As we learnt in the previous articles, the two prong pattern relies a lot on the 10-12 axis and fitness.
However, it also relies on runners presenting multiple options at all times to the ball carrier. Mike Brown, running the inside lines, does this very well. George Ford, running behind the first prong or the second prong running hard off him, also presents these options. Owen Farrell behind the second prong presents options.
Various defensive patterns
There are multiple types of defence out there and they are worth touching on: out to in, drift, rush 10, rush 13, passive.
Each has strengths and weaknesses and, in my opinion, there is no complete defence that eliminates all the angles. Defence wins championships, don’t get me wrong, but all of them have a weak spot. Drift can cover the outside, but you concede the advantage line and remain vulnerable to the inside pass. Rush 10 places pressure on your 10 and forces them deep. It also creates doglegs.
The best defence is one that will give you the initiative, pressure the opposition and make possession uncomfortable. And of course the simpler the better. There is no better way to assist decision-making in defence than to eliminate options in attack and give yourself a far greater likelihood of targets who will receive the ball.
This is where rush defence is so effective. There are ways to beat it of course. Playing 2 out, hitting the fringes and targeting the 13 fulcrum hard with forward runners, as England do. Plus some new ways I’m trying out at my club with promising signs of success (early days).
The best defence is one that will give you the initiative, pressure the opposition and make possession uncomfortable.
In previous articles, we’ve already discussed how England hold the line speed of the opposition. But what we haven’t discussed is how we occupy defenders.
England’s backline is designed for speed. We don’t have many big units. In fact, our starting backline doesn’t have a player tipping above 100kg.
This works for a couple of reasons:
- A lot of our structures are taken straight from Japan, who did pretty well with a smaller team. The focus instead is on skillsets and efficiency
- We have some monsters in our forward pack, who are able to attract defenders in lieu of the lack of size in our line.
However, the opposition has forwards as well, so our backline has to occupy the defence somehow. Without a brute like Manu Tuilagi or his ilk, we haven’t the luxury of affording one player who can be trusted to suck in 2-3 defenders to generate those gaps.
Personally, I think that Joe Cokanasiga, the London Irish Winger, can fit this role. He’s fast and weighs in at 112kg. A backline needs a balance of pace and power, and he could add this quite nicely for us. However, until he’s drafted into the training squad we do not have said luxury of heavy decoy runners. Most of our players are only able to attract a maximum of 2 players.
The way we generate these gaps on the outside is by using multiple options. Having the 10-12 axis obviously assists in this. If we have the two prongs running forward simultaneously, there’s no 10 behind the first prong for the screen pass option. The second prong is running almost lazily and out of range for even a screen pass from 9, it’s pretty obvious the ball is hitting the first prong. As such, the defence will number accordingly.
However, if the 9 has passed to the first prong as a defence is rushing up and the following movement off the ball occurs:
- An inside runner running from the blind to the open side of the ruck
- The 10 is behind the first prong with the second prong running a hard line off him
- The 12 is behind said prong with the winger and full back flat off him
You can see how this will trouble a defence. The defence has to hold the 1 out defence to cover the first prong, but also can’t drift due to the inside runner.
Off the ball in action
That’s Defender 1 – Defender 4 occupied. The 13 channel (D5-D8) is occupied with the 10 inside break using the first prong inside line, and the hard running prong off his shoulder. Behind this prong is a 12 with great distribution skills who can get a ball wide very quickly. And accurately. Once the ball is wide, it is arguably one defender brought up from the backfield. The rest is catch and pass.
This is what work off the ball can do. And why, in my opinion, it’s as important if not more important than your work on the ball.
Repositioning with speed and urgency in your structures, at one word or call from your tactical decision makers is so under-coached and under-practised, even at the international level, it’s untrue. A team at any level should spend far more time than they do focusing on getting into positions or structures based on a call from your 9, 10 or 12. Whether it be wide or narrow. At the shout of a word, a whole team should be able to get into the correct structure quickly and urgently, before the defence has had time to realign.
Doing this gives your attack far more potency due to the increased number of options. It also gives a 10 and 12, who are skilled enough in distribution and vision, the ability to cover and exploit all options on the field. More options than a defence is able to cover.
Lastly, it allows the options themselves to call for the ball as a defence is reacting to the wide picture in front of them. This can easily present gaps for them to run. Particularly when we are moving and reorganising faster than they can organise.
This is a key concept of the England attacking system. And why, against Ireland, we were stymied due to the Irish approach at the breakdown. It involves high levels of fitness as all players have to be consistently in motion. All offering themselves up as viable options; confusing a defence and splitting minds are the principles of the system.
Targetting the plan
In the scenario described above, all of the players involved are potential options in that phase. It leaves a defence with too many options to monitor and counteract efficiently. This can, however, be targeted at the breakdown. A team that stops us at the source with physicality, slows down our ball and can keep up if not match our fitness levels are able to beat us. Just look at Ireland last year.
Jones’ acquisition of Underhill and more breakdown specialists in Curry/Simmonds is a key factor in moving forward to prevent this. They need to keep this attacking template viable in the ever-changing ecosystem that is international rugby.
Coaches are always analysing, always breaking teams down. The team that stays still with Plan A will soon be counteracted. And when they are, if they don’t have a Plan B against that specific defence, they will lose.
If they can master different styles of attack or prevent the opposition from stopping their attack by implementing new tactics and processes designed to keep their game viable, they will continue to remain effective.
For Jones, it is Underhill and the development of decision making at the breakdown that is key.
Originally with England teams, the 1st man would clean out past the ball, whilst the 2nd man would secure the space over the carrier and the 3rd would fill the inside guard/support the 2nd man. Now, with George Smith’s consultancy, it’s more based on decision making in the moment rather than the process. There is an emphasis on speed of support at the breakdown, and supporting your prior cleaners rather than the ball carrier.
England make up for the lack of size in the backs by flooding the line with speed and handling, with consistent effort to create opportunities to use that speed. Consistent movement with multiple options.
One of the key areas that England need to work on is reducing the difference between a decoy runner and a legitimate option. This should not exist.
A player who thinks he’s running a decoy line should always be expecting the ball, and as such running with intent, hands ready and with the best line he can to get gainline advantage. If he does receive it, he is at worst going to make the most effective run he can. If he doesn’t receive it, his intent and energy in the run will have helped out his team in attracting defenders.
It may not hold forever. England’s patterns will be analysed thousands of times and preferred options within the framework will be deduced. When certain players are playing, when certain defensive alignments are on etc…
This is why the 10-12 axis is so important. It widens those preferred options from 2-3 to 4-5. It is still hard for a team to shut down, and again, why the rush defence to reduce the options is proving so popular in today’s game. As are players with the skill to counteract said spoiling tactics.
Next, in the series (Wednesday 31st January), we will be discussing why England and Jones are so keen on developing their fitness. And more importantly, where they want to take their game with it.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast 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.