Ireland’s backline were ‘spooked’ by England’s effort and attitude | Nick Evans | Sport

There was plenty to admire in England’s performance against Ireland but the most impressive aspect was that they looked back to their destructive and dominant best in defence. Manu Tuilagi gives them such a launchpad in attack and he gets them over the gain-line, but it was a victory based on their outstanding effort in defence.

First, their decision-making at the breakdown was excellent. Very rarely were they competing at the wrong times and as a result they always seemed to have numbers on their feet.

On top of that was their ability to “Double D” on Ireland’s attackers outside Johnny Sexton. What I mean by that is England’s defenders – let’s take Maro Itoje as an example because I thought he was exceptional – were defending the frontline but also the Ireland players sweeping out the back. If you can get to that second line of attack it allows the wider defenders to shut down the attacking options.

We call it “spooking” the inside attackers and it forces them to play short which then in turn means your defenders in the middle of the pitch can double up with two-man tackles. England did that time and again, and when you can do it repeatedly you can march the opposition back.

Most man-watching defences operate the “Double D” principle and England are no different with John Mitchell calling the shots. If you come up against an attack which uses layers, as most now do as a way of combating line speed, playing out the back behind lead runners is a common attacking system in the modern game. The key for the defensive side is to check the lead runners and then push off to put pressure on the next layer. Itoje was at the forefront but not alone, and the rest of those defenders in the middle, particularly when Ireland were coming off an edge, had an ability to make the right read, still bring that effective linespeed and push through again. Ireland started to play short and England could pick them off with two-man hits which always tend to be dominant.

It’s very tough to play against but you can either try to turn the defenders by kicking in behind or by putting them on the ground at the ruck. England were able to fight away from Ireland’s ruck-clearers and ensure they were not getting caught as much as their opposite numbers. That’s automatically a win for the defensive side, so if you are playing England you have to try to tie as many men into the ruck as you can, try to play in and around there and shorten up their defensive line as much as possible. When England bring the kind of effort and attitude they did on Sunday, though, it is a very difficult task.

Ireland were forced into all manner of mistakes and they really struggled to get out of their half. There was a lack of creativity from Ireland; it always tends to be the case when your half-backs don’t have great games and that was the most erratic I’ve seen Sexton for a long time. That seemed to have knock-on effect on Conor Murray, which in turn made their shape too predictable.

England did not have such problems with getting their attack going. I wouldn’t say they were quite at their World Cup sharpness but I do believe that when it comes to executing a territorial game England are the best in the world. And with Ben Youngs and then Willi Heinz, George Ford, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly forming the spine of the back line they are always likely to be.

We saw them able to identify space in behind against Scotland and against Ireland they did the same. There was an element of luck to their tries in the first half but kicks like that create panic that England were able to take advantage of. When they are on song like that they can be very hard to play against. Ford can pivot from right to left in a split second, or he can move the ball to 12 which brings wings up, Farrell can then do the same, or they can play to the edge and Daly can do it.

Jonathan Joseph brought pace outside for England.

Jonathan Joseph brought pace outside for England. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Looking at where England are now in terms of their campaign I think a transition period after a result like that in the World Cup final was inevitable. The whole Saracens debacle cannot have helped and then you have changes to the coaching staff which will alter the dynamic of the group.

But back on their home turf, in good conditions, we simply saw good players playing well. Courtney Lawes was deservedly the man of the match, stepping up without Mako or Billy Vunipola there. In terms of getting that next phase over the gainline, often after Tuilagi had made the first dent, he was excellent, making big hits as well.

On the whole they looked more comfortable in their combinations. Jonathan Joseph brought pace out wide and he, along with Daly and Jonny May, ensured England dominated the aerial battle.

At the World Cup England were all about a good territorial game, a good aerial game, a good defensive unit, and a power attack off the back of a good set piece, and we saw a lot of that against Ireland.

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