As of October 2017, nearly two years into Eddie Jones’ reign at Twickenham, England do not have an attack coach.
We have: a dedicated defence coach Paul Gustard, forwards coach Steve Borthwick, scrum coach Paul Hatley, a key man Dean Benton as strength and conditioning coach and consultants such as Jonny Wilkinson and the sensational Will Greenwood.
Jason Ryles of the Melbourne Storm has come in as a guest defence coach for England, and we even have an eye training specialist in Sherylle Calder, who was part of both the 2003 and 2007 WC wins. Yet for all the people that have been brought in, one role remains glaringly vacant. That of the attack coach.
Another Australian in the mix?
Glen Ella has been brought into the England set-up on more than one occasion to assist Jones, but the RFU don’t want an Australian attack coach, they want an Englishman. Ali Hepher of the Exeter Chiefs is being considered by them, yet not by Jones.
Personally, from my perspective, Ella loves coaching England. We saw his reactions to England’s victories in 2016 against Australia and Argentina in 2017. His enthusiasm and mania at England snatching the games from the fire was as passionate and excited as any Englishman I know, and he wants to come over to do it. He is hugely experienced and knows exactly what skillsets Jones values in his team.
He’s the closest we could get to a Wayne Smith, a “Professor” of our own who would be invaluable in the England think tank.
Yet we don’t have him. So Jones coaches the attack himself, not trusting anyone else bar his childhood friend to take the reins.
The England attack is unique. It does not follow any standard system of attack used by other international teams. At least from what I can see. It does not follow a 1-3-3-1 or a 2-4-2. It is largely derived from the Japanese game plan, with many patterns of play being similar if not identical to the Japanese team under Jones. However, a key is the greater emphasis being placed on power and physicality, probably due to the player size that we are able to bring.
This game is geared towards utilising the distribution skills of both George Ford and Owen Farrell, with particular emphasis on the backline’s alignment off Ford and flat passes on the gain line to the forwards. This deception is paired with the extreme physicality from the England pack, and the fitness of the England forwards.
The series of articles
This will be my longest article by a country mile; almost certainly too long to take it all in in one reading. Those of you who have read my prior articles on this site will know that means it’s long! But, I pride myself on detailed work, and there are multiple patterns and plays which we are going to discuss. As well as discussing them I will show specific examples.
There are key ingredients that are needed for the article to work, just like there are key ingredients for the game plan to work. Therefore, to make this understandable and most importantly, enjoyable I’m going to break England’s structures and patterns into a series of articles. This series will best allow us to understand what the structures used by Eddie Jones are, what dynamics are needed for them to work, and what players need to do in order for it to be effective.
- The “Two Prong Pattern”: Derivations and Objectives – Vol 1
- The Switchback Pattern and Objectives – Vol 1
- Importance of the 10-12 Axis to England – Vol 2
- The Importance of Multiple Options within the Structure – Vol 3
- Fitness of the England Forwards – Vol 4
- Summary of the England Attack and Kicking Strategies – Vol 5
So, let’s get started…
The “Two Prong Pattern”: Derivations and Objectives
England don’t play to go around teams. They have the players to do it, but English Rugby is and always was meant to be physical, uncompromising and hard-hitting. We have fast wingers who can utilise space, and we have patterns in play to do so. However, we also have the forwards to go through teams.
Players like Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Jamie George, Tommy Taylor, Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge are key to this. Not only are all of these players extremely powerful, they are also very fast. Half of those players are arguably players that are on the bench and can be brought on against tiring legs. Hence, we want to use them in a specific type of way. It is a point of difference, and one advantage we have against many other teams in International Rugby.
However, Jones has also picked very mobile forwards as well. This is highlighted in the locks, with Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes being some of the most physical, and yet mobile forwards in the northern hemisphere. This is key, as whilst England have their patterns, it demands a high level of fitness from the forwards to switch between and operate them.
Two Prong pattern
The patterns that England have been using alternate. Most of the time in this pattern there is a forward out on either side of the wing like in a 1-3-3-1, but England performs it more along the lines of a 1-2-2-1 which I have christened the “Two Prong” pattern.
This involves one forward out on each wing. Usually, Itoje and Jamie George by my reckoning due to their speed. There are also two two-man pods (or prongs) split near the 20-metre lines or on one side of the field, depending on how the backline is aligned.
