A FUNNY thing happened in the English Aviva Premiership last season. It wasn’t just that Harlequins won the title for the first time since leagues were introduced back in 1987/88, it was the way the London club went about it.
Under the astute Irishman Conor O’Shea, the West London club played out and out attacking, running rugby throughout the season and they refused to compromise even when it came to the Twickenham final against Leicester Tigers. They played a brand of rugby that has been viewed with vague suspicion, if not considered the devil’s own doing, in England’s top flight, where the overwhelming influence on thinking has been, at least until recently, Leicester’s hugely successful route-one rugby.
But even the Midlanders’ stodgy mindset is undergoing a miniature makeover. Only one team scored more than the 53 tries that Quins managed in the regular season last time out. The Tigers grabbed 70 tries. There has been a quiet revolution in English rugby that has transformed our near neighbours from stuff-it-up-the-jumper, Dean Richards clones to the sort of players that the Barbarians wouldn’t want to pick for a friendly on the grounds that it would be too risky.
The wall of fame of those teams that have embraced the new philosophy boasts some surprising names – Gloucester, Exeter (as anyone who saw them take the game to Leinster last weekend will testify) and London Irish, who arguably started the ball rolling a few years back. Wasps have long been evangelists and Northampton Saints insist on playing with the ball in hand despite the obvious power of their forwards.
The clubs at the bottom of the table perhaps don’t boast the skills or the opportunity to let rip but only one club at the business end of the league has dug in their heels and stood resolutely Canute-like against the prevailing tide, Saracens. As things stand Quins head the Aviva table having chalked up an admirable tally of 33 tries. Saracens are in second place with (cue embarrassed cough) 13.
Two clubs, two dramatically different approaches to the same game, and England coach Stuart Lancaster is benefiting from both. It’s something of an oversimplification but essentially England have adopted both styles. They play like Saracens in their own half, they defend like demons and kick long when they win a turnover. They act like Quins in opposition territory, with quick thinking and a willingness to move the ball, building pressure until something has to give.
Lancaster is a student of the game. He understands that the best teams earn a lot of points simply by pressuring the opposition inside their own half, which leads to a turnover or a penalty or, in Manu Tuilagi’s case, an interception try. England earned something like 25 points against New Zealand by doing nothing more than rugby’s equivalent of basketball’s full court press. That is one reason why England rarely mess about with the ball inside their own red zone.
The key to England’s double-edged strategy is Owen Farrell, the ridiculously gifted 21-year-old England stand-off and son of Andy, rugby league great and England backs coach. It’s a potent father/son combination that could only be strengthened by an appearance of the Holy Ghost to complete the trinity.
His kicking from hand ensures England play in the opposition half and his kicking off the tee makes the scoreboard turn with the regularity of a town hall clock. It was Farrell who recently slotted a record 11 goals from 11 kicks against Racing Metro in Paris while in Saracens colours. It may not be a complete coincidence that it was Farrell, rather than Toby Flood, who was pulling the strings when England ran up a record score against the All Blacks in November and the same man will be present and correct, either at ten or 12, on Saturday afternoon because his kicking is crucial to England’s success.
England and New Zealand both scored three tries, the difference on the day was penalties, where England were six from six (four to Farrell, two to his replacement Freddie Burns) and New Zealand registered none from two. The territory and possession stats were even, actually New Zealand shaded both, but the score tells you which team was turning the screw.
Once they set up camp inside the opposition half England have the strike power to hurt anyone. Tuilagi reads the game well and his option-taking is improving, Brad Barritt will always get the side on the front foot and whoever Lancaster picks in the back three will pose all sorts of problems given a little time and space. Even up front Lancaster has gone for ball players over one-paced enforcers. Ben Morgan is preferred to Thomas Waldrom, Joe Launchbury gets the nod over Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling is ahead of Mouritz Botha. These guys all look lean and athletic, a far cry from the days when England placed muscles and attitude above anything else.
This is a team built to attack when the opportunity arises and, not for the first time, because England have ventured into these realms once before. In fact, Scotland’s forwards coach Dean Ryan recalls being dropped by Clive Woodward after his one and only Calcutta Cup match. His crime? Ryan opted for a push-over try at Murrayfield.
Woodward wanted his team to attack with width and, while his team didn’t play that much rugby during their 2003 World Cup campaign, they carved up the turf in the years leading into it. In 2002 they put 45 points on Ireland and registered the half century against Wales. In the same year they ran up 31 points in beating New Zealand and 32 when besting the Wallabies before securing a barely believable 53-3 victory over the Springboks. Scotland got off comparatively lightly that year with a 29-3 loss at Murrayfield before leaking 40 points at Twickenham the following season.
When England decide to play “total rugby” they can be an imposing force. Once more a sleeping giant is stirring in its lair, waking up to its own potential as much as anything. Before this tournament is over we may yet long for the days when the biggest threat in white was Dean Richards plodding around the edge of an England maul with the ball stuck up his jumper.