An audible gasp echoed around the British Isles as Finn Russell’s long floated pass flew past Joseph’s outstretched fingers; teasing the onrushing May before dipping delightfully short.
Huw Jones accelerated from deep; onto the ball, through the line, loose once again in the open space behind England’s aggressive press. Russell’s was the performance of a lifetime; that outrageous skill a defining moment. Russell did not so much as pass to his centre, rather see the space and deliver the ball as an invitation to attack it. For all that this was the playmaker at his brilliant best; The Calcutta Cup was won by Scotland’s evisceration of England at the breakdown.
England’s lack of accuracy and efficiency at the breakdown is nothing new. The casual Six Nations viewer is well acquainted with the subject as a Brian Moore weekly rant of choice. Though none have had Scotland’s ruthless domination. In recent years Wales, Ireland and Australia have profited in crucial matches. In each case, the headline may be taken by a Russell or Foley, but it is breakdown turnover after a penalty that halts all English momentum each time they look to build a foundation in the match.
Technically Scotland’s approach was sensational. Through extreme physicality Wales & Ireland have been able to smash England back on the gain line; choke tackles and contested rucks slowing the delivery of the ball. Runner after runner facing an organised defence, the English halted at the source. All momentum strangled. Scotland’s defence however often conceded the gain line, letting the carrier fall forward towards the waiting jackaller. If England’s support, hindered by the extra distance and time this afforded the opposition, managed to clear the second man, a third was floating to swoop down over the exposed ball with lightning anticipation.
A daring and dangerous tactic; if a team hit hard with the precision and accuracy to retain the ball over multiple phases, this willing concession of the gain line can cede with it the momentum a team needs to score. Against England, with their two-man prongs and complacency in the ruck, Scotland’s different defensive approach paid deeper dividends than ever before.
The perfect storm of an effervescent, underdog Scotland; unleashed in a cauldron of righteous indignation boiling forth from fans furious at the way their late Autumn heroes had been written off. A referee, one of the world’s best, a Pro14 referee who the players know well and who let the breakdown flow with almost open abandon. Scotland rode the wave of Owens’ interpretation, England washed away. It will not always be this way, indeed Barclay was penalised twice in Cardiff for the very third man jackals that so befuddled England.
England did fail to adjust. Again. Lacking intensity from the start, they failed to carry with the strength and leg drive to buy supporting players time. Offload, spread the ball quicker and remove the jackal-ling threat. Even after periods of more effective breakdown play, they were caught complacent thinking the ball secure and hit with a hard precise counter ruck. Outwitted and outfought in the very basics of the breakdown game.
England’s backrow woes
To the seemingly external questions of England’s missing “true” seven, backrow balance and the question of selection. Can we believe the breakdown woes and struggles of three coaching regimes for more than a decade have been through overlooking a generation of international class opensides, quietly plying their trade in the Aviva Premiership?
And so to the real underlying question: With England’s player resources, and strength in depth, why is this one position such a problem? Can we infer that the Aviva Premiership not only does not breed true sevens but true breakdown nous full stop?
Take Thomas Youngs, the outstanding seven in the English top flight. Physical and destructive in the tight, with the work rate, pace and ability to link play and threaten out wide. Fleet of foot, mind and hand (in the ruck). Thomas must be 6th choice for Wales. Josh Navidi has flourished in the Six Nations; tackles, turnovers, tenacious. James Davies could be truly exceptional and cannot even get a game.
The Irish back row depth has reached a level where the question is no longer about how rarely Sean O’Brian appears for his region Leinster. Not at all. The question is rather how rarely the regular starters feature for Ireland.
For many fans of English rugby, the warning signs have been visible for a while. Aside from the international game; the commercial focus, fear of loss and relegation driven nature of the Aviva Premiership has led to an environment where teams back-off from competing at the breakdown. Fanning out in defence. A desire to comply with the recent law changes at the beginning of the 2017/18 season led to a ridiculous overreaction. Almost no rucks were contested, possession retained, record ball-in-play times recorded. Phase after phases of high-intensity quick ball rugby with willing attackers thrown into packed 14 man defences. (The potential link to the injury crisis to sweep the teams this season a further concern).
This folly was exposed in the Autumn International’s, where Aviva Premiership fans looked on in wonder as the Southern Nations and Celtic Unions pilfered and fought at the breakdown. Playing as if the rule changes had required just the minor technical adjustments they truly did.
European Champions Cup rugby delivered what should have been the ultimate wake-up call to the players, league and union.
