Analysis: Weak spots in England’s defence

Date published: December 7 2016

Our resident analyst returns to focus on the weak spots for England to work after finishing the year unbeaten.

England finished off their perfect year with a victory against Australia, their fourth in the last six months. Somewhat unbelievably England have scored, on average 38 points per game since they played Australia back in June.

The game on Saturday also marked the first time since the final test in Australia that England trailed going into half time. It’s this final fact that we’ll focus during this article – what happened during the slow opening periods of the game and is there anything in these opening exchanges that should be cause for concern when the 14 match winning streak goes on the line in the Six Nations next year.

First of all though, we will look at who contributed most to the English winning effort on Saturday. To do this, I’ve created a stat called the Game Impact Index (GII), which seeks to quantify the impact a single player had compared to the average player. If you want to understand more about this stat then I have outlined it in more detail at the bottom of this page, but the basic info is this – a score of 100 is average, a score of 110 means you are 10 percent better than average.

Most Impactful Players

Player Game Impact Index (GII) Score
Nathan Hughes

220.6

Jonathan Joseph

169.3

Owen Farrell

133.0

 

Nathan Hughes benefits from team high; carries, metres made and defender’s beaten numbers. He also more than held his own in defence, albeit in a defensively light back row effort by England. Jonathan Joseph’s total is well stocked by his two tries and third best metres made numbers in the backs.

Least Impactful Players

Player Game Impact Index (GII) Score
Chris Robshaw

53.0

Dylan Hartley

55.6

Dan Cole

57.5

 

The first caveat is that GII doesn’t adequately reward front row players, especially those with very low attacking figures. The starting front row only made seven runs for three yards with no offloads, clean breaks or defenders beaten. Robshaw is the surprise though, despite a post-World Cup resurgence, the flanker didn’t have his best game at the weekend. He was out carried on metres, clean breaks and defenders beaten by his back row partners and he also recorded a low, amongst forwards, of six tackles, with one missed. That puts him at roughly half the impact of the average player, the player with the most average score? That would be Ben Youngs, he scored 102.5.

So, we know who played well and who had an impact during the game, but we’re focussing on the poor early exchanges, where England looked like they might be stopped at thirteen, adding to the theory that it’s an unlucky number.

firsteng

This comes after just six phases, after the Australians had spread the ball across the pitch from right to left. This is just a simple miscommunication, Mako lines up on the outside shoulder of Foley without realising that his inside support is too far away to help him if the fly half does step back inside.

Foley takes the bait and hits the gap but Cole has read it perfectly and although Australia do break the gain line, they don’t make the kind of devastating break that they could, and perhaps should, have made.

secondeng

The next example is another case of the defensive structure getting stretched after some expansive opposition play. Australia tur ned the ball over after a scrum on England’s five-yard line, following a close try shout. Australia immediately move the ball out, hitting Hodge who runs straight at Ford and Farrell.

thirdeng

Quick ball is then moved down the line for an eventual Naivalu try in the far corner. However, the key to this play is the gap between Yarde and Joseph. As soon as Ford and Farrell are taken out on the play, the centre and winger have to assume the role of first and second defender and match up with the opposite first and second receiver. Because the ball is so quick, the English forwards aren’t able to get across and allow Joseph to push out and support Yarde.

As you can see above, Yarde’s positioning stops him and Joseph from getting off the line quickly and cutting down the space. Despite Foley throwing the second pass of the phase in the above shot, the defines are barely four metres off the gain line

If Yarde blitzes out then Haylett-Petty can run at the gap for an easy try, in the end, Mike Brown, out of the picture on the left, rushes up to try and stop Australia from getting the ball wide. It’s a rash move, but he doesn’t really have any option because the men on his inside have been so passive.

foureng

In the final play example, Yarde is once again under the microscope. England are at a disadvantage, numbers wise, in this play – Naivalu is the outside man, not visible in the above picture. But, Yarde has to be off the line quicker here, especially when it’s clear that Hodge is the man that he has to take.

Once Hodge gets the ball, Yarde stands off him, wary that he has Naivalu on the outside but he has no inside support coming because they have all overrun him due to their fast line speed. It’s a simple two on one which Australia execute to gain significant yardage and get into the English half once again.

fiveeng

In the final picture, we see how Yarde compounds his error with another one by turning infield to chase down the winger which takes him further away from the tackler and gives the Australian an unnecessary head start which the Englishman never closes up.

Conclusion

The early defensive frailties ended up not really having any negative impact on England and really only added some tension to fans watching at home or in the stadium. However, it is demonstrably true that the English defence is the thing that is their weaker link.

Since the beginning of the Australia tour, back in June, they have conceded at almost 21 points per game, that’s still significantly less than their bloated points for total, but they would obviously like to bring that down.

The sensible money is on England retaining their Six Nations title, but, Scotland are resurgent and Ireland have been quietly, until their All Blacks victory, compiling a serious team who will be the biggest threat to Eddie Jones’ charges.

The Gustard defence was fantastic during the Six Nations, conceding just 14 points per game across the tournament, however it has regressed slightly over June and November/December and that’s something they can’t afford to keep letting slide if this historic run is to keep going. One thing is for sure though, this is a very small hole that I’m picking in the team, English fans should be basking in this golden period for their team.

Game Impact Index

The Game Impact Index is in its infancy but the idea is that not all contributions to a game are created equally.

So, running one metre is not particularly impressive but running one metre when that metre puts you over the opposition try line is obviously a very valuable contribution. Equally, passing the ball once is a fairly standard contribution to the game but passing the ball once when that pass leads to a try is a significantly more important contribution.

I have therefore weighted each contribution, where the stats are easily findable, and given a total score per player. So, a try is worth 50 and an assist is worth close to 40.

Making one tackle is worth around 8 but missing a tackle is worth 11 on the negative side. I have then done the same for all actions that take place in the game and are countable, at the moment this excludes scrums and lineouts due to the difficulties of attributing praise for an individual in a group activity like a scrum. Future iterations of this stat will including weighting towards set piece performance which will hike up the scores for the front rows.

Find the average for all starting players and divide each player’s score by the average and times all that by 100 to turn it into the index. This stat is very new and requires a large amount of work moving forwards, but it at least gives some idea of a players all around contribution rather than just their attacking or defensive skills.

by Sam Larner

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