Analysis: How will Eddie Jones change England's attack?

Tactics: How will Eddie Jones change England’s attack?

Tactics: How will Eddie Jones change England’s attack?

There will have been a huge and forensic picking over of bones, analysis-wise, after the World Cup. One of the most interesting comments came from Wales attack coach Rob Howley, comparing teams whose attack made one pass (off 9) to those who made at least two (off 10). He said:

“New Zealand had the lowest rate of one-passes, 47%, and the highest, which surprised me, was Japan with 67%.”

The perception of Japan’s attacking game was defined by Eddie Jones’ mission statement “ruck and run”. They ruck, move the ball, and repeat. If Howley is right, they were playing predominantly one-out rugby and not shifting the focus of attack wide unless a very definite opportunity presented itself.

Let’s take a look at a table of how three different teams behaved against top-tier opponents in the course of the 2015 season:

Team Passes per game Rucks per game Offloads per game
New Zealand 169 84 13
Australia 141 92 6
Japan 155 110 5
  • New Zealand made more passes, and offloaded in contact more than anyone else, but they didn’t build as many rucks as either Australia or Japan. This suggests a side that want a wider focus to their attack, to sustain more tempo between stopping points (rucks) and are therefore more explosive. The high number of offloads implies a team who want to capitalize on momentum in the early phases (1-6).
  • Japan’s emphasis under Eddie Jones was ball-control at the breakdown. They built on average 26 more rucks than the All Blacks, and offloaded on 8 fewer occasions per game. This suggests a side that are playing on the chessboard of their coach’s imagination. They want to keep ball for long periods and create a prolonged test of defensive concentration for the opponent.

So where the All Blacks are looking to create situations where the game has moved beyond ‘pattern’ – to where their individual ball-skills are the decisive factor – Eddie Jones’ Japan were trying to create opportunities through pattern. Obviously it is a lot harder to do this if you are regularly throwing the ball wider because that is where the variables begin to multiply!

So let’s look at an example of the Eddie Jones attack in action, late on in that now-famous game against South Africa with Japan needing a try to get back in the game:

The breakdown of attacking plays supports Rob Howley’s statistical conclusion. Over the 20 phases the sequence lasts, there are

  • 15 one-pass plays (75%)
  • 3 two-pass plays (15%)
  • 2 pick & go plays (10%)

Although Japan always try to keep one attacker on the far touch-line to spread the defence, attacking play is always concentrated in an area between the two 15 metre lines and never moves beyond it (or only 5 metres beyond the left 15m line). So this 20 phase sequence only ever uses the middle third of the field! As the table demonstrated, the key is ball control at the breakdown rather than offloading or making the second pass.

You’d think that this is all pretty boring stuff – one pass off 9 and not utilising the full width of the park… Must be easy to defend, right? Wrong.

This is far from the ‘same-way’ attack preferred by so many European teams, with two pods of forwards wrapping around each other in the same direction continuously.

  • The Eddie Jones version could be called a ‘middle switchback’ pattern. During the first half of the sequence (up until 77:00), the ball never moves more than two phases in the same direction before it is switched back the other way.
  • Late movement by the Japanese first receiver across the back of the breakdown to the opposite side at 76:42, 77:49, 77:52, 78:09 & 78:15 keeps the Springbok defence guessing in relation to the direction of the attack and suppresses their line-speed.

The attacking pattern resembles a kind of giant saw-tooth, going first left then right down the middle of the field without ever allowing the defence to get into a rhythm, and being able to wrap their forwards comfortably to the far side of a breakdown in anticipation of a same-way attack.

What are the key defensive areas Eddie Jones will want to target?

Once he decides to limit second pass plays to a minimum and not use the whole width of the field, there are really only two spots where the Eddie Jones offence can attack:

  • Forward defenders 1-3 near the ruck
  • The transition zone between last forward and first back (typically the space between the 3rd and 4th defender from the breakdown).

When Japan attack the forward defenders around the breakdown, Eddie likes to use an active #9 who will scoot off the base and force either the Guard or 1st defender to square up and plant his feet (see examples at 76:14, 76:26, 77:15). This is often used in conjunction with multiple options at forward 1st receiver and more than one potential ball-carrier (76:14, 77:53 & 78:17).

