Tactics: How will Eddie Jones change England’s attack?

Tactics: How will Eddie Jones change England’s attack?

There will have been a huge and forensic picking over of bones, analysis-wise, after the World Cup. One of the most interesting comments came from Wales attack coach Rob Howley, comparing teams whose attack made one pass (off 9) to those who made at least two (off 10). He said:

“New Zealand had the lowest rate of one-passes, 47%, and the highest, which surprised me, was Japan with 67%.”

The perception of Japan’s attacking game was defined by Eddie Jones’ mission statement “ruck and run”. They ruck, move the ball, and repeat. If Howley is right, they were playing predominantly one-out rugby and not shifting the focus of attack wide unless a very definite opportunity presented itself.

Let’s take a look at a table of how three different teams behaved against top-tier opponents in the course of the 2015 season:

Team Passes per game Rucks per game Offloads per game
New Zealand 169 84 13
Australia 141 92 6
Japan 155 110 5
  • New Zealand made more passes, and offloaded in contact more than anyone else, but they didn’t build as many rucks as either Australia or Japan. This suggests a side that want a wider focus to their attack, to sustain more tempo between stopping points (rucks) and are therefore more explosive. The high number of offloads implies a team who want to capitalize on momentum in the early phases (1-6).
  • Japan’s emphasis under Eddie Jones was ball-control at the breakdown. They built on average 26 more rucks than the All Blacks, and offloaded on 8 fewer occasions per game. This suggests a side that are playing on the chessboard of their coach’s imagination. They want to keep ball for long periods and create a prolonged test of defensive concentration for the opponent.

So where the All Blacks are looking to create situations where the game has moved beyond ‘pattern’ – to where their individual ball-skills are the decisive factor – Eddie Jones’ Japan were trying to create opportunities through pattern. Obviously it is a lot harder to do this if you are regularly throwing the ball wider because that is where the variables begin to multiply!

So let’s look at an example of the Eddie Jones attack in action, late on in that now-famous game against South Africa with Japan needing a try to get back in the game:

The breakdown of attacking plays supports Rob Howley’s statistical conclusion. Over the 20 phases the sequence lasts, there are

  • 15 one-pass plays (75%)
  • 3 two-pass plays (15%)
  • 2 pick & go plays (10%)

Although Japan always try to keep one attacker on the far touch-line to spread the defence, attacking play is always concentrated in an area between the two 15 metre lines and never moves beyond it (or only 5 metres beyond the left 15m line). So this 20 phase sequence only ever uses the middle third of the field! As the table demonstrated, the key is ball control at the breakdown rather than offloading or making the second pass.

You’d think that this is all pretty boring stuff – one pass off 9 and not utilising the full width of the park… Must be easy to defend, right? Wrong.

This is far from the ‘same-way’ attack preferred by so many European teams, with two pods of forwards wrapping around each other in the same direction continuously.

  • The Eddie Jones version could be called a ‘middle switchback’ pattern. During the first half of the sequence (up until 77:00), the ball never moves more than two phases in the same direction before it is switched back the other way.
  • Late movement by the Japanese first receiver across the back of the breakdown to the opposite side at 76:42, 77:49, 77:52, 78:09 & 78:15 keeps the Springbok defence guessing in relation to the direction of the attack and suppresses their line-speed.

The attacking pattern resembles a kind of giant saw-tooth, going first left then right down the middle of the field without ever allowing the defence to get into a rhythm, and being able to wrap their forwards comfortably to the far side of a breakdown in anticipation of a same-way attack.

What are the key defensive areas Eddie Jones will want to target?

Once he decides to limit second pass plays to a minimum and not use the whole width of the field, there are really only two spots where the Eddie Jones offence can attack:

  • Forward defenders 1-3 near the ruck
  • The transition zone between last forward and first back (typically the space between the 3rd and 4th defender from the breakdown).

When Japan attack the forward defenders around the breakdown, Eddie likes to use an active #9 who will scoot off the base and force either the Guard or 1st defender to square up and plant his feet (see examples at 76:14, 76:26, 77:15). This is often used in conjunction with multiple options at forward 1st receiver and more than one potential ball-carrier (76:14, 77:53 & 78:17).

The ‘late movement’ and second pass examples were generally focused on hitting the zone between the last forward and first backs defender (see 76:43 with late movement by the Japanese first receiver entering a big transition zone between prop Trevor Nyakane and scrum-half Fourie du Preez… and 78:10 for a carbon-copy; also 77:04 with the second pass hitting the gap between Siya Kolisi and Jean de Villiers).

So Scotland beware! Forget wide-to-wide pyrotechnics, Eddie will be coming for you down the middle. He will compress the field to control the breakdown and prevent turnovers. He will have the attacking pattern ‘saw’ first one way then the other to avoid predictability. He will probe your defence near the breakdown and his 9 will be active, running off at Guard or first defender whenever possible.

There will be constant movement across the back of the ruck by his first receivers to check whether you’ve numbered up correctly and your transition zones are tight. The second pass when it comes will seldom be sending the attack out wide – again he will be looking for soft spots around the 4th defender from breakdown.

This will be a mental test of how you respond to long passages of play without the ball. You have been warned!


Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2003), Mike Ruddock (2004-2005) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written other books on literature and psychology.

More in Analysis