Mako Vunipola Analysis: Ford and Farrell’s inverted triangles give England superb variety

Mako Vunipola This is another huge constituent!

ENGLAND DELIVERED A tactical masterclass last Saturday night in Yokohama as they dismantled a previously red-hot New Zealand team with one of their most complete performances in recent times.

The attacking qualities of this side have evolved significantly since the appointment of Scott Wisemantel as attack coach in 2018. The former Paramatta Eel has brought a rugby league flavour to England’s attack, signified by the second-man plays that George Ford and Owen Farrell run so well. 

The Ford-Farrell axis has been instrumental in creating variation to their team’s attack, with a lovely mix of utilising their power runners such as Billy Vunipola or Manu Tuilagi via the front door or facilitating their electric backs with late pullback passes behind would-be carriers.

Whilst the shape England is running is not unique, it is the execution and skill of Ford and Farrell, in particular, that is paramount to its success.

The inverted triangle

Consider a triangle hanging upside-down, the wide base at the top with the pointy end at the bottom. 

A large portion of England’s attacking shape has two or three players at the base with one player at the pointy end. Let’s call it the inverted triangle, a shape frequently used in rugby league. 

Mako Vunipola Picture 1

Above and below are two screenshots from a first-phase play off a lineout in England’s win against Argentina during the pool stages, which give a good visualisation of the shape.

Mako Vunipola Picture 2

In both graphics, there are two players at the base of the triangle with one at the pointy end.

The play hinges on the ability of the first receiver to stay square at the line and commit his opposite defender. He must be willing to ‘get dirty’ by taking the ball almost to the advantage line and drawing a tackle as he delivers the pass – leaving him vulnerable to a shipping a heavy shot in the process.

His decision on whether to play the short runner through the front door or go out the back revolves around the defender on his outside. If this defender turns his shoulders inwards on the short runner then the pass out the back is on, whereas if his shoulders turn out then the short pass will definitely facilitate a weak shoulder at a minimum for the onrushing forward.

Peripheral vision is critical for the ball player to be able to read these cues as well as keeping his hips and shoulder square so that both passes are available right until the last moment.

This skill is what sets Farrell and Ford apart from their peers. They consistently make it exceptionally difficult for defenders to make early decisions by executing the fundamentals of this play so well and so late.

Of course, what Wisemantel has cleverly leveraged is the profile of his pack and the fact that essentially all eight of his forwards are threatening ball carriers. This aids the second-man play as defenders must respect the short runners when it is the likes of Vunipola – Billy or Mako – Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill or even Tuilagi – who has the physical dimensions of a forward – hitting that ‘unders’ line.

In the example below, England use the triangle shape twice in

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