The ‘late movement’ and second pass examples were generally focused on hitting the zone between the last forward and first backs defender (see 76:43 with late movement by the Japanese first receiver entering a big transition zone between prop Trevor Nyakane and scrum-half Fourie du Preez… and 78:10 for a carbon-copy; also 77:04 with the second pass hitting the gap between Siya Kolisi and Jean de Villiers).

So Scotland beware! Forget wide-to-wide pyrotechnics, Eddie will be coming for you down the middle. He will compress the field to control the breakdown and prevent turnovers. He will have the attacking pattern ‘saw’ first one way then the other to avoid predictability. He will probe your defence near the breakdown and his 9 will be active, running off at Guard or first defender whenever possible.

There will be constant movement across the back of the ruck by his first receivers to check whether you’ve numbered up correctly and your transition zones are tight. The second pass when it comes will seldom be sending the attack out wide – again he will be looking for soft spots around the 4th defender from breakdown.

This will be a mental test of how you respond to long passages of play without the ball. You have been warned!

  • Who?

    Typically excellent article Nick.
    Now, I might be a little green to have strong memories of the Wallabies of 01 to 05, but… Perhaps Mr Henry had you do some work on Eddie’s teams back then? What I do remember is that there was a halfback who loved to scoot about – in fact, he copped a lot of criticism for it. I also remember French coaches talking about how the Wallaby backs in that era weren’t hard to read, as they didn’t step. But they were hard to tackle, because they were big and ran hard and straight. Eddie’s not a big bloke, and he might’ve misread the importance of the scrum, but he always enjoyed creating the contact.
    Much as it was difficult to contain the Japanese team playing that style, I’d rather have to defend them doing that than a team that has another 50+kg in the pack!

  • Tom Jones

    Excellent stuff Nick.
    But I’d argue that you’ve made too massive assumptions – both incorrect in my humble opinion.
    1. You’ve assumed that Eddie Jones can only coach one way.
    2. You’ve assumed that he ignores the inherent strengths of the pool of players he inherits and imposes his style.
    He was successful with Japan because he understood what they were good at – fast tempo, low body angles, 110% commitment – and built on it.
    A good coach works on the weaknesses (in Japan’s case, physical prowess – particularly in the scrum – and a lack of self belief) and maximises the strengths. For Eddie to be successful, he should assume the same approach with the English – and the style and tactics could well be very different.

    • i think the point Nick is making is Eddie Jones favours low risk rugby when you have an opposition his team can’t physically dominate. In those scenarios he prefers his team to make simple decisions quickly and keep defences transitioning – attacking the seams and narrowing and thinning out the defensive line stopping teams from getting good line speed.

      In contrast it’s important to remember Japan and the others didn’t ONLY play this way under Jones, against smaller teams they played wide early off solid set piece.

      This split field pattern outlined above is a pattern used by Saracens and Tigers in the premiership and was actually used by England a fair bit already. He’s picked two 10’s in Farrell and Ford so it’s not that big a jump to assume this split field pattern will be used by England quite a bit with Farrell and Ford playing left and right.

      Will be interesting for sure – i don’t think we’ll see a massive sea shift right now.

      • Tom Jones

        I’d be surprised if the English team feel that there’s any team in world rugby that they can’t physically dominate – a totally different dynamic for the Japanese. Hence my opinion that the tactical approach he should adopt is not as predictable as Nick’s excellent analysis.

        If he goes with a ball-playing second 5/8th, then good on ‘im. I for one am sick and tired of watching robotic, head-down-and-charge rugby that has dominated NH internationals of late. I think Graham Henry made a similar comment recently.

        • I agree with you, about it not necessarily being the approach he should take with England – i just wanted to illustrate he prefers low risk rugby so will probably be his starting point.

          On phsycially bullying teams, England haven’t been able to do that for a while, it’s been a big issue under Lancaster how under powered our ball carrying has been.

