Felix Jones’ aggressive ‘blitz’ system a high-risk gamble worth taking for England

Italy's Tommaso Allan runs beyond England's defence to score a try in their Six Nations opener

Growing pains: they can really hurt. And adopting a new approach will inevitably lead to ugly moments. Italy’s second try at the Stadio Olimpico, a flowing counter-attack that left Elliot Daly stranded and was finished by Tommaso Allan, epitomised as much for England.

Despite their instalment of a new head coach in Gonzalo Quesada, who has promised to add pragmatism to the flow cultivated by Kieran Crowley, his predecessor, the hosts were the more settled team. That they were chasing a first ever victory in this fixture did not change that.

Aside from absences of various veteran players, the arrival of Felix Jones as defence coach, taking over from Kevin Sinfield, has been the most significant aspect of England’s transition since the World Cup. A back-to-back champion with the Springboks, he was always going to embed an aggressive blitz system predicated on wings rushing in to shut down space. Jamie George and Ben Earl have waxed lyrical about how Jones is demanding energy and urging that England weaponise their defence.

South Africa have been close to perfecting this approach over recent years, making it formidable. The scampering pair of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Cheslin Kolbe are mesmerising to watch with ball in hand, but they are also ferocious defenders who think nothing of bolting way in-field. They do not mind that the defensive line becomes narrow, because their proactivity will often force uncertainty or outright handling errors. They sometimes funnel runners towards heavy traffic, too.

Arendse and Kolbe trust that their colleagues will be able to scramble in behind them and cover across if the attackers work the ball into space on the outside. England are not at this stage yet, and Daly was the fall-guy in the 27th minute as Italy outflanked their hosts to go 17-8 ahead.

The sequence had actually started in a promising manner for England on the opposite wing. Tommy Freeman had chased Alex Mitchell’s box-kick and clattered Monty Ioane. This should have allowed England to set themselves and swarm up together. Instead, they honey-potted around the breakdown. Two phases later, Italy cut them apart.

Spying a defensive line that had coiled dangerously – Daly was the sole England player in the far half of the pitch, if one were to draw a line vertically down the middle – Paolo Garbisi fed Juan Ignacio Brex. Brex fixed Henry Slade and lifted a deft return pass to a looping Garbisi. Even from beyond Italy’s 10-metre line, England were horribly vulnerable:


At this point, Daly endeavoured to force the issue and bustled in. But he was slightly too late, and Garbisi could transfer the ball to Allan. The former Harlequins full-back glided just far enough to attract Freddie Steward before releasing Tommaso Menoncello. The only England defenders corner-flagging behind Daly were Joe Marler and Ethan Roots. Neither one was capable of catching up. Allan sauntered in under the posts after Menoncello picked off George Ford.

In his post-match press conference, Borthwick acknowledged that both of Italy’s first two tries had been scored “too easily”. He agreed that acclimatising to Jones’ strategy had been a factor and suggested that a combination of “new processes, new personnel and short preparation time” was responsible. “That’s just the hand we’ve been dealt,” said a phlegmatic Borthwick.

What could England have done differently for the second try? In truth, the damage was done by the players that gravitated towards the ruck. Such inaccurate spacing hung Daly out to dry, although he and Slade could have been more assertive with their communication here, on the back of Freeman’s tackle:

After that, Daly himself might have recognised how compromised his team had become and drifted backwards rather than darting in the opposite direction. No defensive doctrines are sacred in every moment. They can, and should, be overridden if necessary.

England could have panicked here, because Italy had their tails up. As it was, an increasingly assured defence would only concede seven further points, those coming when Ioane escaped the clutches of Fraser Dingwall for an 85th-minute consolation try. Dingwall will have been frustrated, because the mistake blemished an otherwise tidy debut. Yet he, and Jones, emerged with a win as well as areas to improve.

Monty Ioane scores a try for Italy against England
Italy's Monty Ioane scored a late try to make the scoreboard appear uncomfortable for England - Shutterstock/Fabio Frustaci

Indeed, Italy were ideal opponents to stress-test the new system. With Ange Capuozzo floating around, they would have been even more threatening. Nevertheless, England produced plenty to encourage Jones. In the 50th minute, from a scrum just inside Italy’s half, Paolo Garbisi wrapped around Brex again. On this occasion, Slade jammed in and Daly followed him to chop down Ioane:

Any attacking impetus was lost immediately, and pressure from Earl and Dingwall brought a fumble from Manuel Zuliani:

Cameras panned to the England coaching box. Steve Borthwick leant over and said something to Jones – Felix, not Eddie, though the latter was also at the ground as well – and the pair nodded.

Freeman was impressive in every facet of his performance and appears to relish Jones’ method. Other defensive interventions demonstrated admirable industry. Maro Itoje had menacing moments. With 10 minutes remaining, and England 27-17 in front, Brex and Garbisi combined once more. Chandler Cunningham-South charged across the pitch and whacked Federico Mori. The resourceful, rugged Roots forced a breakdown penalty a few rucks later.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso arrived from the bench and earned England a line-out quickly. Italy spread it wide from inside their own 22, Garbisi needing to hurry under pressure from Slade. The ball initially went beyond Feyi-Waboso to Ioane, who evaded the first tackle attempt. Feyi-Waboso recovered, though. He and Dingwall shepherded Ioane across the touchline. Earl was on hand to celebrate:

Slade and Feyi-Waboso have been beside one another in an aggressive Exeter Chiefs defence this season, of course. That cohesion was clear.

Steward deserves credit for anticipating a cute chip from Garbisi on the first play following Daly’s yellow card. Had that bounced to a blue shirt, Borthwick’s side were facing a difficult finale.

Italy would have the last word, yet England should be heartened. They have won in the opening round of the Six Nations for the first time since 2019. And growing pains often yield far more convincing displays down the line.

As Jamie George put it, perseverance in the answer. “What pleased me most today was that we got cut a couple of times in the first half. But did that take anything away from our line-speed? Absolutely not,” said the skipper. “We had the courage to keep going after them.”

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