England’s kicking game has been publicly lamented season after season. Even fans of the Red Rose – despite wins against their two most challenging pool-stage opponents – were audibly frustrated with their team’s tactics against Japan in Nice, during which England made 32 kicks in play. However, England’s execution of their game plan is what has inhibited their attacking performances, not their kicking strategy.
Last weekend, putting boot to ball yielded great attacking opportunities for England. They had 22 possessions which started in the opposition half, the joint-most that a team has had in a World Cup match so far this tournament (the other being Ireland against Tonga).
Furthermore, England retained 11 kicks against Japan – more than any team has ever managed in a World Cup match. George Ford’s individual haul of five retained kicks is similarly the highest Rugby World Cup match total. England’s kicking game – as it did in their opener against Argentina in the same way – gave them platforms from which to attack.
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England were unable to capitalise on these opportunities until the final quarter, as a result of errors with ball in hand rather than the frequency of how often they ‘kicked away possession’. In fact, 29.4% of England’s possessions have ended with a kick, which is a lower rate than four teams in the World Cup so far, including New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
At the weekend, England dropped the ball six times under no pressure, lost three lineouts, the starting half-backs made a passing error apiece, and three kicks were charged down. Each of these turnovers conceded – which were often at the start of promising possessions – prevented England from capitalising on an opportunity that their kicking game had provided them.
Far from inhibiting England’s performances, the kicking game, which executed primarily via George Ford, has been the great positive of their first two matches, and has seen them defy expectations with two convincing wins.
This strategy plays to England’s own perception of their strengths: they have excellent tactical kickers, players who can compete strongly for the ball in the air, and have been galvanised by a turbulent year into a solid defensive unit. The gainline success of England’s opponents thus far has been just 37.6% and have the fourth-strongest defence in the Rugby World Cup by this metric. And they have conceded fewer linebreaks than any team above them in the World Rugby rankings, a total of five in two matches.
England have capable attacking players, but they haven’t commanded an incisive, fluid attack at international level for some time. The strength of their tactical kicking and defence has been enough to mitigate the individual errors which are the true barrier to England’s offensive play. The nature of the draw in this tournament is that England now highly likely to top Pool D, virtually certain to qualify for the quarter-finals and are capable of being a semi-final side, if not even more competitive.
How well they can reduce their unforced error count and exploit their hard-earned advantages, will be decisive in the success of their onward campaign.