The Breakdown: Smith Shines, Red Roses Run Riot & Japan Wilt
Welcome to The Breakdown, our weekly rugby blog for the 2021-22 Autumn Internationals, where we use Opta’s official rugby data to dissect what just happened and why.
If week one was the prelude, then the weekend just gone was the first act of the main event. All 11 men’s Tier 1 Nations were in action and there were three top-level women’s games to get our teeth stuck into as well.
England vs. Tonga: Smith Shines in Cameo
Almost every time Eddie Jones announces his squad selection there is uproar. This Autumn was no different. One of the main talking points on this occasion was at fly-half, with the clamour for Marcus Smith to lead England into a new and exciting era of attacking rugby deafening. However, George Ford has been in scintillating form for Premiership table-toppers Leicester Tigers, and at only 28 years old, some feel he has been given a rough ride.
All of this was thrown out of the window when Smith picked up a niggle and Owen Farrell tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the match. In the end, George Furbank was given the nod and, despite plenty of raised eyebrows, he handled the pressure extremely well, distributing the ball smartly and making some inroads himself.
The biggest cheer of the day, though, came when Smith stepped onto the pitch, accompanied by a tangible sense of anticipation and excitement. Without a doubt, he’s been the hottest property in English domestic rugby for 18 months – scoring tries, creating tries, kicking goals and most importantly, entertaining. In his 28-minute cameo this weekend he picked up one try, one assist and slotted all five of his conversions. He only kicked the ball once and sped up the go-forward of the team instantly.
In the NFL, dual-threat quarterbacks are often hot property, and that is very much the mould of Smith as a No. 10: a great distributor but also a ball carrier like no other in his position. The nearest you’d come to a like-for-like player would be Ford. Whether Farrell slips straight back into fly-half, Ford gets recalled or Smith is given the keys to the car will no doubt be the debate filling most column inches this week.
England No. 10s since 2019 Rugby World Cup:
George Ford Owen Farrell Marcus Smith Mins 806 320 173 Points 8 33 46 Tries 1 0 2 Try Assists 4 2 2 Kicks at Goal 1 18 21 Goal Kicking % 100% 78% 86% Carries per 80 6.3 5.0 6.0 Average gain per carry (m) 3.5 3.1 7.9 Clean Breaks per 80 0.5 0.5 1.8 Kicks in Play per 80 12.0 9.3 3.2 Tackle % 86% 76% 92%
Red Roses Run Riot Again
The top two teams in the world met once again at the weekend, with the Black Ferns still licking their wounds from a record loss at the hands of the Red Roses seven days earlier. Many expected a response from New Zealand, but it was the hosts who proved that their first Test result wasn’t so much a shock but a statement of what was to come, as they secured another record victory over the Black Ferns – this time by 41 points (56-15).
A week earlier, the Black Ferns’ set-piece and breakdown issues had caused a lot of their problems, losing multiple lineouts and scrums and recording a noticeably lower ruck speed than England. This week they managed to address those issues, winning each of their 12 scrums and losing just two of their 14 lineouts and recording a slightly higher quick ball % (65%) than their opponents (62%).
However, it was England’s efficiency in the red zone which New Zealand couldn’t live with. The Red Roses managed to take points away from 62% of their 22 entries during the game, scoring an average of 4.31 points per entry. In contrast, New Zealand scored from just 38% of their 22 entries, significantly lowering their points per entry to just 1.88.
This efficiency, along with the fact that England made more 22 entries overall (15 to New Zealand’s nine) meant they blew the Black Ferns away and sent out a huge statement ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup.
The Black Ferns will have to regroup quickly ahead of a trip to face France on Saturday. Interestingly, England’s last four Test matches have come against New Zealand and France, beating both teams twice. However, their combined margin of victory against France over those games was just six points compared to 72 over the Black Ferns. New Zealand will be desperate for a confidence-boosting victory, while Les Bleues will be licking their lips…
Brave Blossoms Wilt in Ireland
Ireland and Japan met once again in a men’s international. They’ve got to know each other rather well in the last couple of years and met in a high-scoring affair in the summer – their first meeting since the Brave Blossoms’ famous victory against Ireland at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Many expected Japan to run Ireland close once again with their exciting brand of free-flowing, high-intensity rugby. Sadly, those hoping for a contest were left disappointed. Andy Farrell’s side nullified Japan in every facet of the game. Much of this stemmed from Ireland winning the majority of the collisions – of their carries into contact, 39% were deemed dominant, with Ireland losing the collision outright from less than 1% of those carries. In contrast, Japan recorded a dominant carry rate of just 14%.
As a result, Japan were unable to get their key men in the right areas of the pitch to cause Ireland any danger. Kotaro Matsushima – who ranks in the top five players for carries, metres, clean breaks and defenders beaten in the TOP 14 since the beginning of last season – is the Brave Blossom’s biggest attacking threat, but he made more tackles (nine) than touches (eight) which is never a good thing for such an attacking full-back. From those eight touches he carried the ball five times, but none of those runs were in a position to do any damage as Japan fell to a crushing defeat.
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