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.

Mike Brown – solid in the air, resolute in defence and now presenting options for England in attack. Is he becoming undroppable?

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.

Occupy defenders

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.

Anthony Watson - speed and class personified. He is becoming key to the multiple options
Anthony Watson – speed and class personified
Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

This works for a couple of reasons:

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Many of the England pack were on tour with the Lions. A Lions team that caused the All Blacks all sorts of problems. The size of the pack allows for more agile backs.
Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan


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.

The breakdown

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.

In summary

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…

Steve Hansen will have analysed every detail of Eddie Jones' multiple options (and then some)
Steve Hansen will have analysed every detail of Eddie Jones’ multiple options (and then some)
Photo: Andrew Cornaga

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.


  1. Second quote of first comment
    Great work

    I appreciate you speaker about a b plan
    It was what italy didn’t have last 6N in london, it was to be expected england to find a solution and we didn’t progress from plan a, no ruck contest and so no offside of the first half, to plan b

    • Thanks for the comment Superignazzio! I’ll be honest, that day. England didn’t look like they had a B plan. Which worried me. Eddie would’ve focused a lot on player centred coaching in the hopes that they can work problems like that out.

      England are improving in that area. But i’d be happier them having that problem now then during the WC.

  2. Hi Conor

    I’ve just read all three articles in one go. My head hurts, but thank you, what great insights! Both on attach patterns and understanding the reasons for Eddie’s selections at 7 and 10/12.

    A couple of thoughts from me.

    1. New Zealand don’t tend to go for brilliant second playmakers at 12, more big “go forward” guys who have worked on their distribution, kicking and decision making. Instead we often have a 15 who can act as a second pivot and a 13 who is excellent at both taking the right option and setting up his outsides. It means that we have a lot more flexibility in that our backs can either hurt you with the physicality or their speed and skills.

    2. My first though in reading your first article was “if the system is so good, why don’t England score more tries?” Then I noticed that in several of the examples your first article good opportunities were wasted by poor skills or decision making. I’m no expert, but the success of the England attack might depend on either greatly improving these or acknowledging that a gameplan that suits Japan might not suit England.

    • All 3 in one go? That’s quite an acheivement JD Kiwi. 😉 Thanks for the shout out.

      England under Lancaster were quite keen to try a hybrid between the All Blacks and Wigan Rugby League structures. So certain parts of those dynamics could’ve come into play. Jordie Barrett and Damien MacKenzie at 15 is a prime example of that second pivot.

      But Jones England patterns, whilst having Japanese roots. Are originally based on the Late 90’s Brumbies Patterns under Rod Macqueen. However, with the work hes done. Hes definitely made it an English system, and i’m happy he has. For the Prongs, you need heavy, fast, mobile runners. England have that in abode. They need the range of passing to stretch and attack different points on the D line, they have that in Ford and Farrell. They need the fitness to generate quick ball and reposition quickly. Which is what Jones has had them working on. This is a simple way of putting it. But with the development of all of this, the gameplan has worked for England. Its netted them one loss in 2 years. Just attack hasn’t been put at the forefront for me yet.

      The core of the England game is still all about the set piece and defence. And Jones knows it. In 2016, Jones was talking all about Set piece improvement. 2017, he was all about Defensive improvement. It wasn’t until the Argentina tour last year that he started talking about attack, and we started showing signs that we were developing our attack as a higher priority. (Offloads/Better running lines etc).

      You’re right though. The number of tries wasn’t the best, though still respectable. And there were a few chances in there that weren’t converted. But with Eddie focusing in on the attack. I’m hoping those little kinks will be ironed out. The skillsets related to attack are going to be focused on this year. Hence here’s hoping the things that stopped us scoring. Wrong decisions and skill errors. Will be corrected!

  3. Cheers Conor

    I totally agree, defence and set piece has been paramount for England under Eddie, along with organisation and confidence. Even a good portion of their attack and tries have come directly from good front on defence. I reckon that’s why he has so often picked Marler, Hartley and Joseph. It’s been enough to win a lot of matches.

