In the aftermath of Saturday’s crushing 28-25 defeat to Wales, Coach Stuart Lancaster must address his side’s consistent failures at the breakdown, ahead of the crucial showdown with Australia.
Under Lancaster’s regime, England have become masters in bland rhetoric. Throughout this three-year tenure, the ability to reel off prepared, idle statements has become ingrained in each member of the squad and is symptomatic of the team culture.
Where England are showing no signs of improvement, however, is with their discipline at the breakdown. 12 penalties conceded on Saturday, two within the first minute, one in the last five to give the hugely impressive Dan Biggar a shot for victory. The 25-20 defeat to France in Paris also saw England cough up a dozen penalties, whilst 13 were conceded in the 19-9 loss to Ireland, back in March.
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These losses aren’t coincidental. Repeated failure to improve their discipline in the rucks is costing England severely. On Saturday with a 16-9 lead at half-time, which was soon widened with a Farrell penalty to a ten point gap, England should have been able to stretch away.
Instead, the lead was kept at a score due to their constant indiscipline, normally for not rolling away quick enough for referee Jerome Garces’s liking.
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Whether these penalties are a result of inexperience, England’s starting XV on Saturday had just 456 caps compared to Wales’s 655, a lack of leadership or a deficit of rugby nous is open to debate, but what is clear, is that at the breakdown, England aren’t learning fast enough.
Saturday’s defeat wasn’t an entirely negative performance. For the majority of the game, Chris Robshaw’s men were on top. The scrum dominated, the line-out functioned far better than anyone expected and Wales’s strike runners failed to get over the gain line consistently until the last 20 minutes.
As important as the set-piece, handling skills and courage, which Wales have in abundance, are though they can all be undermined by ill-discipline and naivety at the breakdown.
Most alarmingly, Wales’s inflicted this damage with only one open-side on the field. Warren Gatland chose the ever dependable Dan Lydiate over Justin Tipuric in preparation for a hugely physical clash. Lydiate performed well, topping the tackle charts, but Tipuric would have highlighted England’s flaws even more.
Australia almost certainly will field two open-side flankers and two of the best in world rugby. The thought of Michael Hooper and David Pocock in tandem is an alarming prospect. Both are superb readers of the game and almost immovable once set in the jackal position over the ball.
For this reason, regardless of Courtney Lawes’s injury status, Joe Launchbury must start in the second-row. Equally if Ben Morgan fails to hold up too, James Haskell, traditionally a blindside flanker, may not be such a bad option at eight.
The Wales result has gone and England are still alive in the group. There are positives to take from this defeat and though it is unwise to dwell on shortcomings in such an important week; Lancaster and his coaching staff must address their perennial problem, or they face the prospect of finishing the World Cup before it has truly begun.