England v Australia: Is England’s game plan good enough to win?

England v Australia
England's scrum-half Ben Youngs kicks the ball during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between England and Argentina at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on October 5, 2019. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

England v Australia are never dull matches and the intensity of this quarter-final will go up several notches. England on the face of it is in excellent health going into the clash against the Wallabies. Maximum points, two tries conceded and a set-piece which is rumbling into form. There are concerns around a two-week rest enforced by Typhoon Hagibis which cancelled the French match. Will England be undercooked? Will they risk throwing Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell in after so little rugby? Perhaps the biggest question though is whether England’s kicking game is the right strategy to topple the Australians?

Charlie Inglefield assesses England’s current form and the challenge of Australia that awaits them in the quarter-finals.

Is England’s strategy good enough?

Eddie Jones is renowned in world rugby as a deep thinker on the game and a tireless worker. Therefore he would have put a lot of thought into how England are going to win this World Cup. England’s game is all about territory and possession through their kick-chase and set-piece. Russia is the only team in the World Cup that kicks more than England. Because of England’s set-piece prowess the thought process, if all goes according to plan, is to pressurize and tire the opposition by keeping them pinned in their own half. Therefore England’s defense will knock back any suggested counter-attack, forcing their opponents to kick possession back to England and therefore concede territory. It’s not attractive but it is effective.

The Wallaby counterattacking threat

We will assume that England will go into the Wallaby match with exactly the same strategy. If it is to be successful then their box kicking and kicking out of hand, in general, has to be watertight. Australia has lost one of the great modern-day full-backs in Israel Folau but they have more than enough threat to come back at England. Marika Koroibete, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor are magnificent runners on their day. Put simply, Ben Youngs and George Ford have to be at their accurate best to ensure that they pressurize the Australian back three. If not, the likes of Koroibete will tear England to shreds.

England must not forget May and Watson

England has to find ways to get Jonny May and Anthony Watson into the game, preferably in space. They are lethal in broken play and always make ground no matter how tight the opposition’s defense is. What we don’t want to see is these two spending the entire game chasing box kicks. It would be a tragic waste of England’s back three attacking prowess.

There were a couple of times in the second half of the Argentinian match where Farrell and Ford had acres of space in front of them. They chose to stop and kick into the corners to pressurise Argentina’s lineout. Against 14 men and 20 points to the good, they could have utilised their backline more. The broken field threat that May and Watson provide is amongst the best in the world and that includes the All Blacks. England must mix up their game and not just be reliant on their kick-chase and set-piece.

Ben Youngs, the key man, again.

With England’s reliance on kicking for territory, Ben Youngs is once again the key man for England. He was much better against Argentina even before the Pumas went down to 14 men. It was great to see Youngs take a quick tap penalty and use his undoubted ability to probe for gaps. His box kicking, however, was a yard or two too long. These are such fine margins at this level and England were lucky that Argentina did not have a Santiago Cordero or a Juan Imhoff running the ball back at them. Against the Wallabies, Youngs has to be pinpoint accurate with his box kicking otherwise Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty will put Australia in great attacking positions.

George Ford and Owen Farrell have to fire together

Eddie Jones would have likely given one of George Ford or Owen Farrell a rest against France, and give Henry Slade a chance. It is conceivable that if Slade had a blinder against the French then he would be in the selection mix for the Wallabies. With Slade having so little game time and with doubts around his troublesome knee, Ford and Farrell will probably start together.

Ford is becoming the dominant figure in England’s decision making. There is no chance that Farrell will be dropped and rightly so but England needs Farrell back on song. He has been quiet in this tournament, perhaps not helped by the heavy hits he has received during the pool stages. England fans want to see Farrell at his best which is when he is leading the line in both defence and attack. Farrell loves playing against Australia so the stage is set for him to have a big one.

Should Cokanasiga come into the squad?

With Jack Nowell potentially struggling with a hamstring injury, Joe Cokanasiga could be England’s trump card. Big Joe’s formidable presence on the wing is a mighty useful weapon to have. In knock-out rugby, you have to have plans b and c and if England is chasing the game, players like Cokanasiga are crucial. Australian winger Dane Haylett Petty is a consistent player, in both defence and attack but the way Cokanasiga bumped him off last autumn should not escape England’s attention.

England’s bench could be the difference

England’s ‘finishers’ might well determine whether England get through against Australia. The match will be tight and tense but England has some excellent options to choose from. Potentially – Henry Slade and Joe Cokanasiga in the backs and Luke Cowan-Dickie, Lewis Ludlam and Mako Vunipola in the forwards. Eddie Jones must use his bench wisely and not leave it too late if England is behind on the scoreboard.

If these players get the ball in their hands then England should have enough to take down Australia. The burning question is whether England’s game plan will allow for that?

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