England have recently employed a 1-2-2-2 +1 system. This is only a little less complicated than it sounds.

England's 3-1-2 system

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.

England's 3-1-2 system

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.

England's 3-1-2 system

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 influence?

Wasps might have inspired this new system.

Wasps 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.

Wasps system

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's 3-1-2 system

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.

Teething problems

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.

England's 3-1-2 system

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conclusions

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!

20 COMMENTS

  1. Without a shadow of a doubt mate, for me your best article. Absolutely sublime work. Love the detail and comparisons to Wasps, and for me i agree with you that it is very very likely this inspired it. Those stats are incredible. It seems as if the “1 Pod” Player almost retains a nomadic role that England have used previously. It remains separate from the 1-3-3-1 but can become one should the need arise. But what I like is the detail for this.

    In the image at the top, we can see Mako on the far left of the 3 pod as the active decoy runner for the pull back pass, and right next to him, Billy V. Two of England’s most powerful carriers right next to each other, with Cips and Farrell both as the Pull back options. We also see them working together in the 3 pod and later on we see Hughes as the lone forward in centre field. The supposed like for like replacement to Billy V in case of injury.

    I don’t think its coincidence they these forwards are in this place to pressure the disconnect of the transition zone, like you mention with Kolisi. He’s trying to maintain that connect, but if Mako in the “3 Pod” commits the 5th-6th man and the pull back pass is made.

    That leaves Farrell and Billy V running at the 7th-8th man. Billy is like to attract attention and that can open up that gap for Cips if he takes it flat and fast enough, or Cips if the defence is still held, he can play to the line and put in Farrell. Whose let through by the run of Vunipola attracting 7-8. I don’t think its co-incidence the heavy runners seem to positioned as the lone forward/3 pod components when the gap is right opposite the defensive transition zone, arguably one of the weakest points on the field. I think it also buys into what Jones wants to see from his running 10, being able to take the space himself.

    The problem is, as I think we discussed yesterday, this is an incredibly detailed and structured attack. Can England maintain its fluency and speed and switch easily between both? To have the flexibility to exploit the blind mid sequence and play what they see when both the 10 and 12 have such predetermined roles in the Openside attack?

    I assume Jones is working with options to vary this pattern, and Daly moving to 15 also to me screams Jones maybe working on him as another 1st receiver option to hit the blind, with his natural vision for the game being brought to bear. I have a gut feeling, (Not a brain feeling but a strict gut feeling) that with the prevalence of RUSH 13 D, we might eventually see Daly trialed at 10. Its an out there option. But i think his speed and intelligence could swing Jones post WC. Much like Larkham did.

    • Thanks very much Conor! I haven’t really analysed New Zealand in this kind of detail but I wonder if the All Blacks chose to develop Damien McKenzie as backup to Beauden Barrett for a similar reason? I don’t know about Daly at 10, it would be interesting to find out! I remember Austin Healey was great there for Tigers and Daly has a lot of similar attributes.

      • Well seen Dan. That’s exactly what NZ did. I wrote an article describing the new dynamic which will be up later this week 😀 And admittedly its a heart rather than brain feeling. Which Usually in my experience on the field lose to the smart option 90% of the time. Its just a feeling and may never materialise. But the way NZ are taking their 10 play recently, we have to catch up and be level now, and Daly could be an option for it.

        • You guys ie Daniel and Conor should take over as it’s clear tho understandable that Gareth and Steven have jumped ship and put all their eggs in one basket ie Sky Rugby. How about both of you taking over or creating a similar and possibly better website and youtube analysis if possible?

  2. You boys clearly have too much time on your hands!! But these articles really help me understand the tactical side of rugby that as a converted football fan sometimes seem out of reach. Cheers both!!

    • Fair point Rob 😛 To be honest I’m getting it all out of my System in July as I’m abroad for all of August and won’t even have time to think about Rugby! So venting now with articles and comments to clear the head before I go 😀

    • True Rob! I’m also going to take a break, unless England win the football. I will write something on what rugby teams can learn from it if they do! I’m moving back to Yorkshire and job hunting over the summer so I won’t have time to write for a while.

  3. Great bit of analysis

    Dumb question but don’t these systems have to add up to 8…? 1-3-3-1, 2-4-2, 1-2-2-2-1 etc. From the diagram at the top and position of outstanding forwards and the 9 calling it 2-3-1-2 would seem more sensible to me as otherwise there would be some ambiguity as to where the two outstanding forwards are located

    • Hi DougieJT, cheers! The other structures you mention all have a specific role for every forward. In the 3-1-2, I believe England have adapted to their recent breakdown problems by building in redundancies to the system. I think those 2 spare forwards are there as extras, so that if a ruck requires an extra body the system can maintain it’s basic shape. That’s why I didn’t call it a 2-3-1-2, although you are quite right that’s what it should really be called if we maintain the internal logic of the system names adding up to 8.

