Set-piece variation and incisive phase-play at heart of new England attack
Thanks to a tough, intrepid performance from Scotland, illuminated by the phenomenal Duhan van der Merwe, England’s dire record in the Calcutta Cup has worsened to one win in six. Steve Borthwick deals in hard facts, and that one will sting.
Then again, we know that the England head coach is not prone to rash overreaction. Expect him to take the rough – glaring defensive errors, a rather timid final quarter and untimely discipline lapses – with the smooth.
In a contest punctuated by seven eye-catching tries, two of England’s should spur encouragement for different reasons. First, to Max Malins’ second.
Over the past two years, it has been exceedingly rare to see England break down opponents with their phase-play – notwithstanding the blockbuster finish against New Zealand. In the 37th minute, though, the hosts launched a slick passage at Twickenham.
It begins from a rushed Finn Russell clearance:
Watch Joe Marchant, who was praised by Borthwick in the build-up for his speed on the edge of attacking lines. The outside centre circles around Freddie Steward so that when Ollie Hassell-Collins helps recover possession, he can take a pass and make ground:
England adopt their shape quickly, with Ollie Chessum at the head of a three-man pod. Owen Farrell is in behind with Marcus Smith wider. In midfield, Ben Curry, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are organising themselves:
Chessum carries well, although Jack van Poortvliet seems initially more concerned with buying a penalty out of Ben White than he does with playing the ball:
On the next phase, Farrell feeds Genge…
…and England sweep around to probe the near touchline with Lewis Ludlam cutting a hard angle in front of Smith. Steward arcs across...
…but is skipped by a cut-out pass to Malins, who cuts inside and crosses the 10-metre line:
Next, we see the options that this shape can provide. Sinckler steps up at first-receiver with Genge on his shoulder and Farrell on a pull-back option. Scotland have to hold narrow but also stay wary of a midfield carry. England could even impart more width with Smith arcing around into a deeper slot:
Once Sinckler finds Farrell, there are two passing lanes:
Farrell launches Alex Dombrandt, and England pierce the gain-line:
On the next phase, Farrell goes behind Itoje to Smith and Hassell-Collins carries. Note the position of Marchant:
Sinckler steps up again on the next phase. He looks up, and sees WP Nel and Pierre Schoeman opposite him. Marchant, meanwhile, leaves the edge:
Some dainty footwork allows Sinckler to earn some impetus:
At this stage, Smith and Farrell are split on either side of the ruck. The latter has another pod of three, comprising Genge, Chessum and Dombrandt, to his right. Instead, though, Farrell darts to the inside as Van Poortvliet’s snipe sucks in Ben White. Marchant has crept off the wing to hunt that hole…
…and hits it hard:
England are into the 22 and here we see the intent that Nick Evans has aimed to implement. There is a desire to go quickly, with Chessum calling for the ball at first-receiver:
Farrell and Smith are curving around, but do not touch the ball. The highlighted players do:
Chessum throws a pull-back to Genge behind Dombrandt, Steward hits the line to find Ludlam and the overlap is capitalised upon.
Watch it through:
Such slick ball movement, which complements sharp shape, has not been a consistent feature of England’s attacking performances of late. And the sequence also underlines the selection dilemma that England face in the backline.
Are twin fly-halves necessary? Could England have put together the same attack without both Smith and Farrell on the field? At times, it must be beneficial to have two organisers and distributors working in tandem, if only to pull defenders in different directions.
But it is noticeable that Smith only touches the ball twice in the build-up to the try. Farrell, clearly the dominant playmaker, does so five times. The return of Henry Slade may bring greater balance – both to England’s defence and their attack – in this respect. Remember that injuries to Slade, Dan Kelly and Elliot Daly caused England to alter their plans.
Power of set-piece variation
Another subtle point that Borthwick made prior to the game was that props enjoy scrummaging in front of Ollie Chessum. Interestingly, as well as being a focal carrier for England, the 22-year-old scrummaged behind England’s tighthead props:
Here, five minutes into the second half, England force a scrum penalty as Pierre Schoeman is collared by referee Paul Williams for “not pushing straight”:
As ever, the offending side seems miffed:
Genge’s angle is questionable, but England kick to touch and call a five-man lineout. Chessum circles through from the back as Sinckler and Itoje lift Ludlam. But the interesting wrinkle is that Dombrandt is in the receiver slot with Curry out in midfield:
Richie Gray jumps across and is penalised for offside as he attempts to stop a developing maul from an illegal position:
England go to touch again. This time, they call a subtly different five-man set-up. Curry is in the receiver role with Dombrandt in midfield:
The men to watch in the Scotland defence are Grant Gilchrist and WP Nel at the tail:
As they burrow in, respecting the threat of the maul, Curry peels away. Dombrandt can hit a good angle to find space in the ‘seam’ between Scotland’s forwards and their backline…
…and England are clinical from close range. Sinckler, who lifted Chessum at the lineout, and Genge work around. Sinckler tips to his Bristol Bears teammate before Curry carries with the support of Ludlam. Van Poortvliet spins in the opposite direction, finding Genge, and England score a try that owes to their set-piece variation:
The hosts went 20-12 ahead, yet invited pressure immediately with Dombrandt spilling the restart and sunk to defeat. Ben White would score for Scotland from the next possession.
Genge ended up with a mammoth 18 carries, which might indicate their overreliance on the loosehead prop – again, a more balanced midfield might ease that.
As Russ Petty has detailed on Twitter, England did complete a whopping 207 passes, according to Opta, while only conceding nine turnovers.
Tests with England conceding under 20 combined turnovers + penalties since 2016 pic.twitter.com/6W3tYGNVX4
— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) February 5, 2023
With more penetration and a couple of better decisions, they would have edged out Scotland. And 23 points would have been enough to win the past three Calcutta Cup matches, albeit in more difficult conditions.
Borthwick admitted himself that he is facing up to questions, though there are bright moments for England to build on. Selection for round two against Italy will be mightily intriguing.
Match images courtesy of ITV