An analysis of England’s try-scoring trends against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – as well as looking at other descriptive measures of the team’s play – shows that they are comfortable having less possession than the opposition and striking incisively both in transition and from set-piece. After a wobble at the beginning of 2018, Eddie Jones’ side began to return to form with a record of 3-0-1 in their final four fixtures.

The graphs below chart the source of England’s tries against Tier 1 opposition in fixtures between 2016 and 2018: the direct source of the scoring phase, and the area of the pitch in which it took place. The six possible sources of the scoring phase are (i) a ruck, (ii) a lineout, (iii) a scrum, (iv) a tapped penalty, (v) a turnover (including those at ruck and set-piece) and (vi) a kick return. The pitch is divided into five sections: (i) the area between the attacking team’s goal line and their own 22m line; (ii) the area between their 22m line and 10m line; (iii) 10m line – opponent’s 10m line; (iv) opp. 10m line – opp. 22m line; and (v) opp. 22m – opp. goal line.

(NB: in contrast to Murray Kinsella’s previous try analysis for The42 –  which looked at the source and area of the first phase of each of a team’s scoring sequences –  this analysis accounts for the phase on which the try is scored only.)

All other team data is from ESPN.

England’s try-scoring trends analysed

Compared to the way in which Ireland have scored their tries over this period, England show a greater variety both in terms of the direct source and the area of the pitch. They scored 40% of their T1 tries over the three years directly from behind the opponent’s 22m line, and 41% directly from set-piece platforms or in transition:

England's try-scoring trends against Tier 1 opposition since 2016
England’s try-scoring trends against Tier 1 opposition since 2016

As they struggled in 2018, their average number of tries per game from rucks remained consistent with prior years (1.7 per 80 mins, vs. 1.8 in 2016 and 1.7 in 2016). However, the mix of locations from which they scored these tries changed. After averaging 0.6 tries per game directly from rucks behind the opponent’s 22m line in both 2016 and 2017, this figure fell to 0.3 in 2018.

In contrast with their continued ability to score from ruck platforms, their try-scoring from set-piece and from turnover and other transition situations declined significantly. After averaging combined figures of 1.3 and 1.7 per game respectively in 2016 and 2017, they averaged only 0.8 in 2018.

England’s try-scoring trends: between the 10m lines

A prominent feature of England’s game in their first year under Jones was their use of the kicking game. 22% of the tries they scored in 2016 involved a kick from the primary or secondary assister, and this pattern has continued – albeit not at quite as high a frequency – over the past two years, especially in transition:

Try scoring trends 10m either side of halfwayThe kicks to space by Owen Farrell and Danny Cipriani after recovering spilled ball against Wales and South Africa respectively – enabling Jonny May to score on both occasions – are excellent examples of this tactic being used last year. However, these were the only two tries scored by England off turnovers in 2018. This equated to 0.2 per game, compared to an average of 0.6 across 2016 and 2017.

Jonathan Joseph was a particularly prolific source of such tries in 2016 in particular. He scored four tries from either an interception or the recovery of a spilled ball, while playing 75% of all available minutes, and his return to the squad having played only 29% of available minutes in 2018 may make a difference to England’s threat off turnovers. However, it is unlikely that this single factor accounts for all of the variance in their scoring from this source.

England’s try-scoring trends: within 40m of the goal line

Closer to the opposition’s goal line is where England’s set-piece ability is most clear:

Try scoring trends within 40m of try line The midfield combination of George Ford and Owen Farrell is crucial to their set-piece strike strategy from outside the 22m line. Ford provided a primary or secondary assist on 4 of the 7 set-piece tries they scored from distance in the period, with Farrell providing 2 and laying the platform for a number of others with his world-class dummy running from 12.

This combination has also been pivotal in England’s try-scoring from other sources. Of their 75 tries in the period from sources other than scrum or lineout, Ford and Farrell both combined on the same score as either scorer, primary assister or secondary assister 9 times. Ford had a further 20 involvements as either scorer or assister without the presence of Farrell, giving him an average of 1.3 tries, primary assists or secondary assists per 80 minutes in total on a team that averaged 3.0 per game.

In addition to backline strikes from deep, England have shown that they are able to score equally well from their maul platform inside the 22. However, they scored notably fewer tries from this in 2018 (2 in 11 games, vs. 4 in 12 in 2016 and 4 in 9 in 2017).

England’s try-scoring trends: the importance of penalties to set-piece scoring

In the previous analysis of Ireland’s try-scoring trends, it was posited that the uptick in tries from lineout platforms inside the 22m line observed in 2018 was linked to their increased number of penalties awarded per game. Conversely, England’s lower return of set-piece tries in the same year came in a season during which they were awarded penalties at a much lower rate than in the past. They won only 8.3 per 80 mins in 2018, after averaging 10.7 in 2016 and 10.1 in 2017.

Ireland’s try-scoring trends

There is no obvious explanation in the data for this sharp decline in penalties. They had more possession in 2018 than previous years (in terms of their percentage of the total carries made in their fixtures), kicked less frequently (every 4.6 carries, compared to marks of 4.4 and 3.4 in the preceding two years) and turned the ball over less frequently, all indicators which tracked positively with Ireland’s increased rate of penalties awarded.

What is clear is that while their rate of penalties conceded improved from 11.9 per game in their opening seven fixtures of 2018 to 7.5 in their final four, their average number awarded remained consistent at 8.3 in both periods. This will be an interesting measure to track in 2019, and may be crucial if they are to reach the level of success they attacking from set-piece in 2016 and 2017.

Conclusion

England’s results improved as the 2018 season progressed, but questions still remain about their ability to create scoring opportunities in transition and from set-piece at the rate of their peak in 2016. Last year’s downturn in team performance also led to Jones dropping George Ford from the starting lineup for the final four games of the year. While this coincided with a run of three wins and only a single defeat, the team only scored 1.8 tries per game in the process. The analysis above indicates that if England are to reach their attacking peak at this year’s World Cup, it will likely be a result of the Ford-Farrell combination being reunited in the midfield.

Author: The Chase

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