The inconsistent nature of Scotland’s performances this year makes it difficult to know how good they will be this Saturday. They were focused and competitive in Rounds 1 and 2, deservedly beating an England side who were on a high after their successful November series and losing narrowly to an improved Wales in a tough away venue, but they let the France game get away from them by being error-strewn and passive in defence, and the concession of two late tries to an injury-ravaged Azzurri team who have had some demoralising losses lately was not their finest hour.
Whether Scotland do turn up or not doesn’t change the fact that Ireland need to fine-tune their own performance levels this Saturday. Their error count has been off the charts in this tournament, and if they start this game as poorly as they did against France, or waste as many try-scoring opportunities as they did against Wales or England, Scotland won’t need a second invitation. They were a fortuitous Ryan Baird charge-down away from beating Ireland last year, and as their results against England and France last year and Wales this year show, they don’t fear playing away from home.
Gregor Townsend’s decision to demote Finn Russell to the bench and pick Blair Kinghorn at 10 should work in Ireland’s favour. Russell is Scotland’s most dangerous player in attack, and Kinghorn, normally a winger/full-back is still learning his trade at out-half. Starting him in this fixture is probably something that Townsend could have done with RWC 2023 in mind; he seems to have taken a disliking to Adam Hastings, and with the Gloucester stand-off out of favour and Ross Thompson being inexperienced, the Scotland head coach has probably identified out-half as a position where he needs to develop alternatives.
Kinghorn’s lack of familiarity with his position will likely benefit Ireland on Saturday, but only if they take full advantage of it while he is on the pitch. With the injuries that Ireland have in the tight five, they aren’t as likely to dominate Scotland up front as much as they have in recent years, so they need to force as many mistakes from Kinghorn as possible. If they don’t, and Scotland are still in this game with 20 minutes to go with their star out-half coming off the bench, a shock loss could be on the cards.
Knowing Your Weaknesses
When going up against most of their opponents in the Six Nations, Scotland are at a size disadvantage in the pack, and their tactics in defence look to have accounted for this. They were competitive on the English throw in Round 1, and even though they didn’t manage any outright steals, they did disrupt the English jumper’s take of the ball just enough to delay them getting the ball out wide quickly:
It might not seem like much, but the adjustment that Ben Youngs has to make to catch the ball in the above example due to how the pressure from Jonny Gray forces Maro Itoje to slap the ball down to the English side gives Scotland’s defensive line an extra half-second to race up on to England, thereby catching them behind the gain line.
They also have a habit of keeping Grant Gilchrist, the taller of their locks, stationed at the front of the line to choke up the space in that area, and this strategy did the trick against Les Bleus in Round 3, with Scotland managing a clean steal when France had a promising attacking lineout well inside the Scottish half:
Spoiling the opposition throw as often as possible reduces the number of mauls that Scotland have to defend, which moves the game away from one of their weaknesses (a comparative weight deficit up front), as does their work in contact.
Matt Fagerson is a couple of inches shorter than most other players in his position and Rory Darge and Hamish Watson are both natural openside flankers and superb jackallers. When you combine these qualities with a small front five, Scotland are more geared towards winning turnovers on the ground than defending long sequences of one-out carries.
Their tackle zone strategy matches this, whereby two Scottish players are sent into every collision, but with one in front of the other. The leading Scottish player wraps around the waist, but lets their legs stop dead, allowing the ball-carrier to go beyond them, and then twists around with their arms still wrapped so that the carrier twists too, exposing the ball to the second man who is waiting to jackal:
As seen above, this clever tactic is highly rewarding, slowing down the opposition ball at every phase even if it doesn’t yield a turnover. It won’t have gone unnoticed by Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy how much disruption a malfunctioning lineout and inefficient breakdown caused Ireland when they faced off against France, and Scotland’s work off the ball is perfectly tailored to give Ireland more than a few headaches.
Usually, when Scotland go through several phases without making any headway, they will try a risky long-range pass or chip/grubber-kick, but against Wales, we saw a patience in attack that you wouldn’t normally associate with them. In the below examples, we see them resisting the urge to go straight for the jugular, instead biding their time and calmly picking out forwards to carry the ball and wear the defence down until the wider pass is the right option:
This makes the already difficult task of defending Scotland even more of a challenge. They can still use trick plays to tear a defence open on first-phase, but now that they have become adept at playing more grinding, multi-phase attacking rugby, the opposition defence has to be prepared for both, which requires greater flexibility from players to alternate between different defensive shapes.