As for the last two forwards, they’re near nomadic. Not only do they provide extra support for the ruck if needed, they can operate in support of the 9 or 10. You often see them coming in as inside runners to the 10. I believe this is a structural pattern, as it happens too often not to be. Alternatively, they move around from the blind to open, offering themselves as hard runners on the fringes of the ruck.
As for the last two forwards, they’re near nomadic
This 1-2-2-1 pattern, however, whilst the default, is not necessarily always used. Sometimes, all forwards move to one side of the pitch to secure the ball and play tight. This leaves only backline players on 3/4 of the pitch. Other times, there have been instances of 2-2-2-2, which could be Eddie Jones prematurely adapting to the new ruck laws, which allow far more leniency to the attacking side. This is why this pattern is currently so unique.
England forwards, aside from the two prongs, seem to have great autonomy in their phase play. As such, they have to be fit.
In the above example, we can see Ben Youngs passing to the first prong.
The first prong’s job is to hold the line speed out wide prior to the next phase. The first prong, comprised of Launchbury and Itoje, are running hard onto the ball, working as a unit to drive over the gain line. George Ford is running behind them as a decoy receiver, which keeps the defence on the outside wary. And even more so though you can’t see it, Haskell and Lawes are moving forward into a flatter position as well, keeping the defence interested. This is important, as what they are trying to present here, are multiple options.
This is the second prong at work. The first prong has taken the ball into contact, the ruck has been cleared out by the nomads, and Ford has jumped in as the first receiver. His sole job is to pass to Lawes, who is a powerful runner in his own right.
Ford stepping in as first receiver here is important. This allows the second prong to stand a greater distance away than it would do if it was run off 9. We will explain why below.
The second prong follows the first prong in terms of their attack, running onto the ball, working as a unit to get over the advantage line, ruck and retain the ball. However, the objective is a different matter.
The second prong cuts an inside line generally, and this is because the second prong hits the line at a wider position. Therefore it is able to fulfill its main target point, which is the edge of the defensive line as is seen below.
Ford as first receiver
The edge of the defensive line is key, as is Ford acting as first receiver on this phase. It allows the ball to be stretched out quicker.
We will explain why this is so important later on, but it also stops the defensive fulcrum rushing up on them. We will see an alternative of this later, but with Ford, we are working towards the blindside with quick ball and therefore cutting out defenders with long passes. This allows for for us to go across the field faster than they can number.
Analysis of what has been created
What we can see here is the result of the prior phases. The ball has moved across the field quickly and the forwards have been able to provide quick ball. Youngs has fired a long, flat pass to Ford. The men outside him have kept their width and flatness off 10, and Ford himself is stood flat at the line. Look closely, this allows him to hold the inside shoulder of Cuthbert.
On top of that, Brown has run a hard inside line off Ford, which has held part of the inside defence, and as such has not allowed them to drift across. Again, this is the effect of multiple options. Ford takes the ball flat to the line, giving the pass to Jamie George, the 1 in the 1-2-2-1 system. With the space created on the inside by the combo of the two prongs, quick ball and flat alignment, George makes an inroad halfway into the 22.
This was not done with any fancy decoy moves or offloading in the tackle to generate space. This was done with three phases across the pitch, accurate distribution, quick ball, and good lines run by multiple players offering themselves as an option. Again, this attests to the fitness of the England forwards, and the effect of good basics. Something all coaches can learn from.
Purpose of this movement
As can be seen in this example, the objective of the shape is to constrict the defence between the two 20-metre lines. It also cuts down line speed of the defence and allows England space and time to use their wide men.
This is not simply a one-way pattern. If the ball is taken into contact by the second prong and there is no space out wide, Ford can act as a first receiver. A first receiver that reverses the direction of play, targeting the first prong of Launchbury and Itoje from the prior phase. Again, options aplenty is the key.
However, as shown below, it is not always designed to constrict the opposition in the middle of the field, but on one side as well.
Back the other way
This ruck is the result of the Jamie George inroad, mentioned above. As you can see, one prong is already running hard approximately 5 metres from the ruck. Whilst out wide you can see Owen Farrell, in the absence of George Ford, organising the next prong. They have stressed the defence so much that they have not had a challenge on their ruck ball, even with backs only in the ruck. As such, the defence is still realigning as the prong is charging in.
