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Felix Jones determined England defence will keep blitzing All Blacks
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Felix Jones determined England defence will keep blitzing All Blacks

England narrowly lost last Saturday’s first Test but their blitz defence has been causing New Zealanders to sit up and take notice. If the visitors manage to bounce back to square the series in Auckland on Saturday it will be partly because their line speed has succeeded in reducing the time and space available to one of the world’s most skilled backlines.

While the All Blacks did create two first-half tries in their 16-15 victory in Dunedin and England could not nail all their tackles, the collective urgency and intent of the onrushing white-shirted defenders were more apparent then ever. It is also here to stay as long as its choreographer, Felix Jones, remains involved with the England setup.

Jones, who represented Ireland as a player, was among the backroom staff who helped guide South Africa to World Cup glory at New Zealand’s expense last year and has now brought his box of tools to Twickenham. From his perspective, the game is not overly complicated. “At some stage rugby still boils down to: ‘You are a ball carrier and I am a tackler so where is this thing going to end up?’

“Most defences, generally speaking, are trying to take away time and space. The limits of that are often determined by how well you can tackle.”

With Henry Slade leading the charge to put pressure on the All Black midfield, it is far from a risk-free tactic against dangerous ball-players such as Damian McKenzie and Rieko Ioane. Jones says New Zealand sides are among the hardest to subdue given their slick handling skills and ability to punish the slightest misjudgment.

“Any time you play against New Zealand you have to be right at your upper levels – tactically, execution-wise, physically and intensity – to be in the mix with it,” he said. “They have a skill set that is on the top of the world. I’m talking handling, footwork and their identification of space. Their physical abilities, intensity and desperation to win is right at the upper level as well. That makes them very difficult.”

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The key to wrongfooting sides such as the All Blacks, he believes, is striking a consistent balance between risk and potential reward. “There is risk that comes with it but if you back off too much for fear of making an error they are going to punish you in any case,” he said. It explains why England have been happy to welcome back the experienced Slade after his omission from last year’s World Cup squad.

“This year, Henry Slade’s leadership, particularly around defence, has been excellent,” said the head coach, Steve Borthwick. “He is key along with Felix in terms of helping other players develop into our defensive system. He is a significant leader in this squad.”

Jones, though, concedes his defensive masterplan continues to be a work in progress, further complicated by the different systems employed by Premiership clubs. “There has definitely been progression but it’s not a simple linear thing,” he said. “Each Test match and season will present its own challenges. But as long as we’re continuously improving that would be the main thing I’m looking at.”

England are also working hard on enhancing their set piece, with the prop Fin Baxter, who earned his first cap in Dunedin, stressing the visitors are keen to become the first side to beat New Zealand at Eden Park for 30 years. “There’s no reason why we can’t go there and win,” said Baxter, suggesting England can still be competitive even without the injured Joe Marler. “Both sides now know more about each other. We’ll be better at the weekend.”

The All Blacks, meanwhile, will be without the experienced TJ Perenara for the second Test. The scrum-half was forced off at half-time in Dunedin with a knee injury.

Source: theguardian.com