Updated: Jun 22, 2020
One of the big frustrations in last week’s defeat to Ireland was why Scotland couldn’t score. There must have been 6 clear cut chances to score a try with the most inexcusable glaring error of all, Stuart Hogg’s fumble in dotting the ball over the line.
International rugby can be hard but when you squander chance after chance in good attacking positions you have to ask yourself the question why? I was in the company of former Scotland Captain, John Barclay during the week and he went through a spell when the team had the same achilles heel. He admitted, quite frankly, that he felt the players were not good enough but this bunch of Scottish players are good enough so why are they failing?
The red zone. We often refer to the red zone as the area from the 22 metre line to the try-line. Statistically, a rugby team’s ability to score when in the red zone tends to be higher than from attack that comes from dealer in the field. I do not have any figures to quote or back up this point but from Scotland’s current perspective, the inability to score from close range is an issue and here are 4 areas that they need to focus on today if they are to break down England’s defence.
1. Accuracy. I am sure this area has been addressed by the coaches in the build up to today’s game but one word I tend to use when a player that enters the red zone is accuracy. As the ball carrier, you have to be accurate in how you carry the ball into contact. Accuracy is also about concentration but driving height, ball position and retention all require accuracy to get over the line.
2. Pick and Drive. Although I played in the backs I’ll never forget the gruelling sessions we had to have on the back pitches at Murrayfield in preparation for international matches. Jim Telfer would drill us in body height and ball carrying drills. Sometimes he’d use a net so that our body positions were low to the ground ensuring that the ball was protected and ensuring that the opposition had difficulty in making the tackle. Occasionally Telfer used a stick that more often or not was used to beat you into position and whilst the game has moved on since those days, the pick and drive play is an underestimated skill as there are many key components in getting across the gain line.
3. Avoid isolation. At times last week, Scottish players were guilty of becoming isolated which lead to Ireland’s back-row creating ‘jackal’ turnover. An example of this was when CJ Stander won a penalty right at the end of the game when Scotland were inches from Ireland’s try line. It was a crucial steal. Some say Stander executed the ‘jakal illegally’ as he was not in full support of his body weight but it came from Hamish Watson becoming isolated from his carrying partner Stuart McInally.
Too often the isolated man gives away possession and as players carry into contact it is vital that a pod of 2 or 3 players support the ball carrier. Taking numbers into contact helps create momentum over the gain line. It allows for the first supporting player to clear the opposing tackler and that action in turn, allows the 3rd player to pick and drive. Defences can often stifle the drive at source so it is important to remain in possession and reset the attack. You can’t always go down the same channel so a switch in direction can unlock defences.
Scotland’s forwards were also guilty of ‘honey potting’ around the ball and did not execute their pick and drive plays accurately enough close to the Irish line. However if you cast your mind back to when Scotland played Japan, WP Nell scored an excellent close range try when he drove hard and low over the line with a little shunt from Jonny Gray behind. Zander Fagerson also scored when Scott Cummings and Gray combined having attacked Japan in the wider channels.
4. Pivot play. Ireland also had their difficulties last week in penetrating the Scotland try-line at close quarters but had clearly done their home-work when the changed tactic from the pick and drive to the pivot play using Cian Healey.
It was lovely interplay as first Conor Murray passed flat to Healey. He turned his back on Scotland’s defenders and gave a weighted pivot pass back to Murray who in turn shifted the ball to Jonny Sexton whose arcing run took him round Scotland’s defence. It was clearly a planned move straight from the training pitches but it showed that Ireland had an alternative attacking ploy in the event of the pick and drive not yielding points.
It is that type of invention that I want to see in Scotland today. Sometimes the easiest tackle to make in international rugby is the one on the fringes of the contact and we know that England are good around those edges. If Scotland’s pick and drive attack is not creating anything in the red zone then I hope they have a strike move or two up their sleeves that will unlock the English defence.