England’s lack of attacking composure is still crippling them

Wales' George North tackles England's Tommy Freeman
England's conversion rate in the opposition 22 is a worrying weakness - AP/Alastair Grant
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Although they have heralded another new dawn under Jamie George, there is an ugly legacy of recent years that England must shake off. To trouble the top echelons of the Test scene with any consistency, their conversion rate in the opposition 22 must be addressed. Frankly, it has been crippling them.

Tracing back the problem, one could pinpoint the final of the 2019 World Cup when South Africa held them on the verge of half-time and appeared to snap their spirit somewhat. Jacques Nienaber, an influential mentor of Felix Jones, was holding a towel in the dead-ball area – signposting his unique dual role as physiotherapist-defence coach – and barking instructions to his Springboks.

England’s inefficiency at close range bled into the next four-year cycle and is in danger of stifling the start of this one, because they began this pivotal encounter against Wales in a tidy, connected manner. Their aggressive defence was rushing the visitors and trapping them deep inside their own territory. When Wales did kick, England sliced them with incisive, cohesive counters. Upon crossing the 22, though? Impetus continually fizzled out.

A lack of attacking composure

Martin Gleeson, attack coach between 2021 and 2022, infamously admitted that England did not even practice such scenarios under Eddie Jones. The plan, apparently, had been to wait until the prolonged World Cup camp to devise a strategy. In truth, rewiring England into a clinical, try-scoring machine will not be easy because there are several factors contributing to a muddy cocktail.

Without either Ollie Lawrence in midfield or another back-row bopper like Alfie Barbeary or Tom Willis, there is not a great deal of bristling ball-carriers for Steve Borthwick to call upon. Ellis Genge, Theo Dan and Chander Cunningham-South bolstered that area from the bench. Yet England seem to get bogged down in pick-and-go exchanges more than most sides, and can become lateral when the ball moves wider past the breakdown.

Generally, their support-running in broken-field situations is a work in progress. Tying this all together is an unshakeable sense that they appear to lose composure and even panic as the whitewash nears.

Wales, it must be said, played on this issue wonderfully. Their supporters have occasionally – and affectionately, it must be stressed – likened their own team to dog s---. The rationale? Just try scraping them off your shoe. Though somewhat unsavoury, that image illustrated the first half beautifully.

Reffell is Wales’ arch dementor

It was a masterclass in hanging tough and sucking the energy out of a crowd while causing opponents to turn and face their own neuroses. Tommy Reffell, an understated virtuoso of an openside flanker, was Warren Gatland’s arch dementor and the best player on the pitch by some distance. The 24-year-old pounced for his first turnover within 145 seconds on the clock. England had burst Wales via a carving Freddie Steward and then worked themselves another big opportunity, in the shape of a five-metre line-out, when Rio Dyer carried George Ford’s cross-kick beyond the touchline and did not call for a mark.

Ethan Roots rumbled around and aimed at Ioan Lloyd. Nick Tompkins and Reffell guarded their diminutive fly-half. They jammed in to stop any momentum. Where Reffell really goes to work, though, is after the tackle is completed. Attackers cannot switch off for a second when he is within sniffing distance of the ball. Bodies in white and red shirts slipped to the floor and Reffell snapped into action. He burrowed in and clamped on. James Doleman, the New Zealand referee, announced that he was entitled to compete for possession  and rewarded Reffell with a penalty. England’s first foray was extinguished.

Wales flanker Tommy Reffell holds up Fraser Dingwall
Wales flanker Tommy Reffell (right) was England's tormentor-in-chief - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

As a collective, Wales were disciplined in their disruption. Without compromising on tenacious counter-rucking to frustrate England, they did not concede a penalty until early in the second half and only shipped five in total. Mike Forshaw, their defence coach, can be very content.

England continued to work openings on the counter. Five minutes in, Tommy Freeman flipped an offload to Ford and another basketball pass put Alex Mitchell down the right touchline. Lloyd scrambled to cover a chip ahead, but Steward sent Daly tearing through the defensive line from the ensuing clearance. The latter’s grubber bobbled into touch. Another kick from Ford led, following Maro Itoje’s robust mauling, to a five-metre put-in. Jamie George rallied the troops: “Power play, now! Power play, now!” Mitchell scurried away from the scrum with three flat options and Henry Slade spilled under pressure from George North.

Around 40 seconds later, with England surely feeling as though they could have been ahead, Ollie Chessum saw yellow to begin a mini-spiral. To their immense credit, England arrested this in ballsy fashion. Down to 13 men, after Ethan Roots joined Chessum on the naughty step, they still backed themselves to rush and ruffle Wales. Itoje sacked Lloyd to earn a scrum and Ben Earl forced himself over. Still, a deft offload from Reffell to Tomos Williams, who released Alex Mann, sparked a Wales response.

Defence, set-piece accuracy and kicking – Ford’s 50:22 was a vital intervention later on – edged England to victory. Even for their second try, finished by Fraser Dingwall, the connection between Ford and Daly was almost fatally scruffy.

Coaches stress that attack is always the last piece of the puzzle. The problem is that England have been preaching that message for years. Without a streak of try-scoring ruthlessness at Murrayfield, their Six Nations could fizzle out.

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