        • Tom Jones

          I think Lancaster was a disaster for England. Muddled tactics, incoherent selections – I’m not sure we can draw too many conclusions from his time in charge.

        • I don’t completely agree with that, things certainly got confused over the last 3-6 months but the first two years there was genuine progress and a relatively consistent amount of it, i don’t think that should be forgotten because of the world cup.

          Lets not forget, Jones hasn’t exactly discarded all his work – the match day seems to have remained relatively untouched.

  • Charlie Farquhar

    Great read. Pack selection, particularly with Haskell and Vunipola’s ball carrying suggests to me they are going to look to hammer that space between the last forward and the first back in phase play. Do you think EJ’s comments about Henry Slade and increasingly likely selection of Farrell at 12 means they are going to be playing a game that gives their 12 less gainline responsibility? Would be refreshing to see an England team that can put their wingers through holes in midfield off a second ball player during phase play. Can’t remember that ever being the case under Lancaster.

  • John Tynan

    Excellent read. Feel like a minnow reading some of the comments below. Love that egalitarian feel about rugby.
    So with Japan, I reckon Eddie played right back to the Rod McQueen playbook – controlling the tempo and setting up repeat pressure until mistakes are made or space is isolated in wider channels.
    Why rucks with this Japanese incarnation? I reckon physical attributes and nothing less. It is much easier for technique to triumph over size and brawn when you dictate a ruck, especially in possession. It would have been interesting during the course of “THE” game if Sth Africa could have adapted to the Irish technique of holding players up – but that’s a whole other discussion on rigidity of coaching and style …..
    I’ve played in plenty of (country) games with small forward packs, and the only way to go was rucking up the guts and trying to get the pretty boys some space to pull the trigger. The old “suck the forwards in” strategy.
    I think the overall theme of the article is about right, and the game plan will suit Les Pommes well, but I doubt it will be rucking-centric. The natural mauling ability of the English, with some honing of technique and some selections around impactful, repeat-effort ball runners will suit the English in particular, and the northern hemisphere conditions in general.
    Control the game (and level of risk) in the middle third, but have a 5/8 that can play to the space when it presents. It would be a thing of beauty to see a ball runner like Mike Brown put into space with time and structure (just not on the June/July tour).
    However, non-running scrum/line-out specialist locks, kicking 5/8’s without vision and open sides who are really blind sides should be fretting about their prospects. I also wonder how long Eddie’s got before traditionalist/establishment rugby old boys start to bemoan the future of english rugby…

  • JJJ

    I’m not sure they would be able to put so many phases together with Poey and Hooper hovering, although to be fair fetchers probably fancy their chances more against less controlled rucks. Certainly one does ;).

    The English 10 may need his foot amputated to control his impulse to kick. If this pattern is adopted English commentators will break all records of calls for drop-goals.

  • 1 – Eddie loves the ruck/continuity game. Did it with Wobs, Brumbs, everyone. Will do it again

    2 – The poms have been AT THEIR MOST DANGEROUS when they use fast ball. They have big runners who can be very difficult to stop with no time. Thankfully they have a history of forgetting this and going back to type.

    I can see Eddie causing quite a few headaches for oppo teams

    • It will be interesting to see if EJ can curb that revert to type mentality. The totalitarian feel of this is how we play and if you can’t do ti your off, probably sits better with the English than the “express yourself” players take charge approach of Lancaster etc…

      We LOVE structure.

  • Who?

    I’ve long thought similarly about Eddie as a 2IC. I think he works best with a filter between his ideas and the people implementing them. I got the impression his man management wasn’t his greatest strength – something highlighted in other articles (including yours on here, pointing out his issues with diplomacy).
    And perhaps the reason Eddie got away with his authoritarian style a bit more in Japan is cultural..? More willingness to simply do as you’re asked? I have a South African coach in my club, who has reasonable ties to some current players, and he always talks about how Australian players need a ‘why’. A South African player, they’ll just do what the coach says to do, unquestioningly. An Aussie wants to know why he has to stick his head in there, to feel like he’s doing it for a reason beyond, “for the team/country/coach” or “because I said so.”
    A more mobile pack – particularly locks – might actually work with a higher tempo but still stop start game plan such as the Blossoms’ one… Whilst everyone has a 2.04 monster, not all of them are quick or athletic. Or, if they are, they’re not usually that ‘big’ (just tall). Skelton is still learning to jump, and Devin Toner’s not one to intimidate a forward physically. Retallick and Etzebeth are the exceptions to the rule – big, mobile, hard hitting and with massive motors. Can’t think of a more scary lock pairing than those two (thank goodness they don’t play together!).

