Updated: Jun 22, 2020
Hindsight is a great thing but after 3 games in this 6 Nations Championship what have we learned and how are we going to improve? In this column I have looked at the bright spots within each game as well as the errors that have littered the team performance.
The most recent game against Italy was Scotland’s first win in the tournament. It wasn’t pretty and at times it was hard work but don’t under estimate how much a win meant to this squad of players. That victory was based on defence and whilst only 2 tries have been conceded in this campaign the ‘zero’ in the Italians half of the scoreboard was another victory in itself.
Much credit must go to Steve Tandy, the defence coach who Gregor Townsend brought into the coaching set up after jettisoning Matt Taylor after the World Cup. Tandy was an experienced head coach with The Ospreys from 2012-2018 but was lauded in the southern hemisphere by implementing the ‘blue wall’; Super Rugby’s, Waratah’s defensive set up that he introduced over the last 2 years.
Scotland made 190 tackles against the Italians, 450 in total across the opening 3 games but interestingly enough they have only missed 34, the lowest in the championship. Perhaps Tandy has instilled a richer hue of blue in Scotland’s ranks but whatever he has instilled, it shows it is working. The difference that I have seen is the way the ‘double tackle’ is being implemented with 2 players looking to stop the opposition carries. Jonny Sexton was able to exploit this area when Cian Healy was able to offload out the tackle. Sexton held his line for the wrap around play from which he scored whilst Scotland’s only other conceded try came from a 5 yard scrum in the match against England.
It is fair to say that the conditions did not allow the opposition to play a more wider-attacking game to test the Tandy defensive set whilst the Italians, because they were made to play from deep, allowed Scotland to set their defensive line high into Italian territory. Once that line was set Scotland were able effect 21 turnovers and promptly parachuted the Scot’s from the team that had effected the least amount of turnovers in the Championship after 2 games to the team with the most turnovers, 28.
The front 5
Scotland’s front 5 have certainly played its part in providing some stability up front. I still think we lack an ‘out and out’ gnarly second row protagonist but with Jonny Gray injured, Scott Cummings has a little bit of an edge and is growing his reputation. Imagine him in 5 years time? One player to have really caught the eye is Rory Sutherland. He and Zander Fagerson have knuckled down to some hard work in that scrum and have been carrying ball into contact. When your front five give you a lead it means the backs are not playing off the back foot.
In the matches against Ireland and England it is fair to say that errors were made but what really got my blood boiling was the lack of accuracy against Ireland and the total disregard of not playing the elements against England.
Is this a result of Gregor Townsend suffocating player responsibility or it is players not understanding how to play wet weather football? We all knew that the elements were going to cave in against England so why did we attempt to run the ball and not create havoc with our kicking game? A wet ball guddling around on the ground is hard to judge. Just ask Stuart Hogg? So why did we not plan a kicking game around the conditions?
Why did we not throw ball to the front of the lineout? Some ball is better than no ball and whilst we heard from all the players that they were the most horrendous that they had ever played in, why were they not wearing neoprene wet suit style under garments?
Let’s also look at the accuracy of Scotland at the breakdown. I mentioned that Scotland won 21 turnovers against Italy but in the 3rd quarter of that match Italy started to win their own turnover ball and ended up the match with 11. Add to that 12 handing errors and a different picture begins to emerge about how clever we are in keeping ball. I often equate coughing up possession with time so if each possession lost, equates to 1 minute without the ball. That means we played a quarter of the match without the ball as a result of our own mistakes.
Against Ireland it was more of the same but the positions that we put ourselves in meant that try scoring opportunities were lost as a result of the turnovers.
The kicking game
We have seen in this Championship much more kicking whether that be the grubber, high kicks or box kicking. Just look at England how they put pressure on Ireland by varying their attacking game with ball in hand to the variation of the little ‘dink’ kicks behind the opposition that contributed to two of their tries at Twickenham.
What I do not see in Scotland’s kicking game is the ability to compete man on man whilst our defensive running lines can sometimes lead to stupid penalties just as Sam Johnston did against Ireland. Adam Hastings had a wretchedly poor game against Italy and apart from his first kick that had Sean Maitland competing strongly for the ball his kicking was awful. Better that he made those mistakes against Italy than against France tomorrow but he must take on those learnings.
Once again it looks as though Townsend has a say in this area of the game and that kicking it about territory but I still maintain that our kicking is woeful and that the majority of kicks should be competed for. Don’t get me wrong, the long raking downfield punt to relieve pressure is part of the armoury but Scotland have always been noted for inventiveness and whilst the Townsend high tempo game plan is imprinted on the team’s DNA, the simple fact is that the opposition know what’s coming!