      Perhaps there is a plan for those two, perhaps the system is intended to switch between 2-3-1-2 and 2-1-3-2 with the 3 pod always closest to the ruck and on the open side and a 2 pod always on the blind. To be honest we have only seen a few snapshots of it, and I think it is yet to be fully revealed how (and how much) England will use it.

  4. Jesus that’s quite a complicated system. They managed to expose south-africa out wide for saveral reasons with one of the main reasons being the defensive pattern used by South African aka drifting defense. If you pay close attention, that attack would probably struggle against the Canes rush defence. Plus it still requires a high work rate by the forward from the first pond of forwards because they need to quickly help the 1 pond or it can be the 2 pond. The key to most modern tactics is quick ball from the rucks and this means to achieve that you might have to sacrifice some of your forwards forming rucks.

    • Hi Mike, you might be right, but it is in the early stages and I see it as a smart evolution from the 1-2-2-2-1 system which accounts for the problems Scotland and France exposed. I guess the autumn will be the perfect test.

  5. I think having that one great crashed off the ten is fantastic concept! Something I think can open up their entire offense! I think because they are fortunate to have two vunipolo and sinkler it would be pretty significant if you take. Distributive Forward like an Itoje and put him at the tip of the diamond have sinkler be on his outside! Put curry of the inside of Itoje! Then put mako out the back of Itoje with billy being that fantastic “1” Forward option. Now you have Itoje who can just take it up and you win the ball with your support around! Or Itoje hits Sinkle with a tip-on and he gets you on that front foot. Or you go out the back to Mako who decides to take it up or give it to Billy! How do you defend that! It would be fantastic! I think somebody like Sam Simmonds would be great for that role that Itoje fills as well! I just love having that person who is so athletic that they can do it all! I also love the idea of having defenders have to sit down as well. Having Billy and Mako ready for second phase as well after Sinkler or Itoje hit it up! It gives options and I believe makes us harder to defend

    • Hi John, I like the system too, I think there are a lot of advantages such as the ones you describe. Doubtless someone will expose weaknesses before long, but I think England’s attack has improved a lot and this system has a lot to do with that.

  6. Thanks for the article Dan, its of more interest to me as a Wasps fan, as I never quite got what we were doing last season, when it was going right. Just an observation, but in the players who make the system work, Wasps do appear to have the advantage over England! Certainly having a back three of Le Roux, Wade and Daly plus Young and Willis in the backrow, the pace required to deliver once the space has been created initially is there and for me in more intelligent form than having a converted 13 at FB (as England were using)

    Regardless, if England are going to carry on with this, which would be nice, then there is certainly going to be pressure on selection at 10 and 12 especially, it would certainly put Danny in a good position for 10 and ought to encourage players who fancy playing like Jimmy G for the England 12 shirt. Also, you’d wonder about Brown in the back three playing that system, he certainly wouldn’t get selected for Wasps at wing and the FB needs a more Willie Le Roux skillset to provide the distribution?

    • Hi Michael, I agree Wasps have grown this organically to suit their players whereas England are trying to find guys who ca fit it. However, they haven’t just copied it and there are defensive patterns to consider too. I think Brown is there because of his security under the high ball, leadership and positioning, and because he slows the attack up enough for Englands scramble to get get back and cover. He doesn’t seem to fit this attack though, it could be a signal he will drop to the bench before long.

  7. Check out this article about crusaders attack. They seem to use a variation of the 2-4-2 played off 9 that works as a 3-1-2 shape. I think off 10 too.
    It’s like a 2-4(3+1)-2 when played off 9. Leaving that extra free forward to play as the screen of a 2nd playmaker. It’s like a modern version of the 2-4-2 to adapt against the no-contest defenses and constant press defense. It’s good to have an extra option to fix the defense when going wide.
    Of course you’ll never see a pure backline in a kiwi team unless it’s a set piece or a red zone compress attack 5m close to the ingoal.
    God bless wide forwards.

    https://www.rugbypass.com/news/crusaders-game-plan-revealed-secrets-2-4-2/

    • Hi Brian, thanks for the link, that was a brilliant read! I don’t really analyse Super Rugby, I try to watch just for fun unless I have skin in the game and can’t help it! I hadn’t picked up on any of this and it looks similar in many ways to the England/Wasps systems.

    • Hi Ottavio, that article was fascinating, a lot of people in England are losing faith in Eddie Jones but I look at things like this and I can’t help but believe!

  8. Hi Dan,

    Hope you’re well with the moving and all that shizz mate!

    I wanted to ask you a question if thats ok. The 3-1-2 diagram you used in this. What program did you use to create it? Currently in the middle of an article that could really benefit from it in all fairness!

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