With the 2018 Six Nations Championship in the books, I am publishing report cards based on my data and observations.
England lost three times as many matches during the 2018 Six Nations Championship than they had in the rest of Eddie Jones’ reign as coach combined. England’s performance was one of the surprises of the competition as they had been favourites before the first fixture kicked off at the Millennium Stadium on February. The frequency of England visits to the opposition 22 were at the level expected from a very good team but the ability to convert those into points was the lowest I have seen from any side over a five-match run. At the other end of the pitch, England kept their visitors out of their own 22 less than Ireland, France or Wales managed.
Failure to convert
England’s attacking problems were there for all to see as they were turned over at the breakdown, their mauls were stopped and even usually reliable points kicking from conversions went awry. England had a total of 43 entries into their opposition 22s, the most of any team but the 87 points the team scored from those visits was nearly 60 fewer than Ireland. Forty-six of those 87 points were scored against Italy in the opening match so the situation was even worse against France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
In their matches against the members of the old Five Nations, England breached the opposition 22 on 31 occasions, the highest any team achieved in the competition. Only seven of these visits ended up in tries (three converted) though, with 24 resulting in turnovers (many of which were penalties allowing opponents to clear easily). England scored just 1.32 points per visit to their opposition 22 in these matches, nearly a whole point less per 22 entry than the next worst team in converting opportunities, Scotland.
There was no sign of a low conversion rate for England in their first match in Rome or in the first 18 minutes against Wales when the English team swiftly took a 12-0 lead, scoring on each of their first two meaningful attacks. With the benefit of hindsight though, the match against Wales was where England’s failure to convert chances began to become apparent. Possession was lost in the Wales 22 on all four of England’s subsequent visits after the two tries, often at the breakdown.
The other worrying area of England’s game during the Six Nations was the team’s propensity to give away so many penalties, many of them needless. Even penalties which are not kickable or close enough to be kicked for a lineout inside the 22 provide can provide excellent opportunities and a few examples of probably needless penalties from the final match against Ireland illustrate this well.
5′ Owen Farrell late tackle on Rob Kearney – with the score still 0-0, Owen Farrell kicked the ball low from around halfway into the Ireland 22 and chased. He was marginally late but still tackled Ireland full back Rob Kearney after the ball had gone and while Kearney was in the air. The subsequent penalty from the edge of Ireland’s 22 was kicked into touch in England’s half past the 40 metre line. Three phases later, Ireland had put the first points on the board courtesy of Ringrose’s try after Rob Kearney had put England’s Anthony Watson under pressure trying to catch a kick on his own try line.
12′ Maro Itoje offside in Ireland’s 22 – Ireland had just had the put-in at a scrum in their own 22 and after a couple of phases hadn’t gained Ireland much distance, Conor Murray stood waiting for the box kick. Maro Itoje stepped offside and what had been a difficult exit had turned into an easy one. A lineout for Ireland on halfway followed and England only regained possession once the ball was kicked to them back in their own 22. Fortunately no score followed this time but it was again an example of a needless penalty taking England’s momentum and hard-won territory away. At the time Ireland still led by seven points.
40′ Boring in at a scrum in Ireland’s half & Itoje taking the man in the air at subsequent lineout – possibly the worst of the lot given where England were on the pitch, the situation and the elapsed time. Ireland were still a man down with O’Mahony sin-binned but had a scrum in their own half. Ireland initially won a free kick at that scrum for early engagement but, with not much to be gained by kicking that free kick, they chose another scrum. This time they won a penalty for England boring in and the ball was kicked out around halfway. At the lineout, Maro Itoje was penalized for taking the man in the air. This time Ireland kicked into the Ireland half and from that lineout went through 10 phases before Jacob Stockdale scored the try which made it 21-5 at the break and definitively game over. The original penalty was given in Ireland’s own half with less than a minute to go before the clock went red but Itoje’s infringement meant that Ireland had a genuine opportunity to put the match away before the break.
Some penalties can’t be avoided and some are used as a necessary weapon by teams on the defence but the examples above are all avoidable. In all three cases, England were deep in opposition territory, albeit not in possession of the ball, and handed Ireland the initiative when the men in green were otherwise uncomfortable. These are also not the only examples of dumb penalties given away by England in this match as Joe Marler’s taking out of the man around halfway with England in possession illustrates. Carbery missed the subsequent 41 metre shot but England were back on their own line.
Compare this to Ireland who, despite giving up more penalties (12) than England (11) did not suffer nearly as much, conceding 10 points from shots or moves stemming from those penalties whereas England gave up 17. With nine points separating the teams at full time and the timing of some of England’s penalty concessions, might this indiscipline have been the real difference?
Raw penalty counts also don’t tell the whole story as four of the 12 penalties Ireland conceded were either in the 26th minute, when three successive infringements stopped England scoring from their maul after Bundee Aki had been penalised for foul play just inside the Ireland 22. There were another three Ireland infringements at the end when England scored a consolation try after a series of penalties and free kicks.
Efficient England defence
Although England allowed more entries into their 22 than everyone bar Scotland and Italy, the team didn’t do too badly in stopping these visits from being converted into points. England’s 2.47 points conceded per opposition entry into the 22 was bettered by only France. Imagine how much better that defence would have looked had England not provided so many penalty opportunities for their opponents to work their way up the pitch and get into the 22 in the first place.
Fourth but could easily be better
On the basis of 22 entries for and against, England were the fourth best team in the tournament with a points difference from moves which went into the “red zone” of +13. However, without the match in Rome, this drops to -18, still better than Scotland but a good deal worse than the rest of the teams.
England’s main issues were lack of precision once in the opposition 22 and giving away too many needless penalties which handed the initiative to their opponents. In addition, we would normally expect an England team to be ahead on shots at goal taken after penalties outside the 22 but in this competition they even lost that statistic, 15-18. This seems mainly due to kicking for the corner as Farrell did at both 7-0 and 14-0 down against Ireland rather than kicking for points. Very un-England to not take those opportunities here but also in other matches. England were perfect with their five shots at goal after penalties outside the 22 so it is unclear why there was more kicking for touch in the hope of scoring a try.
Defensively there was little difference between Ireland, France, Wales and England in terms of the number of times opponents possession needed to be defended inside the 22. England were also better than Ireland and Wales in terms of keeping points out. However, as Ireland’s report card explained many of the entries and scores against the Irish came after they had effectively won their matches.
England don’t look as bad as some have made out but to deserve their place in the world’s top three ranked teams, they need to back up their good level of 22 entries with better conversion into points. Gifting opportunities from silly penalties which often break their own attacking momentum is also something which England need to improve between now and the 2019 Six Nations Championship.