  • I think that flags up how much England wanted to play that all court game like NZ, high skill high tempo – but they did it at the expense of getting on the front foot first.

    It’s also likely that impacted on our set piece, especially scrum, with no recognised tight head lock meant Coles had very little power coming through behind him.

    That’s why i think we looked better with grunts like Attwood and Kruis in the mix – complimenting the lighter more technical guys. Additionally Attwoods maul defence was/is exceptional – it was disappointing he didn’t’ make the WC.

  • Tom Jones

    The taller the lock, the less effective they are at good rucking. That’s simple physics, right? In the SA game, the Japanese locks were 1.96m and 1.92m. If you fill your team with giants, they maybe effective ball carriers and maulers, but expect the team’s ability to win fast ruck ball to drop.

  • agreed, and I think at International level Attwood is a fantastic impact player – coming on late his ball carrying and scrummaging is exactly what England need.

    He can be a bit off with his decision making, blown try against (SA iirc) and the defensive read you flagged but with Lawes/Launch starting and DA coming in late.. I can live with that.

    Poor ball carrying isn’t only down to our locks though, seemed to me that England wanted to play that one out passing pattern in the forwards, but our best distributors were also our best ball carriers so it was kind of a double negative.

    Anyway, great article Nick, really enjoying your stuff, need to pull my finger out and get some done.

  • m0b1us

    For such a big man I find Attwood’s ruck involvements somewhat underwhelming also.

  • Who?

    You’ve stopped at 2.01m with your locks, whilst we still have people thinking a bloke who’s 1.92’s tall enough to lock internationally (Dennis)… And another at 1.96 (Mumm).
    I like the Gray boys (obviously both did alright against us last spring/autumn), but I’m not as convinced about Charteris as someone who gets around the field with the impact that Retallick and Etzebeth do. Workrate, fine, just not impact. From what I’ve seen (being on the other side of the world, not near as much as yourself or Mr Forbes), Lawes has more impact in general play. Height’s great in the lineout, but…
    And, of course, of the back of his MOTM performance in the RWC pool match, Launchbury’s a fantastic player! Well, maybe a fantastic bloke, to have to deal with that farcical situation with a little grace…
    Says a bit, too, about guys like Brad Thorn and POC, that they managed to stick around as long as they did at the top, at ‘only’ 1.96 and 1.98 respectively! You don’t have to be 2.04 to be a hard man – it can actually be a disadvantage, some of those tall guys are pretty fragile.

  • Charlie Farquhar

    That does make sense. A role that perhaps EJ will encourage Nowell to grow into. Would love to see Slade alongside a fit and firing Tuilagi in midfield in the future.

  • m0b1us

    Assuming he does what’s predicted and starts OF at 12 with GF at 10?. Honestly, I think the team would look better with OF
    at 10 and Devoto at 12. For me that kid looks like the new Greenwood – if he can kick on.

  • I’m not sure Itoje would struggle as a lock at test level, he jumps like a salmon. That might go away over time as injuries take their toll but in the premiership he’s certainly jumping high enough to dominate in the lineout and he can probably take that onto the international stage. While I have my issues with the quality of the rugby in the Aviva Premiership, the line outs are not bad by anyone’s standards. The thing that really matters is how high his hand is at the top of his jump after all, and with lifters, young legs and so on, height isn’t the only factor any more.

    For example, the All Blacks used McCaw as their tail jumper quite often, over Read. He was shorter, but could jump well and was quite a lot lighter. With a nice lift, he could get a lot higher than they could get Read and do all the plays that were needed at the tail. It probably didn’t hurt you then had whichever of Read and Messam/Vito etc. wasn’t lifting him for him to drop the ball down to quickly and run with it, or McCaw’s hands to pass the ball off to someone else from the top of the lineout, or in a ruck you’ve lost your lightest forward from the pushing.

