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England dissected France to score four tries and show attacking improvements – here is how

Tommy Freeman - Four ways England cut open France to score tries
Tommy Freeman was rewarded for tireless work off the ball - Getty Images

The challenge for coaches is to connect different aspects of their team so they can flow into one another and underpin performances that overwhelm opponents. England wanted to win this Six Nations, but a significant consolation prize is how they have shown that such displays are well within their grasp; even against accomplished opponents.

Steve Borthwick’s charges scored four tries in Lyon to complement the three that marked the 23-22 win over Ireland the previous weekend at Twickenham. On Saturday night, they were on the wrong end of another thriller as France edged the encounter. But, notwithstanding his desire to win these games rather than simply compete in them, Borthwick is clearly cultivating a dogged and intuitive side capable of attacking with verve.

When he was sacked at the end of 2022, Eddie Jones was striving to broaden England’s horizons so they would become a team that could play in different ways. Over the past two months, Borthwick has delivered compelling evidence to suggest that this is being achieved. Four tries against France reinforced as much.

Try one: Nuance on the gain line

Leicester Tigers’s Premiership title win in 2022 was founded upon kicking to control territory. Unsurprisingly, Borthwick has brought the subtleties of that approach to England. At 16-3 behind, his players needed to respond and did so thanks to their restart strategy.

As they did against Ireland when they aimed kicks towards Bundee Aki, England picked out Emmanuel Meafou. Here, George Ford’s strike allows Tommy Freeman, who moves off his right wing to chase, time to eat up the ground and tackle France’s colossal lock:

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Meafou bumped off Maro Itoje, but Ollie Chessum is still able to pressurise Nolann le Garrec’s clearance:

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This gives England a line-out close to the 22. They head into midfield, where the ploy is to send Ben Earl into the channel occupied by Thomas Ramos:

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Ford throws a pass behind Sam Underhill to Earl, who drifts onto the ball and surges into the France fly-half. A quick ruck results:

Léo Barré, the France full-back, has to push up flat, leaving space in behind, which Henry Slade spies…

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…and then locates with a right-footed grubber. Damian Penaud arcs around from the blindside wing, yet is bundled into touch:

England show patience and conviction to back their line-out amid a string of opposition offences and eventually, they move the ball away from a maul that absorbs a counter-hove before edging forwards. Slade sends Ollie Lawrence slicing through:

The pattern is one used by many teams – Scotland bamboozled England with it at Murrayfield for Duhan van der Merwe’s first try – and underlines the balance that Slade and Lawrence provide.

With Ford lurking out the back, Ramos cannot jam onto Lawrence. Slade takes the short option rather than the pull-back, but also pushes the pass across his centre partner so that Lawrence can drift onto the outside shoulder of Gaël Fickou:

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Bath aim to get the most out of Lawrence by putting layers of deception around him and giving him one-on-ones. England replicate that here:

The try gives them a foothold and they push on.

Try two: Close-range efficiency

After Le Garrec feeds the England line-out by clearing into touch from the restart – a slightly different one that allows Slade to compete in the air – the visitors go for Ramos again. They run a similar pattern with Earl appearing behind Underhill.

Watch Lawrence. He carves an angle off Earl’s shoulder…

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…and might have caused real problems had he been found with another short pass:

Either way, England earn quick ball and Ford can push flat. After two short passes, with Alex Mitchell finding Ford and Ford moving it to Slade, a longer one is sent across the face of Marcus Smith to Freeman.

Louis Bielle-Biarrey has wandered in-field and is caught hopelessly flat-footed:

England react to the break well. They have three forwards – Jamie George, Ellis Genge and Underhill – flooding flat to offer themselves to Mitchell.

Genge is the carrier in this instance, but watch how three more forwards – Earl, Itoje and Underhill – are poised for the next phase:

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Ford steps up on the back of Genge’s run to the first-receiver role. As well as the forwards, note how Freeman is back in the game and tracking the ball in-field:

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Ford fizzes a pass across Earl and Itoje to Underhill. The latter shrugs off Thibaud Flament and offloads out of Charles Ollivon’s tackle to Earl, who has readjusted his support line brilliantly:

Earl comes close but England stay calm to capitalise. In the recent past, their inability to convert these positions has been crippling. On the phase after Earl’s break, Freeman steps up at scrum-half because he recognises that Mitchell has had to help Itoje to secure the ball at the breakdown:

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England zig-zag before Mitchell finds Lawrence on the short side:

As far as scanning for opportunities and playing to space, England have improved hugely.