    Would that gameplan be consistently successful away from Twickenham against teams like NZ and Ireland who might just have better packs and defences? On attack, can Jones instill the necessary skills and decision making to implement a gameplan designed for people brought up playing expansive rugby? I’ve no idea but I’m certainly not ruling it out!

    • Agreed. Much like the Irish. The English value their defence as the start of their attack. The thing is. That for me, this gameplan isn’t incredibly expansive. There’s very little wide-wide. It certainly isn’t conservative and is adventurous, the passing does require a lot of skillsets in the forwards and in the 9-10-12. The players are more capable, better decision makers and players like Joseph have been throwing 25 metre long balls since Jones has come in to open the backline.

      But principally for me it is highly intelligent, and it is relentless. With an abundance of players who can come in and change things up outside the structure using different skillsets should they be needed. (Danny Care kick-chase etc). The attack is being worked on, but thankfully i think they will be able to play it. Reason behind that is that Jones is basing a huge amount of this 2019 side around the U20s sides of the 2011-2014 era. Who reached the WC finals and won twice playing very expansive and very exciting rugby. The systems that Stuart Lancaster put in years ago. Literally over a decade. Are finally bearing fruit. The Vunipolae, Ford, Farrell, Launchbury, Daly, Watson, May, Itoje, Joseph, Kyle Sinckler, Nowell and Slade, are all graduates of that era. The production line is finally up and running, much like it was for the Barretts, Retallick, Smith etc. That for me is more exciting then anything else. As the last 6 finals i think we’ve reached and won 3 of them. When you take into consideration that Jones also brought the Curry Twins, Underhill and Isiekwe in as well. Who won in 2016. I think his plan is a constant line who can slot into this sort of play with no trouble. Very Cruyffian.

  4. Hi Conor, I have read the whole series now and I am really enjoying it. This is the kind of thing I would like to read more of, but outside the 1014 site only occasionally find.

    I am a fly half and reading the part about the 10’s thought process was very familiar! Playing in 3s/4s teams we get different backline combinations every week, and a 9 & 12 who know their roles in terms of communication and decision making make such a massive difference compared to quiet players.

    My big hope for this 6 Nations is that we start making more of these opportunities we create through the systems you describe. I also hope we can introduce some bigger ball carriers like Teo, and in the future Cokanasiga and Tuilagi, without going away from a system that creates so many decisions for defenders. If nothing else, the more defenders have to think, the less physical they can be. I think if we do that then England can take the next step as a side.

    • Hi Dan,

      Appreciate the comment thank you! 🙂

      Mate. All i can say is you are a far more patient and stronger man then I am. I need to be in a backline that communicates and has continuity and time to bed in combos. Otherwise everything starts becoming rudderless, we start losing due to stupidity and I go postal. My hope too for this year is England Attack starts to shine. And judging by Jones and the comments coming out of Pennyhill. That appears to be their aim as well! So heres hoping!

      It’d be nice to see Tuilagi come in as a finisher as well. Seeing as “touch wood”. He seems to have put a few games together now. Hoping it long continues!

  5. Great articles Conor. Ive been reading them at work and home cant seem to peal myself away from them.

    I love the idea of having a second playmaker, not just for options but you force the defense to make decisions. This constant thinking and realigning you cant go into auto pilot mode in defense and just rush or drift. Over 80 mins it becomes mentally tiring. You can wear a team down with out brute force. It will be interesting to see how teams react this year to it. They have had time to analyse it and develop a game plan for it.

    What do you think would be better a 10-12 or 10-15 double play-maker system. That way you can have a 12 that can mix it up and get forward ball and extra big body.

    • Thanks very much mate. Glad you like them! Agreed on defences adjusting. But 2 experienced ball players in a team always near doubles your options available. And that is the trick behind it all.

      I think a 10-15 is feasible. The All Blacks and Sarries both work it. But for us, Our 10-12 is better than any 10-15 option we can have. Plus Ford-Farrell have played since U20 days. Which makes me think Jones wants to keep that understanding.


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