When it was announced by World Rugby in July 2017 that law amendments were being made to the breakdown area the rationale used for the decision was that the tweaks would make the game “simpler for players and referees”.
Of the six law amendments made by the rugby’s governing body, half of them focused on play around the tackle and ruck.
Law 15.4(c) ensured the tackler must get up before playing the ball and then can only play from his own side of the tackle “gate”.
Law 16 stated a ruck commenced when at least one player is on their feet and over the ball, thus stopping tactics used by Italy against England in last year’s Six Nations. The final change, Law 16.4, added a player must not kick the ball out of a ruck.
The key point stressed by the amendments, according to World Rugby, was that this would “make the ruck simpler for players and referees”.
However for England, the new changes have brought nothing but headaches.
Against France at the weekend, Eddie Jones’ side were battered at the breakdown. They managed to rack up 16 penalties, with six of them coming as a result of players holding onto the ball once tackled.
That came about as runners were left isolated as they went into contact and the 19 stone Mathieu Bastareaud became a particular thorn in England’s side as he managed to get over the ball.
It was the same story a week earlier when England lost to Scotland at Murrayfield.
“I think what Scotland showed is that they are masters of the breakdown,” said former England centre Jeremy Guscott during the post-match analysis on the BBC. “They are very good at slowing down ball and nicking ball.”
English club sides have also struggled in Europe this season when it comes to competing at the ruck. Saracens are the Aviva Premiership’s sole representatives in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup and they only sneaked through as the eighth seed.
During one weekend of the pool stages all seven Premiership clubs lost as the PRO14 and Top14 flexed their muscles.
Munster’s back-to-back wins over Leicester Tigers in December demonstrated the difference at the breakdown and how the two styles were having differing degrees of success. In contrast to teams in Ireland, Premiership sides have opted to compete less at the ruck this season following the law amendments.
Instead, players are fanning out and packing the defence.
Naturally such a tactic is fine when your opposite number is doing the same, as is the case most weekends in the Premiership, but in Europe such a strategy has come undone.
Unsurprisingly England players have carried those “habits” – as Jones calls them – into the international arena.
The Australian doesn’t blame Premiership clubs for this, though, as he admits it is his and his coaching staff’s responsibility to change that.
However, those habits at the breakdown have hit England hard during this Six Nations and changes must be made ahead of their clash with Ireland on Saturday.
Jones has warned it could take 18 months for his team to adapt, but steps need to be taken this week or else it could be a similar tale as to when Premiership sides met Irish clubs in this year’s Champions Cup.
One of the keys for England will be to get more power into their game. Without the injured Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, Jones’ side lack ball carriers and it is no surprise Exeter Chiefs’ Don Armand has been called up.
The 29-year-old can help give England front-foot ball and his 21 carries as he was named man-of-the-match in last year’s Aviva Premiership final typifies what he can offer.
More speed at the breakdown will help the Red Rose too and it is why Sam Simmonds may return at number eight. He is exceptionally quick, with his team-mate Jack Nowell even dubbing him “a freak” due to his pace.
Such a quality will be crucial against a formidable Irish back row on Saturday afternoon.
Flanker James Haskell is another who could be brought into the starting XV this weekend at Twickenham to help turn the tide, but he has correctly pointed out change is going to take time.
“We’re coming from the Premiership, where no one competes at the breakdown, into the Six Nations, where every team is throwing lots of people into it,” said Haskell. “International rugby is dramatically different now to where it was 12 months ago.”
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