England’s first-phase failings: the defensive pattern Sinfield must break
The size of the task facing England’s new defence coach Kevin Sinfield has been laid bare, just one match into the Steve Borthwick era. Four tries conceded against Scotland but moreover a collective disjointedness and the return of some familiar problems that will send alarm bells ringing.
Eddie Jones employed three defence coaches – Brett Hodgson’s briefest of tenures notwithstanding – in Paul Gustard, John Mitchell and Anthony Seibold. Each had their moments, Gustard’s on the 2016 tour of Australia while Mitchell’s messages seemed to be landing in late 2020 and Seibold can point to the third Test against the Wallabies last summer. But some of Scotland’s tries last Saturday exposed long-standing fault lines evident while Mitchell and Seibold were employed.
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It is important to remember that Sinfield has barely had two weeks with the players and changing ingrained bad habits is no quick fix. In these pages the World Cup-winning defence coach and original cross-code convert Phil Larder recently warned that he must be given time for his systems to bed in. Equally we must keep in mind that Sinfield is still a relative novice to union, and a rookie at Test level, making his task all the more difficult.
The message coming from the camp is that his focus has been on line speed and on “tackle dominance”. As Sam Simmonds put it before the Scotland defeat, “not just getting off the line but stopping the carriers where they are”, but there were times at Twickenham when overeagerness crept in – Ben Curry perhaps the most guilty as seen with Ben White’s try.
In the buildup to Huw Jones’s opening try, meanwhile, there was not a great deal wrong with the line speed but the defensive spacing – something Larder identified as a priority to work on when he was appointed by Clive Woodward – left much to be desired.
It is Duhan van der Merwe’s wonder try that is arguably of more concern. In one of Eddie Jones’s more candid moments in his latter days as head coach, he addressed Argentina’s first try in their narrow victory in November. In hindsight it was a hugely significant try for Jones because, while it cannot be said that Argentina would not have won without it, it is reasonable to suggest he would still be in a job had England snuck home against the Pumas.
“You don’t like to see first-phase tries like that,” was Jones’s response. Unremarkable at the time and bang on the money because conceding tries such as that scored by Emiliano Boffelli, finished off in the left corner after a lineout on the right, will infuriate coaches. Nonetheless, it sprung to mind last weekend when Van der Merwe scored what was either a try for the ages or a defensive disaster depending on which side of the fence you sit. It was in many ways a vastly different score to that of Boffelli but still, it was a first-phase try and you can bet your life that Steve Borthwick and Sinfield “did not like to see it”.
A simply incredible try 😍#AsOne pic.twitter.com/l8FfuCnm5x
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) February 4, 2023
On first inspection Van der Merwe beat five defenders on his way to the line. Take a closer look and you see that he effectively won five one-on-ones – something you’d back him to do against pretty much anyone – so disjointed was England’s defence. That it came in England’s first match since Kurt-Lee Arendse’s wonderful finish for South Africa – a similar score again from a loose kick – suggests we should pity the fool who boots the ball aimlessly long against Italy on Sunday when Ange Capuozzo will be waiting to strike.
First-phase tries come in various forms. Those such as Boffelli’s, from a set-piece strike move, are the most frustrating for coaches but regardless of the type, the problem for England is that they are shipping a lot of them. Nineteen to be precise, since the start of 2021, which is almost double of that of Ireland and South Africa – who have played three more Tests – and accounts for 40% of England’s tries conceded in that time period.
Back to Huw Jones’s try and we can safely say that Sione Tuipulotu’s grubber for his centre partner was part of a premeditated plan because Scotland released footage on social media of him refining the kick in the days before the match. That, in turn, was a reminder of how Ireland could be seen practising the move that led to Keith Earls’ try against England in 2021 the day before at their captain’s run. Both point to England being outwitted.
That Earls score falls into that category of lineout moves which England seem susceptible to. In the same competition they were undone again by France in a lineout move more akin to that of Argentina’s, finished off by Damian Penaud in the right-hand corner. Italy got one too, from a scrum, and last summer it was a similar story in the third Test of England’s tour of Australia with Tom Wright going over on the right after a lineout on the left near halfway.
These tries represent a troubling pattern for England and suggest a predictability as well as a rigidity – an inability to react to events in real time. There is no doubt that these England players would run through walls for Sinfield but he is learning fast that only goes so far in the international arena.