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In 2016, England delivered a backs-to-the-wall stand for the ages in their 23-7 second Test win against Australia in Melbourne that secured a series victory. Six years on and another defensive rearguard has never been more needed –to save the series and potentially the future of head coach Eddie Jones
With so much focus on the issues around the attack, England’s defensive problems have slipped under the radar. This year, England have conceded 15 tries in six Tests – and that does not even include the eight tries they shipped against the Barbarians. At an average of 2.5 tries per game that is England’s worst defensive return in well over 20 years.
There have been some signs of encouragement under defence coach Anthony Seibold, who was appointed last summer to replace John Mitchell. The former Australian rugby league coach points to the 27-26 victory against world champions South Africa as his “signature game”.
“That particular night we took time and space away from the team,” Seibold said. He was also rightly proud of his team’s spirit in the Six Nations defeat to Ireland after Charlie Ewels was sent off inside two minutes.
But both in that game and in the first Test against Australia, England wilted late on, conceding three tries in 16 minutes in Perth. “I’m not sure of the reason,” Seibold said. “It’s something we need to be better with, managing that last 20 minutes.”
What Seibold is convinced of is that defence comes down to attitude and effort. “I’m all about the areas that don’t take skill or talent,” Seibold said. “As a coach I am very much defensively biased and I always have been. We can’t let Australia play with the latitude that they want.
“They want to play in big open spaces, that’s the way they want to play. So from our perspective, and from my perspective, as a coach, my philosophy is about taking time and space away from opposition teams.”
Seibold is back in Brisbane this week after his messy exit as head coach of the Brisbane Broncos, where he had the unenviable task of replacing Wayne Bennett (the Alex Ferguson of rugby league). He says that the abuse he and his family received left him with something approaching PTSD.
When the invitation came to join Jones’ team, he jumped at the chance despite having never coached in union before. Yet when it comes to defence, the difference between the codes is negligible.
“The thing I like about defence is that you have to bring an honesty and a work ethic,” Seibold said. “In life the values that I consider to be important are things like sticking up for your mates, turning up for your mates, being there for your mates. That’s what defence is about, isn’t it?
“A lot of times people don’t go to games to watch defence, do they? What do they want to see? They want to see tries scored, they want to see the magic flick pass and all that sort of stuff. But there’s a real steeliness to good defensive teams and you can tell when a team’s working out for each other and is together. I saw long periods of that on Saturday evening.”
He points to that Melbourne Test six years ago where England soaked up 71 per cent Australian possession and made 182 tackles, including several goal-line stands. “There’s nothing back there other than the togetherness, attitude and unity that group showed,” Seibold said. “We’ve picked up on pieces of that but I think it’s about this group and what this group can do.”
Mako Vunipola is one of eight survivors from that side who played in the defeat in Perth and says that team’s identity was forged with their backs against the wall. “Especially as a forward, those are memories you remember,” Vunipola said.
“When you’re on your line, you’re fighting for 12 phases and if Henry [Arundell] scores a 90-metre try, I am happy for him but I’m happier that we defended our line. I think most rugby fans would understand that. As players, being able to stick in the trenches with your brothers next to you... that is the feeling you started playing rugby for, being there with your mates having fun.”
Keeping the Wallabies tryless again seems the surest route to victory on Saturday and Seibold has no doubt about who he expects to carry the fight to Australia. “You look at our leaders like Courtney [Lawes] and Owen [Farrell] and Ellis Genge, you want to go to war with those guys,” Seibold said.
“You do. Working with those three guys in particular, amongst others... you know if you had to go to war with those three guys you know they’re going to stand up.”