England’s new defence looks ugly at times, but they must stick with it

The blitz defence that England are implementing has, as expected, received a significant chunk of column inches this week – and it was the part of their performance most in the spotlight in the victory over Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.

In Felix Jones, England have the blitz-defence mastermind. The bloke has won two World Cups with South Africa, banging the drum for this system. The issue that England have is that they are not the Springboks. That system suited the South Africans of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber because of the abrasiveness of their midfield. Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Jesse Kriel and, at the previous World Cup, Makazole Mapimpi are not known for their delicate touches. The same can be said of back-rowers Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Kwagga Smith. They are brutes, sprinters, athletes. They want to get off the line and use their physiques as weapons. They have been brought up like that and they have done it forever. It’s in their genes. They want to get their first tackle in early, even if it’s late. It’s bread and butter to them.

But in England, it is not. This is going to take time and it will often look ugly. England do not have a De Allende nor a Kriel. But it was not just a midfield thing. Ollie Chessum and Will Stuart have been caught out, too. And, if someone is too slow off the line, like Will Stuart for Alex Mann’s try, or even too quick – like Chessum in Rome – then you’re toast. A good blitz can make decent players look stupid – and also do daft things.

Alex Mann scores a try for Wales

If a player is too slow off the line, as England were for Mann’s try, then you are toast – Getty Images/David Rogers

The season we got relegated at Harlequins, in 2005, Mark Evans, the chief executive, came in two weeks before the start of the season and told us he wanted us to do a blitz defence. It was me, Dafydd James, Paul Burke, Simon Keogh and others. We did our best but we just weren’t the players to run that system. It was a mess and we suffered the consequences – which was dropping out of the Premiership.

In truth, everyone wants to work a blitz, and everyone can – but only given time. There are those like South Africa who do it in their sleep and those like England who have done it occasionally at club level. There is a school of thought which says with Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence they could fix this; their physical presence immediately moving the dial. But, even for big men, this system takes time. England have gone from allowing teams to play in front of them to going hell for leather in an “all in” risk-reward system that needs everyone connected.

Finn Russell will be licking his lips

Jones is a coach who wants to run a blitz – and he will. He was brought in specifically for that purpose. So, even though it might not have been as successful as they were hoping, I would stick with it. Shaun Edwards, the Godfather of this system, always said it took him two years to properly get Wasps up and running with it. But, in centre Fraser Waters, he had the perfect, physical player.

Right now, Finn Russell will be licking his lips at the thought of taking on this defence in just under a fortnight’s time; so, too, Jamison Gibson-Park two weeks after. These are players who can spot a man off the line too slow, a man charging out of his channel. Picking up the idiosyncrasies of the players around you takes time. I keep coming back to this: it takes time.

Jamison Gibson-Park

As with Finn Russell, Jamison Gibson-Park is very good at spotting a man off the line too slowly and will be out to exploit any weakness when Ireland face England – AP/Daniel Cole

So, where do England go from here? They have to stick with the system and just hope there are improvements; and so that it becomes second nature to the rest of the team, even if it remains unnatural to players who have defended a different way their whole rugby lives. It is a seismic shift. We need to be patient. England might leak tries, but they will also have defensive successes. In the first half against Wales, it is easy to overlook the fact that England repelled 25 Welsh phases in their own half. That was impressive – as was some of the line speed from Ellis Genge and Chandler Cunningham-South at the death.

With patience, however, there are going to have to be improvements elsewhere. If England are going to leak a couple of tries – with the risk-reward balance that Warren Gatland wrote about in the Daily Telegraph this week – then they are going to have to score more than they are doing. To beat any of Scotland, France or Ireland, they might need to score 30 points. If they concede 28 in the process, it will hurt, but they will be learning in their shift to a new defensive world.

Doing that will take the heat off Jones and his system. But if they’re not scoring tries and they’re leaking them, too, then the English rugby public will question the new system too early. If England lose their next three games without firing much of a shot in attack then Borthwick will be under pressure. But scoring tries will bide the blitz time. And if this system is not given the time to mature and breathe, then it is the defensive equivalent of building a castle on sand – regardless of the personnel.

The temptation would be to return to the traditional drift defence but I’m not sure what that will achieve. It would be a stop-gap, a short-term fix, but we know that Borthwick and Jones are building for the long term. In the meantime, defensively, it might be a horrible watch, just as the two Italy tries were, and just as Mann’s score was. But perseverance and patience will be key – as will scoring tries.

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