Talking Points

(Rugby News Service) Monday 19 September 2011
Talking Points
England wing Chris Ashton crosses in the corner against Georgia

AUCKLAND, 19 Sept. - A spotlight on the hot topics at Rugby World Cup 2011.

England are often described as being a 10-man rugby team, but do they really deserve this tag?

The label gained currency during the previous two Rugby World Cups - though they won in 2003 and lost the 2007 final - and Martin Johnson's team did little to dispel that perception in their labouring 13-9 victory over Argentina in their opening RWC 2011 match.

Other pundits, however, believe the label is too simplistic.

All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith, for one, said England had changed their style coming into this tournament.

"They come out here with a squad who have developed their game hugely from basically a 10-man rugby team to playing 15-man rugby," he said.

And the statistics seem to support the notion that there is more to England's game than muscular forward play and kicking.

For example, all six tries in England's second match of RWC 2011, their 41-10 win over Georgia on Sunday, came from their three-quarters (wings and centres).

All Black similarities

And this was the fifth time all four of England's starting wings and centres had scored in a RWC match, a figure bettered only by the All Blacks, the team associated more than any other with open, running rugby involving all 15 players.

Furthermore, no team other than these two have had all of their starting three-quarters score tries in more than one RWC match.

Admittedly, these matches tend to be against lower-ranked opposition. England's starting wings and centres all scored tries against Japan (1987), Tonga (1999), Georgia (2003 and 2011) and Uruguay (2003), while the All Blacks achieved this against Italy (1987), Japan (1995), Tonga (2003), Wales (2003), Portugal (2007) and Romania (2007).

The glaring exception is New Zealand's 53-37 victory against Wales at RWC 2003, a match in which wings Joe Rokocoko and Doug Howlett each scored two tries and centres Aaron Mauger and Leon MacDonald one each.

However, the All Blacks did concede 37 points in that match, suggesting there is a major risk in opening up to this extent against other tier-one teams.

Matches are bound to get tighter in the later stages of a RWC and the past six knockout matches involving two teams playing in the Six Nations or Tri Nations tournaments have produced a total of 15 tries, with six being scored by forwards.

Difficult to beat

There is evidence these matches are getting even tighter, too, with just six tries scored in the four knockout matches at RWC 2007 between teams from the Six Nations or Tri Nations.

The All Blacks, though, have still attempted to play an open style of rugby, using all of their players.

The essential difference between England and New Zealand when it comes to the style of rugby they play is that England will make things much tighter when playing against opposition who can seriously test them.

This approach has led to two World Cup final appearances since the turn of the millennium, despite the team scoring a combined total of three tries in their six knockout matches. Notably, all three have come from the backs.

The All Blacks have scored twice as many tries in half as many knockout matches but failed to reach the final on either occasion.

All in all, it seems too simplistic to describe England as a team playing 10-man rugby and New Zealand as one using all of their players in a more expansive style.

However, ultimate success at the RWC depends more on giving little away rather than attempting to run the ball from all over the pitch. And England have excelled at being difficult to beat in almost every RWC match from 2003 onwards.

RNS sdg/mr/mj/sg