The inability of England’s rugby players to finish tries when they have men to spare can be bracketed with their footballing counterparts’ dire record in penalty shoot-outs: they acknowledge the problem exists, to the extent of working to improve their visual “scanning” with a training drill using coloured lights introduced by the skills coach Mike Catt. Equally they insist, just like the footballers, that practice can never replicate a real-life situation.
“I think practice can make you more comfortable, but it’s not the same,” says Owen Farrell, the England fly-half at the heart of two missed opportunities during last week’s otherwise heartening win over Ireland. “A big part of my game is making sure I am looking. My head has constantly got to be on a swivel, looking to where the space is. You’ve got to be in the moment and be ready to go there.”
With two rounds to play over the next two weekends, the Six Nations’ Championship could be won by any one of five teams. It may require teams with the same number of wins to be separated by points difference; or England may find that beating Wales at Twickenham next Sunday and the Italians in Rome the following Saturday will give them the title outright.
The players admitted in their review of the 13-10 defeat of the Irish that two tries were missed when overlaps were available. That’s 14 points lost through a lack of communication, passing and alignment of running. The first was very early in the match, when the frustration of the players – who claimed they couldn’t hear each other’s calls over the noise of the crowd – was replicated in the BBC commentary box by Brian Moore screaming “wide!” and then “No!” when Farrell was smothered by an Irish tackle with team-mates waiting for a pass.
The training tool is a set of coloured lights that Catt – a former England back noted for fine distribution – sticks to the walls in front of, to the side of or behind the players as they run through their skills. While being accurate in their handling and passing they must be aware enough to shout “red” or “green” when it appears; or one player may use the colour appearing to trigger a collective change in direction.
“The scanning is for every part of the game,” says Farrell. “You have to make sure you’re scanning around the room, as different colours light up at different times and different heights. All we’re trying to do is make good decisions.”
Farrell has been praised in this Six Nations for his more attacking outlook, keeping defences guessing; his dummy to assist the try by Luther Burrell in Paris was a case in point. There was a sweet line break in Scotland, although Farrell of Saracens modestly credits a decoy move by Exeter’s Jack Nowell there. Yet it may have been an unwise attempt at a show-and-go that cost England that early try last week.
“You couldn’t hear anything,” Farrell explains, “and I’m obviously trying to get the appropriate depth and width, I couldn’t be stood next to Danny [Care at scrum-half] as the ball came out, so we need to make eye contact, get our hands up and make sure if the ball needs to come, we’ll see each other’s body language.” Care’s short-range breaks have sometimes ignored space elsewhere too. Yet he and Farrell have helped England to two wins after a near miss in the opener in France.
The 22-year-old Farrell has become England’s senior fly-half after the omission of Leicester’s Toby Flood. “I’ve not changed because Toby has left,” he says. “If ever I felt something needed saying, I’d say it. I’ve always been a big mouth anyway.” He does admit, though, to “learning a lot” last summer, when he toured with the British and Irish Lions led by Wales’s head coach Warren Gatland, with the backs in the hands of Wales’s Rob Howley.
That must have afforded Farrell a unique insight into next week’s opponents? “It’s accelerated my experience because I’d only played against Wales twice,” he says. “And it was pretty much Wales’s system that I was playing with for the Lions. But their system is no real secret anyway. They are very direct in the way they play and get round the corner. And they might just know a tad bit more about me now.”
Farrell is also the man on the spot – rugby’s equivalent of the penalty spot – when it comes to goal-kicking. A mighty 50-metre effort got England rolling against Ireland but his overall Championship success rate is not outstanding at 64 per cent. “With my kicking for goal, you try and practise enough so that in a game you just do it,” he says. “But I only have to kick a ball straight. The footballers have to beat someone in front of them.”
With two matches left how can England improve?
Attack in the red zone
The inability to finish a multi-phase move cost England at least two tries against Ireland last week. They need better communication, passing and straight running. The All Blacks’ World Cup-winners practised short-range passing ad nauseam. 5/10
Losing Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole at loosehead and tighthead respectively was alarming. But with Joe Marler improving and Dave Wilson being rushed back, the scrum’s only discomfort has been a few wobbly moments against Ireland – as the country’s proud scrummaging history demands. 8/10
An area of stunning perfection for England (and Ireland) last week: not one throw lost – though no steals. England will fancy nicking some from Wales, and mauling them too. Defensively in France and Scotland, England are in good nick at the line-out – if Dylan Hartley is on the field. 8/10
Tries conceded: two of the freakish kind in Paris, none in Scotland and one to a spot of Irish chicanery – the system looks tight. When Brian O’Driscoll beat the first shoulder of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell last week, the cover was good. England’s captain, Chris Robshaw, leads the tackle count with 43. 8/10
Owen Farrell’s nine kicks in 14 attempts is a skinny 64 per cent, but last year was not much better: 69 per cent, or 16 from 23. 6.4/10
England appear to have solved what used to be a big problem. With Ireland they have conceded fewest penalties, 25. They are the only teams with no yellow or red cards. 9/10