England enjoyed a 31-point victory margin over Italy in their first round of the 2018 Six Nations. Crashball Rugby analyses what the win means for the rest of the tournament.
From the get-go we looked to be witnessing the familiar run of order, with England looking fast and furious in the face of their weakest opponents. The usual running order seemed to apply, with a handful of standout features that may have gone unnoticed when watching the first time around.
England's wings continue to develop
For the game's opening try, we saw George Ford and Owen Farrell run the familar shape of letting one dummy runner commit defenders before shipping the ball out to one another in true 'to-me-to-you' Chuckle Brothers fashion. Hartley and Brown did well to tie in their opposite men and allow wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson to combine prior to crossing the line.
The moment to observe here is how May is used in combination with Watson, left to take the decision whether to drop the hammer himself through the gap or release his fellow wing. May is used in this manner again immediately afterwards, this time with two backrows outside him.
While this is not quite a carbon copy, it is markably similar to the way in which Exeter Chiefs use their wingers. Exeter have their wings closer to the middle of the pitch and are very often used as the first receiver, but regularly using one or both wingers as distributors and decision makers in crucial areas of the pitch is a tactic that can work well if the outside men have the right awareness, decision making process and pace to go themselves.
With Elliot Daly usually filling the role we see May doing here, it is reassuring for England fans to see May is not letting Daly pull too far ahead when it comes to the intricacies of Eddie Jones' game plan. May must be commended here for his development, he is a long way from the man we first saw on the international scene.
Sticking with our theme of the back three, take a moment to watch this bounce of the ball that gets the best of Brown, at first.
Brown's head is still called for on a daily basis, but moments like this shouldn't go unnoticed. While the bounce of the ball can beat even the best players in the world, it is the recovery here that should be noted.
Brown regathers the ball and shrugs off the first tackler and makes ground against the next man in. Situations just like this so often end up in the defending fullback either conceding a penalty for holding on in attempt to prevent a turnover and possible try or losing possession resulting in an opponent's score. Brown's strength and tenacity to actually gain metres here simply cannot go unappreciated.
Despite looking to tear Italy apart with every piece of possession of the game thus far, England's defence came off second best at times to Italian carriers.
Here we see the Azzurri get the best of their Anglo-opponent's three carries in succession, getting past the tackler and making ground in vein to keep the English on the back foot. First a combination of Ford and Courtney Lawes miss their man, Dan Cole then gets bumped and Joe Launchbury fails to put down his opposition, who is allowed to scramble forward a few extra metres.
England's errors permit their opponents front-foot ball while keeping the visiting side pedalling backwards in defence. If England are to win their third consecutive tournament and perhaps another grand slam, they simply cannot afford their rivals such easy metres, especially the tournament's perennial underdogs. This can perhaps be forgiven with the knowledge that the team had been thoroughly run through their paces in camp and the fact that these errors occurred within the first ten minutes of the tournament, however, Jones will not see it that way.
England will need to tighten up these areas from the first whistle, lest they allow some of the more dangerous nations space and time to end hopes of lifting this year's trophy.
In the lead up to Watson's second try, we see once again English dummy runners successfully comitting their opposite men. Here we see Farrell utilised as a runner and not a distributor, which in the naivety of an Italian defence causes three defenders to allow themselves to either plant their feet or turn inwards to face the threat of a single runner.
The ensuing try is almost a carbon copy of the first and would likely not have been scored against a more coherent defensive unit. England's running lines are much improved and the intricacies of their attack are clearly developing since the start of Eddie Jones' tenure. However, we must not prematurely jump the gun with praise, next weekend's fixture against Wales at Twickenham will be a true test of England's ever evolving attack.
One of the biggest talking points in the days leading up to last weekend's game was that of former Rugby League player Ben Te'o starting at outside centre. Traditionally an inside centre, Te'o found himself with his second start for England, both of which came in the 13 jersey and against the Italians.
While the Worcester Warriors' centre did well to assert his physicality by straightening England's attacking game and putting in a few crunching hits in defence, he was also exposed a handful of times. Take a look here at an Italian play off the back of a scrum in midfield.
Here we see Te'o overcommit towards the centre of the field, resulting in both he and scrum-half Danny Care sitting on the same defender while Watson is left covering two men. A couple of phases later and Italy have scored their first try, with Farrell and May caught too narrow on the opposite wing to defend the long pass of Tommaso Allan for his namesake, Tommaso Benvenuti.
This is a situation in which we see the absence of Jonathan Joseph in the 13 jersey prove detrimental to England's cause. The selection of Te'o was undoubtedly made for his added physicality. If Joseph had the ability to grow three foot overnight you would imagine he would be found rooted into his jersey.
When Joseph arrived on the field in the 58th minute, we saw a performance driven by the pain of being dropped to the bench for a more physical option. While Te'o was used as a straight line runner to bore holes through brute force, Joseph went about running the same lines, but utilised his own attributes to make ground. Joseph was clearly out to make a point to Jones, that he can do anything Te'o can for England, just in his own way.
Joseph's footwork was exceptional at times, putting in those little steps that set the defender off balance enough to cut past the first few men and end up making just as much ground if not more than Te'o was earlier on. Take a look at the examples we've clipped up.
The second time Joseph makes this break, the momentum created by his footwork allows Ford and Farrell to combine a few phases later for an eventual Farrell line break and Ford try.
The aforementioned errors in Te'o's defensive performance are not concerns when it comes to Joseph. The Bath centre is one of the world's best defenders in a notoriously difficult outside centre channel.
In fairness to Te'o, it was the 31-year-old's first game for nearly a year in England colours and three months at any level due to an ankle injury. The errors in judgment and reaction time can be partially attributed to rustiness and a lack of mobility following this long-term injury. However, at test level that doesn't always fly and it will take plenty of faith and understanding from Jones if Te'o is to retain a starting berth next weekend.