Nature of nurture
Nature or nurture. Has the more risk-adverse nature of a competitive promotion/relegation based league, and a commercially driven backlash from the defence favouring Experimental Law Variation era, meant teams began to compete less at the breakdown and the officials interpretations have evolved as such? Or are our officials overly zealous with teams and players have grown less competitive in that area as a result? Watching Wayne Barnes at the top level I tend toward the former, but in an enclosed co-dependent ecosystem like the Aviva Premiership, where teams play and even train with the English referees, exposure to differing interpretation only comes too late in top-level European and international rugby.
Looking at the European Champions Cup results this season, with their own success in mind, you would hope the RFU, Premiership Rugby and the referees would get together and reinforce a looser, more competitive interpretation of the breakdowns laws for Aviva Premiership games. However, if this is believed to be a systemic issue, then that change will take time to filter through. In the immediacy, England have a flaw to address. Particularly if they want to continue on their stated goal to be the number one team in the world.
A generation of England forwards has been produced who are great athletes, work hard, can tackle, pass, carry to an extent, but lack the necessary dog and fight in the breakdown. The quick minds, street smarts and ruthless reactions of the “true” flanker. We have the much lauded 5.5’s; locks who have played 6 at times, who have the work rate, athleticism and impact in the tackle & lineout, but who in triumvirate were exposed on the ground by Scotland’s backrow, ably supported by the excellent McInally, and looked clumsy by comparison.
Robshaw led a valiant charge, pilfering one or two of his own, but still lacks the pace, acceleration and flexibility both in getting to the breakdown. And in that instinctive, reactive pouncing on the ball. An outstanding continuity player, relentless worker but generally undefined 6.5 flanker, the lack of a point of difference and that inherent English breakdown approach, means he may make the backrow impossible to balance with a big carrier at 8. And Robshaw reflects a generation of the 6.5’s: Haskell, Wood et al.
For the “true” sevens, you just have to look back through the newspaper articles for the next big answer to England breakdown woes. Rees, Walters, Sam Jones; careers halted all too early by injury. Kvesic, Andy Saull, and a few others who appeared to have it all. They flattered to deceive in the U20’s then failed to push on in the senior game. Often becoming too lightweight and liable to bad decision making, giving away penalties in the big games.
How much can this be attributed to the style of play and officiating in the Aviva Premiership failing to provide the furiously competitive breakdown nursery required for a flanker, or any forward, to learn those street smarts? Teams are more willing to take a risk in the Pro14, with no spectre of relegation allowing struggling sides to pack teams with youth and develop styles for the seasons ahead with no fear of the sky falling in on them even if they lose every game. If they get hammered in the breakdown one week you can back the players to get it right without overreacting if it costs you a loss.
It’s notable the impact Underhill had in the breakdown, quickly winning a penalty and reacting with ferocity in his clear outs. Unluckily with the yellow card, the correct decision but a result of the nature of the two-man tackle rather than malice. Underhill, lest we forget, made his breakthrough in the Pro14.
England will talk of learning lessons. They will review the footage, no doubt contest Owens’ interpretation somewhat, and talk about leadership within the group. Adjusting to the game unravelling in front of them. But how do you address a systemic problem in your entire technical approach to such a vital area of the game? Jones has shown the ability to coach and improve individual players. However, the size of the challenge is imparting that change when the players then go back to the clubs and to the style of breakdown play and officiating causing the issue.
And what of backrow selection. England’s lightweight backline requires a big carrying pack. Billy Vunipola or Nathan Hughes at 8. Then through their size, the lineout requires a frontline jumper, and so far that’s been Lawes because of the carrying element he has added to his game. Lawes, however, is a world-class lock and not a true flanker.
Underhill has to be pushing for a start, but loading up with Robshaw on the other flank leaves England exposed to the multiple options in the tall French and Irish lineouts.
There will be many calls for Don Armand, as there have been all season. Exeter play a tightly controlled possession style, and Armond does not have to roam in the way England will need, neither does he have that fleetness of foot or mind to confront international flankers.
Injuries have meant a constant rotation of England’s backrow, with Robshaw and Haskell’s haul of caps testament to their impressive fitness records as competing players fall by the wayside. Curry made an impact but has been injured since; Underhill missed the Autumn Internationals with a concussion. Vunipola and Hughes alternate bursts of fitness, and Simmonds tore into the picture before he too was struck down.
Jones does not always have the advantage of strength in depth that it appears. Whilst Gatland and Schmidt decide which outstanding backrow talents not to pick. And injuries to Warburton and Sean O’Brien throw up Navidi and Leavy. Moving Robshaw back to blindside and one of Underhill or Haskell coming in at openside is not an awe-inspiring selection debate for the fan. It is also unlikely to solve England’s breakdown woes in the long term.
Author: Josh Ashbee
A classic armchair fan and backseat commentator.