The words ‘banana peel’ have been used to describe this weekend’s clash with Scotland in certain quarters of the Irish media since before this tournament kicked off. It’s a bad mindset for any Irish supporter, player or coach to be in, because Ireland have been guilty of not showing Scotland enough respect in years gone by, and have been on the losing end when an easy win was expected. Scotland have improved immeasurably under Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend, with the development of an exciting, multi-phase game plan predicated on high skill levels, and heavily influenced by what New Zealand national and club sides have been doing for a number of years.
It’s an upgrade from the dire, rugby-by-numbers that they produced under Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson, which was more about negating what the opposition do than trying anything innovative. Keeping the ball in hand and moving it wide frequently plays to the strengths of a group of players who are agile and dexterous, but lack the bulk to play a forward-oriented, midfield-crashing brand of the game that has been popular in this competition in recent years.
A Perfect Storm
The timing of this fixture is less than ideal for Ireland, both in terms of potential weather conditions and the trajectory of Scotland’s performance levels. If this game had taken place in Round 1, rain would have been on the cards, which would suit Ireland a lot more than it would Scotland. A wet ball is not conducive to the type of rugby that Townsend likes his teams to play, and unfortunately for Ireland, games in Rounds 4 and 5 are normally more open than ones earlier in the Championship.
After underperforming badly against Wales and in the first half against France, Scotland have finally moved into fourth gear, and a dry day this weekend would make life very difficult for Andy Farrell’s defence. Ireland’s attack has been motoring along nicely after their failure to register a five-pointer in Paris, but their defence is still a worry, and it cost them dearly in their previous meeting with Scotland.
They paid a heavy price for being off colour in Murrayfield last year, and too often we saw slow line speed and narrow alignment from them against a team that like to throw the ball around:
Ireland’s line speed has been consistently aggressive in this year’s Championship, but narrowness still seems to be an issue for them, and the manner in which Gareth Davies’ try was scored the weekend before last gives cause for concern. After a clever lineout move that got Hadleigh Parkes running at the gap at the tail of the Irish lineout, Wales were on the front foot, and scored by going through three phases of quick ruck ball with an alarming degree of ease:
Ireland had reset quickly enough up until Aaron Shingler’s break, but afterwards, they showed no sign of spreading out far enough to cover the space on the open side. By the time Davies got the ball, any one of four Welsh players could have scored, and in this respect, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg have rediscovered their form at the worst possible time for Ireland.
Russell is the heartbeat of this Scottish side and the amount of times that Hogg gets the ball into his hands in a game is usually a reliable barometer of how well his team are playing. Both excel at unsettling defences by producing flashes of creative brilliance:
If a scenario occurs where Scotland get clean ball off-the-top of a lineout to Russell, and Hogg injects himself into the line at outside centre, Ireland will find it tough to recover, because the Scottish squad is full of incisive, skillful runners.
The Scottish centre partnership of Peter Horne and Huw Jones is on fire at the moment, and their ability to change the angle of the attack means rushing up on them a risk. It’s not just Scotland’s back line that poses a threat; Stuart McInally is a dynamic ball carrier and Jonny Gray has been comfortable galloping through holes in the defence in broken play. The Scottish forwards tend not to make much ground when carrying tight to the ruck, but their running lines and appreciation of space in wider channels have been exemplary.
Over The Top
Although their attacking play has come on in leaps and bounds, Scotland have shown themselves to be weak in the tight phases against big or technically adroit packs. Ireland were in the ascendancy in the maul last year, but they didn’t have enough of them to make their superiority count. Counter-mauling remains Scotland’s Achilles’ Heel, with Wales turning the screw on them in this phase of play:
They were more aggressive and organised in their maul defence against England, denying Steve Borthwick’s pack go-forward ball out of touch, but it’s hard to know if they can sustain that type of effort, or if it was down to the spirited nature of their performance on the day.
Leinster mauled Dave Rennie’s Glasgow off the park in Scotsnoun back in October, and after a first quarter where the home side’s back line looked like they were about to run riot, their pack were dominated by the Leinster eight. Wet conditions and Johnny Sexton’s game management were the main reasons why that game turned into a lineout-heavy affair, and while Saturday may be a dry day, Sexton can still impose himself on proceedings and force Scotland into an arm wrestle.
Scotland haven’t fared any better in the scrum, with injuries hampering them in an area that is not their strong suit to begin with. Ross Ford and Zander Fagerson have been unavailable since the start of this tournament, and it has told in Scotland’s scrummaging displays. Even against a Welsh front row that are not known for being world class technicians, Scotland were under the pump:
They more than held their own in this phase of play against England, but Ireland can still get the upper hand over them with the experience and quality they have in the front row. The number of scrums in the Scotland v Ireland clash in Murrayfield last year was staggeringly low, and Tadhg Furlong got precious few chances to exert his dominance over Allan Dell. A more aggressive defence than last year from Ireland should lead to Scottish handling errors, which would preferably result in a pattern of: scrum → lineout → maul → penalty.
The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
For all of the steps forward that Scotland have taken in terms of their work with ball in hand, their defence hasn’t made any real progress under Cotter or Townsend. Their greatest shortcoming in this department is that any time the opposition generate momentum from a forward carry, their defensive structure falls to pieces, and their tackling ranges from mediocre to embarrassing.
Half-decent charges from the Welsh pack in Round 1 had Scotland at sixes and sevens, and Rhys Patchell didn’t need a second invitation to run through the gaping holes that were presented to him in the Principality Stadium:
Something similar happened when Mako Vunipola got over the gain line the Saturday before last. The Saracens loosehead made a good bust in midfield, but it wasn’t exactly panic stations, and Scotland had more than enough time to get their defenders in place on both sides of the ruck. The problem was that they didn’t number up properly on the blind side, and the players that were in position made no attempt whatsoever to stop Owen Farrell from racing towards the try line:
It was a poor defensive set-up on that side of the ruck to begin with. Scotland were only one man short, but having Greig Laidlaw (the lightest player on the pitch) positioned at the edge with ten metres between him and the touch line is asking for trouble.
As it turned out, the English inside centre chose to run at the space between the Scottish scrum-half and Grant Gilchrist when a draw and pass was probably the better option. It didn’t matter in the end, because both players stood off Farrell completely, and he had as easy a run-in as you will ever see at international level. Scotland also struggled to reload their defence on the short side in Cardiff, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ireland attack this space following midfield crashes on Saturday, as they have done against other teams in the past.
Despite Scotland’s forward play being second-rate, Ireland shouldn’t be deterred from moving the ball wide if this is the kind of space that their three-quarter line might be afforded. Once they soften up the Scottish pack, Ireland have the personnel and attacking shapes to amass a commanding lead, provided they don’t face the same slow ruck ball difficulties that stymied their attack against Scotland last year.
Ireland’s biggest wins over Scotland in the last 10 years have come when they made them lose interest early on. This is exactly what happened to Townsend’s side when they played Wales at the start of this Championship and even though they have gone from strength to strength in the meantime, it would be in Ireland’s best interests to assert themselves from the outset. They allowed Scotland to hang on in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017 and three of those Tests ended with Scotland stealing wins when Ireland should have closed the game out. Any notions of a bonus point need to be parked, because this weekend could easily be a one-score game if Scotland are given any rays of hope.