Prior to last weekend’s game with Argentina, if there had been one consistent negative about England’s campaign, it had been the defensive lapses which had taken the shine from otherwise encouraging performances.
Against South Africa, missed tackles led directly to Johan Goosen’s try, while a lack of defensive communication was at fault for Willie le Roux going over unopposed in the final minute.
The three tries conceded against Fiji all came within a 14-minute block, sandwiching the half-time interval, and though credit is due to Fiji for incisive attacking play, there were certainly hints of England switching off during that period.
This trend ended, quite spectacularly, on Saturday.
After Elliot Daly saw red in the fifth minute of the game, Eddie Jones’ men were charged with the sizable task of beating a skilful and dangerous Argentinean side with a man disadvantage for 60 minutes and a two-man disadvantage for a further 10 minutes. Only the first and final five minutes of the game were played with equal number of players on the pitch.
Neutrals and casual onlookers may not have enjoyed the lack of tries or coast-to-coast rugby, but the defensive performance turned in by the Paul Gustard-coached unit was nothing short of stunning and had all the hallmarks of the Saracens ‘wolfpack’ defence that Gustard was hired to bring to the England set-up.
At the heart of this performance was improved defensive communication, most notably brought by the returning George Kruis.
When England headed Down Under back in June, they had five defensive generals in their starting XV: Kruis, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw.
Defensive generals are not necessarily just the senior leaders – although the roles do often overlap – as both Dylan Hartley and Mike Brown are talismanic figures on the pitch, but neither plays such a prominent role in organising the defence, covering mismatches which the opposition may look to exploit and leading the line, as these generals do.
With Kruis, Itoje and Farrell graduates of the Saracens academy and well-instructed in the club’s way, it’s not surprising they are adept in these facets of the game, whilst Haskell spent his early years in Shaun Edwards’ famed blitz defence at Wasps, learning alongside the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley. As for Robshaw, he’s a former club and Test captain who has been at the heart of the best defensive work Harlequins and England have produced over the past few years.
With Kruis back in the mix against Argentina, England were noticeably quicker to set up defensively after each ruck formed. They still missed both Itoje and Haskell, but with three of their five generals out there, they had the communication in and around the ruck and in the channels further out that they needed to succeed.
Kruis’ return has come at a particularly opportune time, with an efficient and offensive Wallaby side looming for England this weekend. Jones’ men will need to produce another aggressive defensive performance if they are to see out the year undefeated and tie Sir Clive Woodward’s 2003 side’s record of 14 consecutive wins.
Australia have not had trouble scoring tries over the past month, averaging just over three a match in contests with Wales, Scotland, France and Ireland. In fact, 11 of their 13 tries have come from backs and then nine of those 11 have come outside of the half-backs.
But there is nothing revolutionary about what the Wallabies are doing.
They are securing quick ball at the contact area and then putting enough speed and width on the ball, all the while drawing defenders with straight running, that they manufacture overlaps and mismatches in current or successive phases.
Fortunately for England, this is something they are set up very well to negate.
Just as Saracens do at club level, England like to blitz outside – rushing up with either Farrell or Jonathan Joseph – and force their opposition to play back inside towards the waiting pack. This is effective for two reasons.
Firstly, it prevents the attacking midfield from passing wide to their wings, lest they risk an interception try with a looping miss-pass. Secondly, it brings England’s back row into play.
England are oft criticised for their lack of a traditional, fleet fetcher who can go sideline-to-sideline, quickly making his way from ruck-to-ruck. By constricting the opposition, you force them to live with the power and size, rather than speed, of England’s back row in the tighter confines of a narrower pitch.
Once forced back inside, England have taken a leaf or two from Ireland’s book, where they now like to try and stand ball-carriers up. Again, the return of Kruis has a big impact on this area, as it is a skill he utilises regularly alongside Itoje and Billy Vunipola at Saracens.
Vunipola’s injury is a blow to England and will put a lot of pressure on Nathan Hughes to fill not only his sizable offensive shoes, but also his defensive ones. It is a role that Hughes fulfils well for Wasps but that is not a guarantee that he will be able to replicate it in the Test arena, especially having to deal with the physical presence that the likes of Tevita Kuridrani will bring.
But before dealing with tackling and the contact area, England need to ensure they can force the Wallabies back inside.
Farrell had an exceptional defensive showing against Argentina, diagnosing, almost without fault, when England could blitz and force the Pumas backwards and when their numerical disadvantage was exposed and that drifting out was the safer play.
Similarly, Joseph, a player regularly praised for his offensive skills, read the Argentinean attack with aplomb, regularly shutting down overlaps and making important open-field tackles.
If Farrell and Joseph can replicate this on Saturday – presumably with a full complement of team-mates this time – and Kruis and Robshaw can continue their marshalling of the fringes and close quarters defence, then they stand a very good chance of limiting the offensive firepower of Australia’s effective midfield and back three.
Saturday’s encounter at Twickenham has the potential to be a trap game for England.
They’ve ended the 10-year hoodoo against South Africa, flexed their scoring muscle against Fiji, proven their resilience to beat Argentina but cannot afford now to take lightly a side they have already beaten three times this year.
The Grand Slam may be gone for Australia but pride, revenge and, most importantly, World Cup seeding are all on the line this weekend for the Wallabies.
Michael Cheika’s men will be in the mood to spoil England’s party on Saturday and the home side cannot afford the same defensive lapses they showed against South Africa and Fiji. The Australians will punish them if they do.