One phase later, you see the wide shot below. Haskell and Marler are the second prong, and out wide Owen Farrell is preparing a wide play. In this case, the wide play happens as there are players out on the wing (out of shot).
However, if you watch this move, and I thoroughly recommend you do, you will see there are better decisions that could be made.
Better decision making needed
England have slipped into a 2-2-2-1. The first prong has just hit in the prior phase and there are two other prongs setup. Haskell and Marler form one, and Cole and Launchbury form the other.
Youngs has passed directly to Haskell, but he shouldn’t have. The first receiver on this phase should’ve been Owen Farrell using Haskell/Marler as decoy runners. He could, with his distribution, run the ball to the line, allowing time for Launchbury and Cole, as the second prong, to take the ball flat. This is because Launchbury and Coles are far closer to the edge of the defensive line and therefore hold the drift.
If this prong finds contact and England generate quick ball, the defence hasn’t had time to number up out wide. It’s a standard pass to the blind, and they’re already past the umbrella defensive fulcrum of the edge of the line. Not only that, but out of shot, there are three rapid players in Joseph, Nowell and Itoje.
These players are looking at a gapingly empty wing and could be in a 3 on 1 position.
Instead, Haskell takes the ball to contact and they attempt to go wide. But due to the contact being far from the edge of the defensive line, and the second prong of Marler and Haskell not getting much gain line advantage, the Welsh have more time to rush up and cut off the wing.
This is an example of trying to constrict the defence on one side but it wasn’t as effective as other occasions.
The designed targeting of the edge of the line is shown better in the following example.
Here we have a similar situation. We have Brown on the inside of the first prong, and the prong running hard straight lines to hold the line speed.
The prong goes to contact, Youngs manages to get quick ball and fires a pass off to George Ford (red), who is standing very flat. This occupies the defence and stops them from drifting. And as another option, you see Brown (in front of Hartley) on his inside shoulder.
Ford fires his miss pass late, very late, and hits Clifford in the second prong (yellow). Clifford, with Lawes, is running hard, targeting the edge of the defensive line and preventing the line shooting up. The astute ones among you will also see Farrell (red) behind Clifford, and outside him out of sight, two of England’s fast men in Joseph and Daly.
The pass finding Clifford here is essential, and a testament to the passing skills needed for this to work. Clifford can offer up Lawes as an inside option, and the one thing that checks a defence drift better than a screen pass is an inside ball.
He goes to make an inside pass to hold the defence and instead pops a loop pass to Farrell. As the pass is made so late, Clifford and Lawes can (subtly) act as blockers for the drift defence. This leaves Farrell who then, has two fast men on his outside, and one man to draw.
Unfortunately, his pass is not a good one and stymies a bit of momentum. However, if it goes to hand cleanly, Joseph/Farrell can draw Cuthbert leaving Daly on his wing. It’s a run in try as the second prong usually commits the sweeper behind due to the hard running nature of it.
As can be seen here, we have the same basic pattern. I’m going to speed up a little here, as I feel you may be getting it.
As we see above, the ball goes to the first prong who go to contact. Watch and see the nomads on the inside who are running to try and form the ruck. Quick ball is generated, and Youngs fires the ball out to Ford.
Ford steps in as the first receiver, whilst the second prong, again, target the edge of the defensive line. You can see Cuthbert shooting up in anticipation.
Ford fires the pass to Farrell who then fires a pass to Jamie George, again the 1 pod in the system. George takes the ball from the 22 to the 5 metre line. This is all created by the work of the inside men. This includes Launchbury (yellow/red dot) who is making a bit of an obstacle of himself to the drift. Again, simple rugby, performed to a high level.
This pattern isn’t always performed this way. Either prong can act as a screen or one can run a loop play to go wide-wide. Sometimes the forwards within a prong will do an interplay and act as first receiver. There are many variations. But this structure is one that England use often, and is quite prevalent in their multiple phase play.
The Switchback Pattern and Objectives
Another pattern in phase play they use directly correlates with the two prong attack. And it is entirely dependent on the two playmaker strategy and namely, George Ford.