Try three: Kicking manipulation and a set-piece strike

A prolonged kicking exchange brings about England’s next score, beginning with a box-kick from Alex Mitchell. Note that Dan Cole and George Martin switch places, the former joining the ruck and pushing the latter out, to make sure that the England chase is as well organised and efficient as it can be:

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Elliot Daly is the primary chaser…

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…and catches the ball cleanly. Note that Penaud has had to come forward:

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This leaves a lot of ground for France’s remaining two back-three players – Leo Barré and Bielle-Biarrey – to cover. Ford immediately identifies as much and calls for a pass. He then sends a spearing kick towards the space in behind Bielle-Biarrey, who has to turn:

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Bielle-Biarrey’s return kick, under pressure from Freeman, is wobbly…

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…and Smith runs it back. Note that Bielle-Biarrey makes the tackle and that the remaining defender on the near side is Ramos:

Freeman scans and he back-pedals behind the breakdown…

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…and must call for the ball as Ramos heads towards the open side:

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Mitchell instigates a break and seems set to receive a return offload. Barré is extremely fortunate that he is not collared for what appears to be an instinctive knock-on:

This angle suggests that England are unfortunate. Ford is incensed:

As it happens, Flament collects and France scramble the ball to touch again through Le Garrec:

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This is a good chance to dwell upon the variety that a pack featuring Itoje, George Martin and Chessum offers to the line-out. England call a four-man set-up and are initially configured like this, with Martin at the front and Dan Cole, Itoje and Chessum behind him in that order:

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Martin arcs around to the back and Itoje comes forward as a dummy jumper, with Cole and Chessum dummy lifters. Cole keeps coming towards the tail, though, and Chessum turns:

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Jamie George throws to the back, where Chessum is lifted by Cole and Martin:

All the while, a four-man set-up means that England can post the three remaining forwards in the back line. In this case, those are Ellis Genge, Earl and Underhill. Note where Smith begins this phase as well. Again, England want to force Ramos into making defensive decisions.

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In this case, Ford feeds Genge. Ramos is fixed, even though Grégory Alldritt would be able to drift onto Genge, and a flat pass sends Earl between Ramos and Nicolas Depoortère. In broken play, Smith arrives on the right shoulder of Earl:

Watch the attack through:

The finish from Smith is excellent. He steps inside a covering Penaud and moves the ball under his right arm to fend off Barré:

England might have had the penalty try and a yellow card if Barré had been collared moments previously, but this is a fine retort and, from 24-16 up, they should really have closed out the game.

Try four: Working off the ball and around the corner

The next aim for Felix Jones and Richard Wigglesworth will be for England to become even sharper in transition so that their defence regularly produces try-scoring opportunities.

A turnover did lay on their fourth try. Ironically, it comes from a tackle that looks very similar to the one that ultimately decided the game as Earl chops down Romain Taofifénua. Alex Dombrant is on hand to swoop for the jackal and Angus Gardner obliges with the whistle:

England go to touch and simply out-work France around the corner, combining intricate running angles and power:

Rewinding to the line-out, Manu Tuilagi is the first to carry…

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…before Freeman spears off his wing. Danny Care’s pass travels across Ethan Roots and Theo Dan to its target:

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Here, as Itoje carries on the next phase, look at how Freeman is picking himself off the floor:

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This is a great angle to exhibit how he times his run to arrive outside Marcus Smith, who is found by George Ford’s flick-on:

Referring to GPS data, Aled Walters revealed that Freeman and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso had totted up significant distances against Ireland. This try shows the value of wings roaming around the pitch. At the World Cup, England were renowned as a team who worked hard in defence. This is a perfect example to illustrate how hard they are working in attack, and the tangible rewards that can reap.

Shaun Edwards, the France defence coach, acknowledged at full-time that “England’s attack was all over us”. Borthwick’s side held firm in the set-piece exchanges and kicked 34 times for a whopping 1105 metres. Yet the incisive attack they have bolted onto those fundamentals will have engaged supporters and inspired hope for the future.

Next up for England? A rendezvous with Eddie Jones in Japan before taking on Scott Robertson’s All Blacks. After defeat at Murrayfield, those assignments looked ominous. The past fortnight should breed excitement, because England seem a confident and capable team.

Match images from ITV

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