Apprehensions and anxiety were extremely high for me personally going into the 2021 Autumn Series. As a general rugby fan, the 2020 ‘Autumn Nations Cup’ involved some dire rugby while last summer’s Lions tour was a monumental disappointment. As an England fan, we were coming off said Lions tour loss and a 5th place finish in the 2021 Six Nations. Rugby was very much on it’s knees, in need of a saviour. But, oh, did the Autumn Series deliver. Game after game of stunning rugby, fierce rivalry and incredible atmosphere. A lunchtime showcase at a packed out Murrayfield immediately followed by an afternoon blockbuster at a rocking Twickenham, topped off by an intense contest under the bright lights and raucous noise of the Principality. For three weeks straight. The Autumn Series was everything we could have ever hoped it would be and had rugby fans like myself on the very tips of our seats, engrossed in the action for eight hours every weekend.
Dare i say that the added spice of three in form Southern Hemisphere giants, recreated, if not topped the annual Six Nations spectacle.
From an England point of view, we had no idea what to expect. Lets start with Marcus Smith. When he was first named in the squad, after my initial elation, i spent weeks racking my brains wondering how he would be incorporated into this England gameplan, not just incorporated, but how would he run the gameplan? How would Eddie Jones transform a gameplan dominated by tactical kicking into one that revolves around a running 10 who needs ball in his hands. The answer was an absolute stroke of genius from Eddie Jones and his team and so painfully simple and obvious that it was beautiful.
They used Smith as bait.
Smith was constantly standing out the back (behind the lead runner) and occasionally received the ball to create chances. But more often, he was used as bait to draw out the senior defenders in the opposition defensive line (Paisami, Am, Hooper, Vermuelen etc.) so as to exploit and abuse flat passes at the line to explosive runners such as Lawes, Underhill, George, Curry and Tuilagi. Another beautiful thing about this is that vs Australia (when Farrell started at 12) Farrell was standing at first receiver and Smith was the second pair of hands, which gave him more space to move and more time to think.
Harlequins use Smith in a very similar way, at second receiver, but they strike off this platform rather than the one before it. Quins get Smith the ball in space and run a combination of in and out lines in order create linebreaks with big men such as Esterhuizen and Dombrandt running flat lines on Smith’s shoulder and the pace of Lynagh, Marchant and Green on the outside. Look at this example of Smith scoring against Saracens from this exact platform, as the second set of hands.
Therefore, when Australia and South Africa did their homework on Smith before the Autumn Series they would have expected and prepared for England to use him in this exact way. Look at this perfect example of Hunter Paisami reading the same play as before and flying out of the line and nailing Smith.
Once this read has been made, however, it is far too easy to draw the defenders out the line to Smith and to use the space they have left. Here it works versus Australia for a Jamie George line break which leads to Tom Wright going to the sin bin for his tackle. Watch how Hunter Paisami is completely disinterested with Jamie George as he has both eyes firmly on Smith.
And here, the piece de resistance, the same move works versus South Africa for Raffi Quirke’s game-winning try, watch how Lukhanyo Am lines up Smith and completely misses the line of Joe Marchant who goes through without a hand laid on him.
However, the single most fascinating element of England’s gameplan this Autumn was the use of Manu Tuilagi on the wing. Many fans, including myself, were baffled when they saw the Samoan-native named at 14 rather than his usual 12 or 13. As it happened, the pure genius of the decision quickly became apparent.
Eddie, and England, were essentially playing with 16 men.
Manu was used to great effect off set-piece in the midfield when the set piece originated from his wing. While traditionally blindside wingers would stay on their wing to defend against a turnover and counterattack, Manu was used as a ‘crashball’ option in midfield to create mismatches and overlaps. Senior defenders such as Paisami were now having to guard against the threat of Tuilagi rather than focusing on the threats of Smith, Slade and Steward. Therefore, when Tuilagi was used as a dummy-runner it was absolutely devastating. Look at this example where England create space out wide and Jonny May should really score. The Australian defence is so compact to defend against the threat of Tuilagi’s crash-ball and the dummy line completely kills their drift.
Furthermore, Tuilagi is a massive defensive presence. Many fans and pundits were confused as to why Manu was picked on the wing over the raw pace of Adam Radwan. Well that’s because Eddie Jones is all about getting his best players on the pitch, what you lose in pace, you gain in experience and defensive presence. What we saw this Autumn, especially vs Australia, was almost completely position-less rugby in which every single player on the pitch had the skills to slot into any role and to execute any play.
Tuilagi doesn’t even have to make big tackles it is more that no one in their right mind wants to run down his channel, this massively cuts down space. Furthermore, Eddie’s decision to move the behemoth to the wing blessed us with the beautiful sight of Tuilagi bringing the ball back at full tilt from the backfield. They even orchestrated a lovely set play incorporating Dombrandt in which Tuilagi hit a flat line from the defender’s blind spot, leading to a nice linebreak.
The only problem with Tuilagi on the wing is his weakness under the high ball, a massive role for wingers in modern rugby. Early in the game vs Australia James O’Connor dropped the perfect kickoff infront of Manu forcing him to chase it and knock it on. But Eddie even hid this weakness beautifully. In situations in which it was obvious that Australia were going to kick to Tuilagi’s wing he would swap with Henry Slade, Slade being two inches taller and with experience at 15 for England and therefore more comfortable under the high ball. This meant Australia could not exploit Tuilagi’s weakness under the high ball.
Remember that Eddie is a master of hiding his weaknesses, he hid George Ford in defence to great success for five years. Expect him to do a similar thing with Smith in the coming years.
My immediate reaction after Tuilagi got injured early on vs South Africa was panic and worry, as i believed the gameplan was ruined and that we would have to revert to plan B (a famous weakness of the England team). What i didn’t realise is that Eddie Jones had a plan A.2, Joe Marchant. Marchant, initially named vs South Africa at 14, was forced to move mid-game into 13 to go against arguably the best 13 in the world right now, Lukhanyo Am, and he was absolutely immense. The Harlequin outperformed Am in almost every statistical category including carries (4 to 2), linebreaks (1 to 0), defenders beaten (3 to 1) and equalled Am’s tackle count (7 to 7). I’ve been a huge fan of Marchant for a long time and have wanted him in the England 13 shirt for just as long, there is no doubt that this game massively raised his international stock and surely now he must be part of Eddie Jones’ long-term plans.
To conclude i’ll leave you with this table showing the current ages of certain players who broke through into the England side this Autumn, or earlier, and their ages during the 2023 World Cup in France. What we can see is a core group of young and hungry players, in tremendous Premiership form, who will all peak around the 2023 tournament.
|Current Age||Age in 2023|