Last year brought a shift in Scotland’s style of play towards more frequent kicking, and their performances and win/loss ratios improved on the back of that tweak to their game plan. This tournament has seen them develop that aspect of their game even further. In Round 1, Scotland used England’s own preconceptions against them by kicking cross-field to Duhan van der Merwe off a scrum for a massive gain.
Most teams are wary of Scotland’s ability to spread the ball wide quickly, and the manner in which the English defence has narrowed in on the Scottish midfield to pressurise their skill sets demonstrates that, with the flat kick to the wing exploiting the space that this hard press vacated:
There was a more unorthodox example against Wales, where Finn Russell launched a cross-field garryowen from inside his own 22 directly off a restart take, but the principle was the same: kick the ball to an onrushing winger while their opposite number is back-pedalling:
It’s a remarkably simple tactic compared to some of the attacking kick ploys we have seen from Scotland in the past that have so many moving parts, but that’s what makes it effective, and why it has become a go-to move for them. The most obvious means of stopping it for Ireland would be to elongate the defensive line and have James Lowe and Mack Hansen hang back so that they are running on to the ball, but that widens the gap between defenders, which would give the Scottish backs more space to cut through.
Points Of Attack
Scotland’s counter-mauling has been quite disjointed this year, and whether it’s down to a lack of emphasis in training or players not following the instructions of their coaches, there doesn’t seem to be enough cohesion or clarity in what they’re trying to do in this facet of the game. Against England, they counter-shoved from the touch-line in, but didn’t commit anywhere near enough numbers to do so, the end result of which was England going forward at a rate of knots:
Against Wales, they did the opposite, wrapping around the infield side of the Welsh maul in a kind of semi-umbrella, but their forwards didn’t stay connected, and Wales practically walked over the try-line:
It’s possible that we could see more of a maul/midfield decoy pod/cross-field kick from the second layer pattern from Ireland than in recent games in order to generate front-foot ball and tie forwards in so that Darcy Graham is isolated before they target him, given the significant height and power differential between him and James Lowe.
While he is dangerous with ball in hand, Graham isn’t overly interested in defensive duties, and even when he does commit, he is prone to giving the attacker too much space on the outside and conceding the gain line by putting in a side-on hit, and his physicality in the tackle can leave a lot to be desired:
Ireland will be sure to try to engineer one-on-one’s between Lowe and Graham by putting the ball through the hands once the Scottish pack have committed to the maul as well. Chris Harris is one of the best defensive readers/trackers in the world, and Sam Johnson is defensively sound, so attempting to go through Scotland in midfield would be ill-advised, especially when the weak points of their defence are at the edges.
Whereas November was a source of much joy for Ireland, this Championship has been more of a learning curve, and although there have been mitigating factors such as injuries, they will still need to summon an excellent performance to beat a Scotland side who have added pragmatism to their flair under Gregor Townsend. Scotland have a stronger bench than in previous years, so are less likely to burn out in the last quarter, and they will have taken confidence from knowing that they could have beaten Wales in the Principality Stadium.
Considering that they have home advantage and badly need momentum going to New Zealand, Ireland have to win well in this match. Win, lose or draw, Scotland have always made hard work of this fixture for Ireland down the years, and this weekend is guaranteed to be more of the same, particularly given the edge that games between these players at club and international level have taken on recently. The temptation will be there to go for tries in order to secure a bonus point and rack up a huge points differential, but Ireland need to focus on winning this game first.
When Ireland lost to Scotland at the end of the 2010 Six Nations due to overconfidence, it took the air out of their tires completely ahead of their tour to the southern hemisphere. They suffered a humiliating loss at the hands of the All Blacks on the back of that flat display, so a bad ending to this tournament could produce subsequent results just as disastrous. The possibility of winning the Championship and a Triple Crown should be more than enough motivation for Ireland, but this is a crucial game for them in terms of form alone.