Sunday, 22 June 2014

What happened to the England defence ?

In the 3rd Test, NZ v England, in the first half it appeared that NZ were able to simply pass the ball into the wide channels and be presented with massive overlaps, 3 v 2, 3 v 1. Watching the game live I guess like many others my head filled with horror with the ease that these situations were created.

NZ scored 4 tries during this period and butchered 2 more, if that is the correct adjective. NZ are not in the kitchen chopping up joints of meat they are in the hospital theatre, performing the most delicate speed...some go wrong...Julian Saver salvaged one with a brilliant pick up off his toes. Space had been created, space had been protected and the ball passed into the right area but only just clinically enough - space exploited - try. Passing is not just about transferring the ball from one to another, it needs to be performed with the defender/defence as the trigger. Knowing why you are passing, how to pass with the end outcome in mind, and hence when to pass. Technically a player needs a range of passes and needs to apply the appropriate technique to fit the bill. Spin passes are seldom the correct option when trying to expose an overlap or put a receiver through a hole.

Most of the post match inquest has focussed on individual stats, highlighted that things improved for England when subs were made and a big bollocking was administered at half time. If it was only that simple - the game was over.

To me there is far to much focus on stats - tackles made, tackles missed, meters made etc. Stats are becoming a comfort zone for players and coaches, they should be viewed as a guide and no more. For instance a tackle on the front foot is vastly different from one on the back foot. In particular in this 3rd test the damage was done way before the ball arrived in the wide channels. The defenders in these channels had little or no chance of making effective tackles, being faced by often 3 attackers all on the front foot. It is far too easy to say these individual players had a bad day at the office. It was the unit defence and the brilliance of the NZ passing and support movement that were the key factors.

Equally first half line speed was another reason put forward as the issue for the poor defensive display, justified by we improved line speed in the second half and then defended much better. Line speed improved, did it, where's the evidence for this. Sure it was nothing to doing with NZ taking their foot off the pedal just a bit and making a change at 10 later on.

No, to me all these comments have little to do what really is going on. It's all down to the ability of the NZ back line and squad to pass a ball accurately and more efficiently than any other team. To me the same occurred in the first test but the end result did not manifest itself as the execution was just not good enough, they were rusty. 2nd Test showed a glint of what is possible, just 20mins worth but enough to win the game comfortably. Also, a quick aside, in the 3rd Test the playing conditions were the worst of all the Tests, so the quality of the passing was even more impressive.

In detail, the NZ backs are capable of playing the ball closer to the opposition, still get the pass away because they hold the ball correctly. What this does is hold the midfield defence. I see endless pictures (see below) of England players passing with their hips turned, ball held low hence not holding the defender.Together with this ability the NZ backs support running lines are more effective as they drift onto their final line very late and right on the tackle line, offsetting the defender. Equally by having correct passing technique enables the ball to be transferred quickly and effectively if need be. Result of all this is the defensive line can end up as startled rabbits as they are drawn into tackles which don't exist as the ball has been moved on.

With England the support runners are mostly on straight lines, the ball is carried too low and the hips rarely stay square when the ball is being passed. In essence our game is to dominate the opposition physically, in the collision, with speed and power and then look for the off load. This game approach being our preferred method of breaking defences and one we are very good at, however very seldom wins tournaments. This method of course also fixes the defender effectively but rarely creates extra space and/or overlaps.

One example of this would Chris Ashton's try in the 2nd Test. Manu Tuilagi ran straight and hard as he does, at 2 NZ defenders in the wide channel (see below). There was no space created. However his power drew in the outside defender and he then made an awesome one handed off load to Mike Brown who magnificently caught the transfer (pass) which was behind him and low. Brown then had a simple task to feed the ball inside to Ashton to score.

Playing this way brings it's rewards and indeed England are very good at this game pattern approach and I believe should simply persist with this approach rather than try and mimic the NZ approach which requires seriously high levels of distribution skills which we simply do not possess. Time and time again we see England create space with 3 v 2's or 2 v 1's but fail to protect the space created by turning hips out in the pass and hence failing to fix the defence or exploit the space created.

To stop NZ we simply cannot defend as narrow as we have been. We need to get numbers quickly into the defensive line, so not over commit at the ruck and work the line speed more but most importantly look to drift the defensive line. NZ will not go through the middle of us, or most others for that matter but they will and do expose teams in the outside channels. Our defensive pattern is fine against other teams but for NZ special measures are required.

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