England must play more on instinct to become Six Nations best | England rugby union team

Not so long ago the criticism of this England side was that they could not get out of their patterns and play on instinct. All too often we saw boot being put to ball when there was an overlap, it was prescriptive and if it was on the whole effective it caused little in the way of excitement. More recently I have seen encouraging signs but I don’t agree when I hear Eddie Jones say that England are just one pass or one kick away from clicking in attack.

I hope that behind the scenes his messaging to his players is different because I see a side operating in attack at no more than 60-70% of their potential. By comparison, before Friday night’s match against Wales, France had scored 103 points and 13 tries, 10 of which have come after a maximum of two phases and all of them in fewer than five.

That’s what progress looks like and this is a French side that is going to get better. If you want to see clinical attacking rugby, there it is – they expend maximum energy over a short period of time and get the most out of it. France are setting the standards of what modern-day attack looks like and put in that context, England are a fair distance away at the moment.

When you’re not quite executing on the edges it tends to be for two reasons. Either you’ve been paralyzed by analysis and you cannot adapt when the things that you see in training on a Tuesday are not the same pictures that present themselves on a Saturday. Or it comes down to poor decision-making. The challenge for England, as they look for the cohesion that Jones talks about, is that they are coming up against a side who are incredibly structured but at the same time very fluent in that structure.

They’re up against an Ireland team who have only conceded three tries all Six Nations and they have the best defense in the competition, so pattern play and phase play will wear them out, but to beat Ireland they need to have an instinctive X- factor.

They’ve averaged one try a game, discounting the Italy win, and that’s not good enough. Having said that, it is important to remember that the way we measure attack needs to be more than just tries. Wales outscored England three tries to one but England’s attack did function, they created penalty opportunities and Wales got punished, 3, 6, 9 before you knew it. But we would love to see more tries and with the quality they have we expect to score tries.

On Saturday, Henry Slade plays a key part in that. Jones has named three different center partners for him so far in this competition and the chopping and changing doesn’t help but he came of age against South Africa and is producing on a consistent basis now. I remember playing for the Barbarians against him in an England XV before he had made his full debut back in 2015.

There were a lot of points scored that day – most of them by England – but my main takeaway from that match was how tough Slade was. He’s a good-looking guy, he never looks flustered, has beautiful hands, a booming left boot but it is easy to overlook his defensive qualities. I remember we ran a play to release Joe Rokocoko but Slade stopped him dead in his tracks from him. It’s a vivid memory that has stayed with me.

With Slade and Joe Marchant in midfield you have two similar players, or rather players who see the game in a similar way and when you have Harry Randall and Marcus Smith as the half-backs, the common denominator among those four is that they are all instinct players. I hope to see them play with no fear, play on instinct and play what is in front of them rather than in patterns, or holding on to the ball for the sake of it. If they can do that then England have a chance on Saturday.

I talked about the Wales match being a quarter-final and as such this is a semi-final. It would be wholly unacceptable if England were to lose to Ireland and then to France next week. If that happens we’re right back where we were a year ago. Back then they managed two victories against Italy and France.

Joe Marchant can also have a big role in England’s creative output against Ireland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

If they finish this competition only with victories over Italy and Wales then that cannot be considered progress. On the flip side, and looking at England’s predicament with the glass half full, they have a massive opportunity to change the narrative and to show they have clarity when the suspicion is there is confusion around what they are trying to achieve.

Of course their focus has to be entirely on Ireland but they must also realize that they just need to stay in the hunt and make sure that they go to Paris with something tangible to play for. It is never easy when you lose your first match of the tournament but that’s the mindset they have to have, to just get through this week and while they want to be single-minded about a game at a time, they should approach it just as they did at the 2019 World Cup when they beat New Zealand to have a shot at the final. This team needs to have that siege mentality.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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