The key to this silky Red Roses attack? Quality passing

Holly Aitchison runs with the ball during a England Red Roses Training Session at Pennyhill Park on April 09, 2024 in Bagshot, England
Holly Aitchison's distribution can help the Red Roses spread play - RFU/Alex Davidson

England’s attack in the opening two rounds of the Women’s Six Nations has been spellbindingly unpredictable. It is a stark contrast to two years ago when it was blindingly obvious: they were a maul-based team that crushed others with their set-piece dominance.

If the John Mitchell era has shown us anything, it is that this Red Roses team is now harvesting the fruits of a well-rounded attack, having primed a basic area of their game: passing.

After two rounds of the championship, the reigning Grand Slam champions have completed more than double the number of 10-metre-plus passes (37) than every nation apart from France (35). They have also completed more 5-10 metre passes than any other team in the championship so far.

At the heart of this new masterplan is Lou Meadows, England’s attack coach, who has everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. When she was appointed to the Red Roses coaching team last year, one of her main focus areas was to make England less formulaic, moving away from the prescribed line-out maul, building towards a silkier passing game with forwards occupying the outside channels so the team can play a coast-to-coast style.

Sarah Bern has always executed this to great effect, but now we are seeing more of England’s forwards thriving in wider spaces, which Sadia Kabeya and Alex Matthews did so successfully against Wales.

“The girls are extremely skilled in passing anyway, it was just about unleashing that in the right moments of the game,” explains Meadows. “If we keep catching and carrying then we become really predictable and easy to defend. Getting on board and releasing the outside channels or interlinking with one of her forwards on a tip line or an offload – that continuity of attack is really hard to defend against. I just wanted to upskill the players and give them the confidence to basically get after those opportunities when they come.”

This rang true in the build up to Ellie Kildunne’s first try when England were leading Wales 24-3 at Ashton Gate a fortnight ago. Matthews, the Red Roses No 8, chose to stay on the left wing after being used as a non-jumper in an England lineout. The Red Roses worked the ball infield, before shifting it back the other way. Kildunne spun a pass to the waiting Matthews who was hugging the touchline – bypassing Jess Breach as a dummy receiver in the process – before Matthews made a momentum-shifting run into Welsh territory.

Several phases later, quick hands found hooker Connie Powell, who went on a buff through the middle. Holly Aitchison would later fizz a peach of a pass to Zoe Aldcroft, who stormed through the middle and set the platform for Kildunne to go over in the far corner.

It was a perfect snapshot of how forwards in the women’s game have evolved beyond their conventional roles.

“Five, seven years ago, forwards were used for set-piece, and that’s where we utilised them the most,” says Meadows, a former teacher and first female head coach of an England men’s aspirational side when she coached England Counties U20s.

“But they are a ridiculously good carrying and passing threat around the pitch. To put them in the wider channels against the outside backs for me is a massive advantage because they know they have to commit to a tackle on a player like that which then releases our wingers on the outside. Teams are recognising how fast we want to play but how quickly the game is now moving in terms of their skillset and how quick and physically robust you need to keep playing with the amount of ball in play time.”

Clean handling is integral to a team’s passing game and England have both in spades, but in Aitchison, selected ahead of Zoe Harrison at fly-half this weekend against Scotland, the Red Roses also possess a rangy thrower capable of shaping their attack. Aitchison has already recorded an 18.5-metre pass in this year’s championship, some way off her personal best throw of 24.1 metres last year. For comparison, George Ford’s longest pass in this year’s men’s Six Nations was 25.5 metres.

“Passing as a skillset is a continuous work on and the type and variety of pass is really important,” concludes Meadows. “But I wouldn’t say longer passing has been a specific one at all. It’s just the players recognising when and what type of pass selection to use and then actually, being able to execute it under certain pressures, whether that’s fatigue, time or [in the] contact. We do practise around that a lot whether it’s unstructured games or technically focused drills.”

England already had the superstrength of their maul, but now they have a multi-faceted attack. Meadows’s impact cannot be overlooked.

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