England have recently employed a 1-2-2-2 +1 system. This is only a little less complicated than it sounds.
A series of articles by Conor Wilson, here, explain the concept in much more detail than I will go into. Essentially the diagram shows three pods of 2 forwards. There is also a wide forward on the open side and another with a free role.
The idea was to use superior fitness to get in position before the defenders, in a similar way to Warrenball, explained here. England hoped to create lots of fast 2 man rucks that would pull defenders out of position and allow England to gain momentum. Then the George Ford – Owen Farrell axis would be able to put someone through a hole.
Scotland and France put a stop to this system. 2 man rucks were targeted using tactics English referees had penalised all season. England were unprepared and their attacks were robbed of momentum. From the wreckage, I think a new system has emerged.
The new system (3-1-2)
The diagram shows what I believe England are now trying to achieve.
A conventional 3 pod and a wider 2 pod are both supported by an extra forward between them. This extra forward is also able to carry and be supported in turn by players from both pods.
Rucks are 3 or 4 man affairs under this system, which now means England are able to retain their own ball and recycle faster. 3-1-2 has also coincided with a number of changes to the way the backs are arranged.
I believe Elliot Daly’s switch to fullback is an attempt to introduce a third, wider playmaker coming into the line from deep. He often starts directly behind Henry Slade and floats outside him. Slade either runs back against the drift or holds his line. This means defenders don’t know whether Daly is making an extra man or replacing the 13 in the line. As a 13 himself by preference, Daly is a good choice for this type of fullback role.
The 3-1-2 also replaces the free role forward with the blind side winger. The wide forward is removed entirely. Instead of the extra physicality that the wide forward provided, England are using Henry Slade’s excellent handling skills to threaten defenders and hold the drift. I do believe Eddie Jones would prefer a big physical 13 in this role, however it has worked with Slade during the tour.
The picture shows this system in action early in the second test against South Africa. Billy Vunipola can support either pod. He can also take the ball and be supported in turn. England decide to go wide on this occasion and almost set Elliot Daly free.
Wasps might have inspired this new system.
As the diagram shows, Wasps have a 3 pod and a 2 pod. The fullback comes into the line to attack the defending 13 channel. The Wasps 13 either cuts back on a crash ball line or slows up, holds his line and allows Le Roux to float outside him.
Wasps very often use their 12, usually Jimmy Gopperth or Kyle Eastmond, as the inside man on the 2-pod. The 12 often gets the ball directly from the base of the ruck. At 10, Danny Cipriani loops behind and gets a pullback from the 12.
The picture shows several parts of the structure. This is from a scrum rather than open play, so the forwards are out of the way and it is easier to see. Cipriani loops around his centres, who have formed a 2-pod and are cutting back inside. Cipriani takes a pull back from the 12, Kyle Eastmond. He then hits fullback Willie Le Roux coming into the line in the 13 channel.
England used the Wasps shape to release Mike Brown in the third test. Danny Cipriani loops behind Owen Farrell, while another Wasps player, Nathan Hughes, attracts the defender on the edge. Siya Kolisi is often that man for South Africa and is again here. Kolisi has to cover Hughes, leaving Cipriani to force Sbu Nkosi to step in and cover him. Cipriani times his pass and releases Elliot Daly, coming up from 15 to attack the defending 13 channel.
In this picture from early in test 2 we see a 3-0-2 attack setup from England. As the structure is new, England are still making errors with it. The lone forward is missing and Elliot Daly is not in position to join the line. I will try to explain how this half-formed structure affected George Ford’s decision making.
In the middle of the 3-pod, Mako Vunipola (1) has the option of a tip on to his brother Billy, or a pullback to George Ford (10). If Ford receives the ball there is a 2-pod with Owen Farrell behind them waiting for a second pullback.
Ford directs Vunipola to take contact. This is for a number of reasons:
- Siya Kolisi (circled) is trying to keep the link between the rushing narrow defence and the outside backs. This is a potential weak point. However, there is a missing player, X, circled in red. Without the lone forward as support, the 2-pod could become exposed and get turned over. Ford chooses not to take the risk.
- Jonny May (11) has outflanked the South African defence. He is ready for a cross-field kick, and a kick landing anywhere in the highlighted box would cause all sorts of problems. Willie Le Roux (15) is quite far away and may not reach a flat kick in time. However, Elliot Daly (15) and Mike Brown were caught up in the previous phase. If May were to lose his aerial dual England could concede a breakaway try instead of score one.
- May could also be released by a pullback from the 2-pod to Owen Farrell (12). However, without Elliot Daly coming into the line England do not have the extra man. It is only a 2v2. Farrell could grubber kick into the same highlighted space, however, South Africa would have more cover by the time Farrell gets the ball.
In the end, Ford decides to kick on the next phase after Vunipola takes the ball up. He hopes that with quick ball, the defence won’t have time to realign. However, by waiting he also allows Daly and Brown to drop deeper and provide a safety net. The kick does work, with Willie Le Roux coming across and Jonny May forcing him to knock on under pressure.
The source of tries
It is now clear England’s tries are coming from different sources. This season, before the South Africa tour, England created 70% of their tries from 3 areas. They scored a lot from set piece plays (4/25) and kicks (8/25). They also used the Ford-Farrell axis to force defenders to disconnect (5/25), creating line breaks through the middle. In the Republic, England scored half of their tries by outflanking South Africa (4/8). Although South Africa did look weak out wide defensively. However, I believe a Wasps-inspired 3-1-2 system is also partly responsible for the change.
Wasps scored almost half of their 88 tries this season through outflanking the opposition. Willie Le Roux managed 7 tries and 21 assists, mainly through attacking the 13 channel from deep. The three main wingers scored 30 tries between them. Dan Robson got a further 9, mostly by supporting his wingers on the inside after Le Roux released them. England’s try profile in South Africa is strikingly similar.
I may be completely wrong about all of this. However, I believe England have used Wasps as inspiration to alter their own attacking shape. This may have been a factor in the inclusion of Wasps’ halfbacks Danny Cipriani and Dan Robson. I think it also explains the conservative nature of some selections and Eddie Jones’ comments that his World Cup squad hasn’t altered much since they started losing.
One measure of an attack system is how many clean breaks it creates per game. Wasps made a clean break every 10.4 carries last season, a massive 17 per game. To put that in context, think of the most dangerous club team in world rugby with ball in hand. There is a good chance you thought of Beauden Barrett’s all-star Hurricanes, right? They only make line breaks every 11.8 carries. In an English context, the other best attacks are Saracens and Exeter. They make breaks every 11.3 and 18.2 carries respectively.
Eddie Jones can be happy with several parts of his attack in South Africa. England scored 8 tries, which almost reaches his target of 3 per game. Jones’ men conceded under 4 breakdown turnovers per game, compared to the 8 and 9 won by Scotland and France. While some in the media have a very negative view of the tour, I believe Eddie Jones has good reason to feel England are in a better place than people think.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!