England’s ‘visionary’ secret weapon in bid to release the shackles in attack

England consultant coach Andrew Strawbridge during training
Andrew Strawbridge in England training at Pennyhill Park this week - Getty Images/David Rogers

He is the bearded New Zealander who specialises in basketball passes and breakdown accuracy and cheated death a decade ago before helping to revive the All Blacks.

The appointment of Andrew Strawbridge to England’s coaching team, which was announced on January 4, has become increasingly intriguing ever since.

On Saturday at Stadio Olimpico, he seemed to adopt a rather hands-off role. For a good portion of the warm-ups, for instance, Strawbridge was observing Italy’s final preparations. Richard Wigglesworth and Felix Jones appeared far more prominent in the England half.

Strawbridge was absent from the visiting coaches’ box when the game began, with that area occupied by Steve Borthwick, Wigglesworth and Jones as well as Aled Walters and two lead analysts in Joe Lewis and Carwyn Morgan. Undeniably, though, Borthwick’s eyes have brightened at each mention of his new, Kiwi colleague in recent press calls.

“He’s had an impact on me as a coach for a long period of time,” said the England head coach of Strawbridge a fortnight ago in Dublin. “I watch a lot of rugby. And one team I watched and admired greatly was the Chiefs team of 2012-2013 in Super Rugby.”

Dave Rennie got to know Strawbridge while the pair oversaw New Zealand Under-20s together between 2008 and 2009, delivering two Junior World Championship titles. When they reconvened in Waikato, the success continued.

Those Chiefs teams revered by Borthwick were full of special players. Aaron Cruden steered them from fly-half and a young but imposing lock called Brodie Retallick looked primed for a decent career. Sona Taumalolo, the explosive Tonga prop, plundered nine tries in 2012. Sonny Bill Williams starred that year before returning to rugby league.

Craig Clarke captained them. Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Ben Tameifuna, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Andrew Horrell, Tim Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma were among the other mainstays. Gareth Anscombe and Sam Cane came through, as did a certain Bundee Aki. Strawbridge enriched an extraordinary blend of talent.

“His knowledge around skill acquisition is a massive weapon of his, and it covers lots of positions,” Rennie says. “While, primarily, he was a skills coach, that folded into all areas of our game; from the obvious stuff like decision-making to high balls, goal-kicking, line-out stuff. He’s got outstanding knowledge around skill acquisition.”

The concept of “creative pass”, defined by Rennie as “when an orthodox pass won’t work”, was particularly important to the Chiefs. Strawbridge emboldened them.

“It’s become a very common part of most people’s footie nowadays, but the little basketball passes, the balls around the back and the flip passes – all that stuff,” Rennie adds.

“Straws really promoted that as part of our game. That meant when an orthodox pass was blocked off, we still had a chance for continuity and keeping the ball alive. We used that really well, and scored a hell of a lot of tries from turnover and counter-attack involving creative passing.”

England have been striving to complement disruptive defence with clinical attack for years. The first part – forcing turnovers and recovering their own kicks – has been reasonably consistent. Now to sharpen a cutting edge in broken-field situations. No wonder Borthwick has been palpably excited about the influence Strawbridge could have, even over a four-week consultancy stint.

This weekend brought encouraging flickers. In the 17th minute, Lorenzo Cannone fumbled in midfield to derail an Italy strike move. Elliot Daly swept around brightly and sparked a counter by flipping the ball to Freddie Steward. Minutes later, Tommy Freeman’s diving offload laid on a try for Daly. Fraser Dingwall demonstrated neat – and occasionally unconventional – distribution, too. Perhaps most positive, certainly for a details man like Borthwick, was that England won 97 of 98 attacking rucks according to Stats Perform.

Franser Dingwall passes the ball during England's Six Nations win over Italy
Fraser Dingwall's passing caught the eye in England's win over Italy - Getty Images/Danilo Di Giovanni

“Skill acquisition” was the area assigned to Strawbridge when he joined New Zealand in 2022, joining forces with Joe Schmidt and Ian Foster. The following year, in the World Cup quarter-final against Ireland, the All Blacks registered just three handling errors. Remarkably, Ireland did not have a single scrum put-in across the 80 minutes.

Although an exhausting defensive effort eventually eked out the win for New Zealand, they also scored three slick tries. The first featured a lightning take-and-give from Rieko Ioane, who released Leicester Fainga’anuku with something akin to a netball chest-pass. In retrospect, with Rennie’s comments in mind, you suspect the guidance of Strawbridge.

Borthwick has revealed that he attempted to bring Strawbridge to Leicester Tigers, citing the contact area as another of the Kiwi’s strengths. Numerous coaches across the globe talk of Strawbridge as a blunt yet charismatic and trustworthy figure. As Rennie points out, actions that may seem flamboyant – cross-field kick-passes or overhead passes, for instance – are often born out of practical decisions.

“Ideally, your decision-making is the ability to do the obvious,” he says. “That’s something Straws has driven really well throughout his coaching career.

“It probably doesn’t sound that nice when I put it like this, but Straws is like the irritant in the oyster. He’ll challenge. He’ll often see things that others don’t see and force you to look deeper at those things. I really enjoyed working with him because he’d voice an opinion which, in my view, made us better. He generally cares, and has made a difference to every side that he’s been with. It’s a visionary decision from England to bring him in.”

Andrew Strawbridge during an England Six Nations training session
Steve Borthwick tried to tempt Strawbridge with a move to Leicester Tigers - Getty Images/David Ramos

A former Waikato team-mate of John Mitchell, Strawbridge went into teaching upon retirement. Years later, in 2015, he would lose the use of an eye after contracting sepsis from a scratch. Having travelled to Samoa to assist the national side, Strawbridge became critically ill. He was put into a coma and has described a desperate fight for life. “I think the chances of [the infection] reacting in the way it did was like winning the lotto,” says Rennie. “And then his chances of surviving were like winning the lotto three weeks in a row. He’s a pretty resilient man. Not many people would have pulled through that situation.”

Rennie, the ex-Australia head coach, is currently in charge of Kobe Steelers. During a short break from Japanese domestic fixtures, he suggests that Borthwick would not have brought in Strawbridge without a genuine desire for England to “grow their game”. “Smart” and “innovative” are other words that Rennie uses to describe an old ally. At the Chiefs, Rennie and Strawbridge had Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry for company. Collaboration is a skill, too.

“It’s having a coaching group without ego,” Rennie says. “If everyone has their own areas and they don’t want anyone to challenge them, or to help them grow that area, you get people working in silos. We had very experienced coaches. It was myself, Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry and Straws. There was a lot of cross-pollination, and we were always prepared to get in a room and discuss things.”

England were not unrecognisably rewired in Rome. But, by Rennie’s estimation, Strawbridge has been “influential wherever he’s gone”. Even small tweaks could enhance Borthwick’s side significantly.

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