As I mentioned in this article, George Ford is one of the flattest playing players in World Rugby. His instinct for it is arguably the best in the world, and his vision at the line is what makes him essential in this pattern.
I like to call it the Switchback Pattern. It’s a way of initiating a scramble defence to constrict defenders in a place on the field. You can then exploit the space created with maximum efficiency.
Two phases to the open
Once England have moved the ball wide, they often play two phases to the open. These phases are used to realign and prepare the next process of the attack. Ford is the playmaker who directs this.
Ford is usually close to the wing after the ball goes wide, indicating where the first prong, as we can see in the above images, will hit. This is usually within 5 – 10 metres of the ruck as previously described. He will then direct the second pod of forwards another 5-10 metres out. So for the second prong, they are hitting the line anywhere from the 20-30 metre area. The principle is to constrict defenders from both the short and openside to this area.
Usually, opposition teams know that England’s runners are coming in at these lines. Because they are heavy runners, numbers have been known to move over from the blind side to the open side prematurely after the first phase towards the open. This helps them to prepare for the second prong, comprised of Haskell and Itoje, hitting at the 15-20 metre mark as we can see here.
Depending on the defence, Ben Youngs could move the ball to the 15-20 metre set of forwards on the first phase. If he does, numbers must move across to cover both options, which is where having a dual playmaker axis is so effective.
Result of two phases
The result of these two phases is that Ford has a 15-20 metre blind and 45-50 metre openside to work with. Ideally, defenders are constricted in the 10-30 metre channel from the touchline. Ford is able to move around on a switch from Youngs to the blind, and with a heavy runner (usually Vunipola) and wing, is able to make metres.
This is done by exploiting the lack of numbers caused by moving over to the open in preparation for England’s hard runners on second phase.
Why Ford runs it
This pattern is arguably the flattest England play, due to the limited space on the blind (10-15 metres). It is also why Ford usually runs it, as he is more comfortable playing flat than Farrell.
The players who are running this shortside are usually Ford (to take the ball flat), Vunipola, and one of England’s wings. In this example, Ford passes to Vunipola, who makes metres.
We can see here Farrell organising the second prong. Yet, instinct takes over. Danny Care pops to Watson on the blind wing, who manages to get around Trimble. He then takes the ball to the 5 metre line. This leads to the constricted number of defenders in the 10-30 metre channel going into scramble mode to cover the shortside as all players are dangerous in their own right. This allows them not only to make metres up the shortside via their own abilities, but creates space on the openside of the 20 metre line.
As seen above, the ball is popped to Robshaw and Vunipola as the first prong. Itoje then goes into support as, at this point, it is essential that England get the ball back quickly. Cole and Haskell are lining up for the second prong. After the first phase prong has gone down they can target outside the 30 metre line where the defence is missing due to the previous scramble.
This is however, where the twin playmaker strategy really comes into play.
Ford works the blindside of the Switchback Pattern due to his instinct at playing flat. What we mustn’t forget, however, is that once this is done, they have caused a huge number of players to scramble over from the openside. Ford may be at the bottom of the ruck and therefore not available to organise the openside play, which is especially potent now due to the scramble.
This may lead to white line fever. An example of this could be a pop pass prong, directly into space in the 0-30 metre channel. The channel is the most defensively congested area of the field. This will lose England time, and allow the defence to start organising and numbering up on the openside.
With Farrell, we have the distribution to go wide immediately before the first prong is even run, should we wish. This distribution ability allows us to exploit the space quicker. In this case, the first prong is run, and Ford calls for the ball.
You can see here that the Irish are prepared for the second prong. Not only that, but their prior scramble has placed 14 of their players on one side of the goalposts. England, in contrast, have held their width. With this width, they have created a gargantuan overlap, and have two excellent passers in the backline currently lined up.
The rest is history.
As we can see, this pattern is meant to drag defenders over to one side of the ruck in anticipation for our heavy runners. Then, using skill and speed, exploit the space vacated by said defenders. This prompts an even greater scramble of players into the target area.
But once this is done, we still have a playmaker who is often able to make the right decision. The right decision being to attack the space that will give us the best chances of scoring.
What is key to making this whole pattern work?
It’s the 10-12 axis. The Twin Playmaker axis is imperative for this to work. This brings us very nicely to my next article which will be out (Friday 26th January).
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Coach and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.