of France’s victory over England, I can’t help but think he is right about the host nation.
England didn’t look like threatening until the 70th minute, with glaring discrepancies in areas that have previously been strengths – the scrum, lineout and defence.
However, the areas that most worried me were the smaller, subtle tactical and technical moments where England tried to gain advantage through plays that focussed on tricking the French or deceiving the referee, rather than overpowering or outsmarting their opposition.
The five tactics that concerned me
Deliberately stepping back on the tight-head side to screw the scrum
- Double fake movements in the lineouts
- Stepping through and trying to kick the ball at the breakdown
- Rolling towards the opposition halfback to leave the defensive ruck
- Targeting retreating players on counter attack
The reason these worry me is because they indicate a coaching or playing mindset that believes these plays are necessary to win.
In isolation I can appreciate that one or two may be used to test the laws or gain a small advantage – remember how the All Blacks interfered with Nick Phipps in Sydney?
However when you see this many examples in one game, it suggests a game-plan that is focused on preventing the opposition from playing their game, or relying on trick plays to gain possession or break the line.
One of the resounding mantras of Michael Cheika’s return to Australia has been “we just focus on playing our game”.
While this may seem an oversimplification, what it says loud and clear is that the Wallabies think if they play to their ability, they are capable of beating any opposition.
It allows consistency of game plans, repetition in training, clear understanding of roles, and belief throughout a squad that the plan will work.
When a team starts relying on tactics that focus on the opposition, regardless of how you dress it up, you are subconsciously telling yourself and the other team that you don’t think you can beat them in a fair fight.
Furthermore, it distracts attention from the fundamentals of team and individual play and places unnecessary pressure on execution.
Take the following results as examples:
One: Dan Cole’s stepping back to try and advance his loose-head requires the lock, flanker and eight behind him to readjust their feet, body height and direction under
pressure from a very capable French scrum.
In the meantime, you destabilise the scrum and bring the referee in to play.
Result: penalty to France.
Two: Three-movement lineouts assume that the opposition are going to read it wrong not once, but twice, all the while giving them more time to work out what you are trying to do. Multiple movements not only put pressure on the defence, they put pressure on your own jumpers and lifters, and make timing the throw extremely difficult.
Result: a disorganised lineout that lost five throws on my count.
Three: Both backs and forwards tried to step through and kick the French ball at the ruck on multiple occasions. If you are already in the ruck and can’t do much else it’s a great tactic.
But I saw players arriving third or fourth person to a defensive ruck and enter to attempt this disruption. The defenders could have been much more effectively used filling holes in the defensive line and allowing England greater line-speed to pressure the French attack.
Result: no significant disruption to French ball, and a disorganised ruck defence that led to poor line-speed from the English defence and French field position.
Four: Rolling towards the French side of the ruck may be a good tactics for wily players like Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper, but James Haskell, Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole are not small men, nor do they roll easily.
What followed was increased scrutiny by the referee and penalties against the English for this tactic, and for not supporting their weight in the contest.
Result: a 15–6 halftime lead off the back of Freddy Michalak’s boot.
Five: The last tactic, running back at your own player who is retreating in between opposition defensive players, is a well-used trick. I only mention it because it was executed poorly and by this stage I was looking for issues. Plus it was indicative of an English attack that was unimaginative prior to the now-excluded Danny Cipriani coming on to the field.
For all the hard-earned advances in the northern hemisphere’s use of the ball and running rugby, this tactic was a reversion to the ‘head down, bum up, charge at the line’ thinking of old. The only problem was that Mike Brown ran in to his own player.
Result: accidental offside and turnover.
In comparison, the English team that so deservedly won the 2003 Rugby World Cup knew what they were good at, and were excellent at focusing on themselves, almost daring the opposition to stop them if they could.
They were good at kicking and field position, which they used to show their strength at the scrum and in the lineout maul. They were good at defending, and after they had tackled you they were good at contesting the ball – legally.
They understood their game plan, knew their roles, and had belief that if they kept playing to the best of their ability the opportunities would come… Right down to an extra-time drop goal.
In a pool that has three teams that are attacking in nature (Australia, Fiji and Wales), focussing on the opposition and trying not to lose may backfire, and trick the players and fans into self-doubt and hesitation.
Any hint of weakness is sure to be exacerbated by the pressure of being the host nation, and may well serve up a feast for try-hungry Fijians in Game 1.
Even if the smiling assassins can’t get the job done, there may be enough blood in the water to spell disaster for England.
- Greg Mumm, Roar