Mako Vunipola- prop, fly-half, number eight, billionaire playboy philanthropist
Now we come to show some love for the big men upfront. In the absence of younger (yet bigger) brother Billy, Mako Vunipola took up plenty of the slack in England's carrying game. Not only did Mako prove effective going forward, but his work rate in defence has become unrivalled in England. The Tongan-born prop can be seen to make two tackles and compete for the ball in three rucks in succession on more than one occasion throughout his 70 minutes of game time.
What makes the 27-year-old quite so special is the way in which he is used as a distributor. Below we see the Saracens man take the ball to the line to commit three defenders, only to then whip the ball out the back to Farrell, who ships it on to Dan Cole. The tighthead makes the most of the men previously comitted to Mako and earns good yardage, with an impressive spin to evade the tackler to boot. More Swan Lake than Ice Road Truckers for the Leicester stalwart.
This phase of play led to Farrell's try a few moments later, the work of both Mako and Cole were key in England's third try.
Later on in the game we also see Mako dislodge the ball in a tackle and then stunt a dangerous looking Italy attack three metres out, killing their momentum.
Mako has proven invaluable to England's game and would be sorely missed should he pick up an injury as he did ahead of last year's tournament.
On his Six Nations debut, Sam Simmonds has truly become England's wonderkid. The 23-year-old is a stark contrast to the usual suspects of Bully Vunipola and Nathan Hughes as an England number eight. The Chiefs dynamo exploits the opposition's defence with the type of footwork and acceleration some of the best wingers in the world can't match.
Simmonds' first eye catching moment was from the back of a maul, spotting an open backfield and exploding from the pile of forwards to cross under the sticks nearly untouched.
With Italian legs tiring ever further, Simmonds catches his opposition's defence by surprise once again.
Not content with his two-try debut, Simmonds played a huge role in England's seventh and last try. When Ford is scanning to see what options are available whilst enjoying penalty advantage, Simmonds is ready and waiting out wide, anticipating the pass down the wing.
What makes this moment standout even more is the way Simmonds times his hold and pass to perfection, adding the cherry on top with a no look pass to do everything possible to create space for Nowell to cross over in the corner. England have something truly special in the Exeter backrow.
While Simmonds' performance was packed with moments to make England fans skip from pub to pub in the ensuing weeks, his day was not errorless. Simmonds' lightweight nature is the reason his moments of magic are possible, but his frame is also the cause of a few incidences that will leave Eddie Jones concerned with the man from Devon retaining his spot.
On four occasions Simmonds is caught out for lacking a certain amount of bulk. In both defence and attack the Italians were able to target him for his relatively diminutive stature for an international eight. Here are a few examples of the issues Jones faces when selecting Simmonds against some of the heavyweight nations.
Here we see the Italian Centre stop Simmonds dead in his tracks, despite a run-up over a substantial distance. Ten minutes later we see a similar situation occur, Simmonds goes to take the ball as a one-out runner but is unable to make the kind of ground some of his fellow forwards have been able to.
There is plenty to be excited about when it comes to Simmonds in an England jersey, but this excitement must be tempered with the fact that he struggles at times to compete with the sheer physicality of test level rugby.
Fortunately, the England coaching staff were wise enough to compensate their team selection and tactics to work around SImmonds, instead of throwing him into the eight jersey and demanding he fill the void left by Vunipola and Hughes.
Wasps' second row Joe Launchbury is a man that has struggled to break into the England lineup under Jones. If not for last year's injuries to the likes of Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw, we may not have seen Launchbury earn the multiple man of the match performances he amassed. Launchbury filled the gap in the second row left by Itoje, who was shifted to flanker during last year's tournament. In last weekend's performance, the Wasps captain took up the slack in England's carrying game and was arguably the most influential carrier. The yardage he made in the tight were the type of influential moments that go unnoticed but are worth their weight in gold in coaches' eyes. With Launchbury, Lawes, Itoje and Mako all carrying the way they do, Simmonds can be afforded the freedom to use his attacking attributes. This does not however absolve Simmonds of the aforementioned issues and no doubt Jones will be highlighting them, ensuring the Chiefs star works on his ability in close quarters.
Looking ahead to Twickenham
Ahead of next week's clash with Wales, we can expect a fairly similar lineup, with Jonathan Joseph coming in at outside centre after his performance from the bench. With Wales putting on the all attacking show they did over the Scots, Joseph's defence will be key to keeping the visiting side off the scoresheet wherever possible.
Sam Simmonds' eye catching performance will be noted as a huge positive going forward, but Wales' pack will be bigger, gnarlier and wiser than the Italians. The selection call between Bath's Zach Mercer and Simmonds will be closer than many may think. With Mercer still uncapped and Simmonds sitting at three years and four caps his senior, he will likely still get the nod.
Nowell will be pushing May for a starting berth on the left wing against Wales. However, the fact that Jones is considering Nowell as a centre and that the out-and-out pace that May offers matched only by Anthony Watson, it seems likely the Chiefs man will retain his spot on the bench.
Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury have cemented themselves as guaranteed picks in the pack. Vunipola's carrying and distribution is key to England's attack and is irreplacable. Launchbury proved he can make up the difference between Billy Vunipola and Simmonds and provides extra leadership in a team ever developing in maturity and leaders.
Wales will look to bring their fast paced Scarlets attack to Twickenham, but aside from interventions from May, Watson, Joseph and Simmonds, you can expect a tight, constricting performance from the English. Wales will have their new style of play tested against a physical, attritional side looking to make it three titles from three under beloved Auzzie head coach, Eddie Jones.
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