Winning ugliness, it is said, is a hallmark of great teams, but it can also be an indicator of an average team. What then is England, which has one foot in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup after defeating Japan? On Sunday they put in a performance only a mother could love for 60 minutes – but an acceleration in the final quarter saw them take five pool points on a difficult evening.
It may depend on how you view a Rorschach contest of a game and the merits of England’s kick pressure strategy. Take the positive, which England were understandably inclined to do in hindsight, and a bonus point win was long gone. Japan is not as strong as it was four years ago, but showed a strong defensive performance for much of the game. Their trademark attacking invention tested England’s own defenses but they held firm – conceding a goal in two games is an outstanding achievement.
There must also be a certain level of confidence on both sides regarding the sloppiness on Sunday night in slippery conditions. The humidity of the ongoing French heat wave is causing all teams problems in dealing with and making contact. Mistakes were a common theme in almost every game in this tournament.
“Ultimately it comes down to the players finding a way,” said Steve Borthwick afterwards. “It was a challenge for both teams in these conditions.
“Japan kicked the ball 37 times. I’m not sure when we’ll see a Japanese team shoot the ball 37 times. That gives you a clue to the nature of the matter. In Fiji’s win (against Australia) they scored a try with a box kick. That reveals a lot about the challenge.
“From all the information we knew that the last quarter would be an important quarter, it would be tight. We had to step on the gas in the last quarter and the boys did that.”
The boos in the first hour in Nice suggested that England fans were not entirely in agreement, although Elliot Daly insisted afterwards that the fans’ displeasure could not be heard on the pitch. But in the end there were five points.
Much of the frustration seemed to come down to a single question: why are England kicking so often? Such words, often accompanied by a swear word or two, circulated throughout Nice throughout the game and dominated the discussion on the tram back into the city.
The approach stems in part from the lack of time Steve Borthwick and his staff had with the team, with the coaches lacking the time to build complexity and cohesion in the attack over a four-year cycle. A kick-pressure game quickly paid dividends in Leicester and is proving to be an effective strategy in a tournament where retaining the ball is difficult.
Kicking remains a sometimes misunderstood element of professional rugby union. Most games are won by teams that shoot for more yards than their opponents, while France, Ireland and South Africa, the three best teams in this tournament, all have strong, varied shooting games that they use well.
The simple conclusion is that teams should therefore kick as often as possible. As always, it’s not that easy. In American football, there is a connection between rushing yards and success – teams that run the ball more often win the most games. But there is no causal relationship – winning teams tend to increase their rushing totals through a more conservative game plan to kill time and avoid potentially costly turnovers.
According to data analysts, it is unclear to what extent this applies to kick meters in rugby, as the sport’s different dynamics and less developed analytical studies make assessment difficult.
But you have to shoot well, and the nature of modern rugby union makes it a more efficient use of possession than it might seem at first glance. Given the physicality and intensity of the breakdown competition, there is little point in playing periods within your own half where every punishable ruck error earns the opponent either three points or a punt into their own half.
As the number of phases increases, the chance of making a sale logically increases. France rarely play for more than five rucks before kicking in and reloading, knowing that not pausing at the start of the round will do little to expend further energy. It is harder to adequately resource rucks in external channels, which can sometimes explain why external backs turn down the chance to take a man.
England isn’t the only one doing this either. The striking thing about Fiji’s win over Australia was that the Pacific Islanders largely abandoned their natural penchant for playing late and instead engaged the Wallabies in extended periods of punting, which both stole time from the game and denied Australia the opportunity to award penalties win. Creative attacking kicks can also be a weapon – see George Ford’s beautiful left-footed lob wedge for Freddie Steward against Japan or Manie Libbok’s no-look version from last weekend.
Borthwick’s side showed intelligence by making use of Steward’s large wingspan and flying bird of prey abilities, while scrum-half Alex Mitchell was also stationed in the backfield as an option for particularly high kicks. Accurate kicking and good chasing are of course key, but these are the parts of the England game that have worked best so far, coupled with the fitness improvements for which Aled Walters deserves credit.
By intelligently manipulating the backcourt during kick passages, you can create counterattack opportunities. Competitive kicking can work in a similar way – a good aerial chase can cause chaos or regain advanced possession. This is where France, for example, excels at getting out of the shootout and having the complexity of handling and athleticism to exploit space and spot tired forwards, mismatches or shapeless defensive lines.
The question for England is whether they have the players to do it. Marcus Smith has impressed both on the bench and in training at full-back and could be given a starting opportunity against Chile, while Owen Farrell is also available again to create interesting opportunities in midfield. England will still need more strength to compete with the best teams, but they will hope the attack will come with time.
“We are not happy with our attacking position,” Wigglesworth said Monday. “But that has nothing to do with the kicking game. Nor is it separate from it. It’s all part of the same fabric. We want to shoot the ball brilliantly, so either we get it back brilliantly or we shoot to score.
“It’s definitely better to fight for position than to lose the ball. What we have seen so far in this World Cup is that the most successful teams have had very clever and efficient shooting. We’re working on ours to make sure it’s in the best possible position.” There’s still a long way to go but England won’t stray too far from their successful strategy just yet.