England are two wins from two at the World Cup and have collected nine points from a maximum of 10. Still it would appear that’s not quite enough for some fans. Last week against Japan, kicking was a hot topic and talking point. But I would ask the question: who made the most kicks in the game, England or Japan? The answer was Japan.
However, the narrative post-match was that England kicked everything and Japan played some nice rugby and produced moments of magic. Here is the difference between perception and reality and it should be noted that Japan didn’t score a single try whereas England scored four and won the game comfortably.
So why do England kick, what is the purpose and is it just England? The reason the top sides in the world kick is for a few simple reasons, to dominate territory, apply pressure and challenge teams’ skills from deep as well as tactical pressure. Look at the opening 10 minutes of the game against Japan. Elliot Daly applied kick pressure, there was a knock-on from Japan in goal and England were soon adding three points. A few minutes later, another kick deep into Japan’s 22, England put pressure on Japan’s lineout, won the ball and Lewis Ludlam scored England’s opening try. That’s 10 points and the genesis of the points were kicking which led to territory and pressure.
I understand the frustrations of England supporters during the game and at the time, I shared in those frustrations. I asked the question, “why are we kicking?’ in commentary but I have watched the game back and put England’s performance in perspective alongside those of the so-called “big four” teams at the tournament. I’ve reached the conclusion that the conversation should not be “why are England kicking?”. Rather, it should be understanding and appreciating the value of kicking.
The reality is that England kick the most and the highest up the field most consistently but that is not to say that France, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland don’t kick a huge amount too. The only difference with England is that the execution of the best ranked teams in the world in the 22 is currently far superior. That’s the next step England need to take. It’s like the old golfing cliche – driving is for show, putting is for dough. England are in a pretty good place off the tee at the moment but they need to improve on the green.
According to the performance analyst Ross Hamilton, England are top of the list when it comes to kicking the most, followed by Australia, France, New Zealand, Japan, Wales, South Africa and Ireland, in that order. Ireland meanwhile, make the most carries and metres and have the fastest ruck speed, the second-most linebreaks and gainline success as well as the third most defenders beaten. New Zealand are high on the kicking list but have the second-most defenders beaten, France are too and Australia are second but have the third most red-zone entries. England’s problem is they are bottom of the list for carries, metres made, linebreaks, defenders beaten, offloads, tries and ruck speed.
In other words, kicking isn’t the problem, the issue is layering on the detail once they’ve reaped the rewards from kicking in terms of territory and possession. Against Chile, will they use the boot in the way they’ve used in the last couple of weeks? Yes, expect that they will. That is England’s way at the moment and they have to be themselves. To suggest that they might change their approach completely in a game they will win would be wasted minutes. For me it’s not about England changing what they’re doing but executing it as well as they can.
What I’d love to see is an enhanced performance when England get into the 22. They’ll be aware it hasn’t clicked yet, against Japan there was the lineout just before half-time when the ball hit Jamie George in the face, which summed things up. It just hasn’t quite been there yet but if they can layer on that detail against Chile, in the red zone, where it really matters, then you’re looking at all of England’s tactics, all of how they want to perform, rather than the 60-70% of what we’ve seen so far. Which is occupying 100% of people’s attention.
But when you retain the ball eight times from your contestable kicks, you are doing something right, you are getting the foundations in place. What are they doing when you retain the ball? That’s the frustration and there has to be a balance between instinct and gameplan. There were times when I thought there was the opportunity to make one more pass and if the space is closed down then there is a better opportunity to kick. England looked to kick early at times. There were times when I thought, “have a look first”, but the first option was to kick.
It is important to take a breath and take a step back, however, and look at where England were in January. South Africa won the last World Cup with a game based on kicking and their set piece and Rassie Erasmus took over 18 months beforehand. He couldn’t revolutionise what they did, he kept it simple and they were bloody good at executing it. England are in the part of the cycle where the Springboks were in the buildup to 2019. We’ve had nine months under Steve Borthwick.
When it comes to improving execution in the 22, Borthwick’s team selection makes me optimistic for Saturday. As brilliant as George Ford has been in the last two matches, the England backline has been missing an extra ball player. It’s hard to compare the last 20 minutes to the first 20 but England have looked sharp when Marcus Smith has come on at full-back so it’ll be fascinating to see how he dovetails with Owen Farrell at fly-half. We may also see Ford and Farrell link up against Chile at some point but England do need another general to create that sense of calm and composure.
I felt that against Japan, the forwards did a really good job picking and going. Joe Marchant’s try was a good example – the forwards carried hard and then the backline was connected, making the pitch as big as possible, and Marchant went over from two or three yards. It was England at their clinical best and showed what this side is capable of.2023-09-22T13:44:58Z dg43tfdfdgfd