    Not saying I wouldn’t play Itoje at 6, I think he offers something different to Haskell, Vunipola and Robshaw – it’s more like Left and Right flankers than open and blind sides. But that supports the thesis of this article really.

  • Well this is it, isn’t it?

    If lineout was just a vertical jump it would be highest jumper wins every time, and at grass roots that generally works but at elite level it’s a far more 3 dimensional thing. So players like Charteris and Parling have the reach to get around their opposition jumper and attack the ball even if they are beaten infront on the jump, hence we see guys literally fighting for the ball on the way down.

    That reach also allows the jumper to adjust in the air for a bad throw.

  • olivier caddoux

    We are pretty sure he’s gonna do a good job with the English. 6 Nations Tournament is about to start here and it’s gonna be very very interesting. New coaches in Ireland, France, England etc….It’s gonna be very challenging ! wait and see !!
    our company will watch it carefully!

  • m0b1us

    On form you’d start Launch and Kruis. Lawes would be lucky to make my EPS at the moment let alone the
    matchday 23. England are pretty well stocked for locks at the minute.

  • m0b1us

    I reckon back five will all be 115kg + – what’s your definition of huge?

  • m0b1us

    Aviva quality is undoubtedly on the up. Five teams in the quarters of the ERC – two top seeded. Sarries didn’t lose a single
    match in Europe. The Sarries pack will no doubt be making up the spine of the England pack.

    I think Eddies on record as stating that he doesn’t like 6.5’s – he even quipped that Robshaw is now a much better player
    now he’s lost the .5 off his back!

  • Tom Jones

    Hi Nick. Thanks for your reply. Of course you have far more experience than I in this area, but if what you write is true, it’s a sad indictment on modern coaching. Coaching should be about maximising the potential of the players and the team, not just about imposing your view on how the game should be played.

  • I don’t think you can always pick a team on form otherwise you’d never field the same 23 week in week out.

    Lawes is a playing well enough in a team getting hammered, so I think he probably makes it in on credit.

  • I’d really like to see Daley move to 12 long term.

    He has excellent footwork, and is pretty strong int he contact, he also has a very underrated short passing game and a huge boot.

    His defensive issues would be confronted head on, but obviously we’d lose that pace in the outside channels and the boot from 13 – but i can deal with that with brown at 15.

  • m0b1us

    Hopefully they’ll give him a run out against Italy. He’s played a fair few games for Bath and is a JRWC winner.

  • m0b1us

    Hmm, he really isn’t (not in my opinion anyway). He’s also not fit – if there’s one thing we learned from RWC 2015 it’s
    don’t select players who aren’t fit. Longer term I’d much rather see Slater, Attwood, Barrow, or Lees involved unless
    Lawes really gets his mojo back.

  • m0b1us

    Not sure I agree. Kruis and Launch are both 6″6 and anywhere between 118 and 122kg – depending on where you get
    your stats. Neither have looked particularly underpowered in recent European games – quite the opposite in fact.

    If he does go with Robshaw/Vunipola/Haskell in the BR, that’s the same BR that completely dominated Wales in the
    2015 6N. The perennial question mark is over Haskell in my view. He seems to have one good game followed by
    several distinctly average ones (and I’m being generous here). Hopefully Morgan will recover and, along with Ewers,
    we’ll have several 120kg+ ball carriers to pick from.

    Whilst I think Scotland have improved, let’s not forget that the last few years it’s been England first, daylight second
    in these matches.

  • fair enough.

    Itoje has travelled due to his hamstring, i think we’ll see Kruis & Launch and Itoje on bench come game day.

  • they’ll still be giving up 4-5kg and a height advantage to all the other lock pairings though.

    Launch is 118kg (tops), and Kruis is around 117kg (tops) – heaviest reference for either player is Wiki, but club and country has them a couple of kg lighter.


Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written other books on literature and psychology.

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