In a parallel universe, Grant Gilchrist wouldn’t have received a red card in the Stade de France two weekends ago, and Ireland wouldn’t be the only team in the hunt for a Grand Slam this Sunday. The fact that Scotland almost knocked over Les Bleus on their home patch anyway despite being down a man speaks volumes about how competitive they have been this year and indeed how much they have developed since RWC 2019.
An embarrassing pool exit in Japan four years ago brought with it accusations of arrogance and flakiness, but Scotland have been more competitive across this World Cup cycle than ever before. Their performances against Wales and Italy during that period have been nothing to write home about, but they have a better win/loss ratio against England and France since the start of 2020 than Ireland have had, as well as notable victories over Australia and Argentina and close-run affairs against South Africa and New Zealand.
A number of factors have contributed to Scotland’s gradual improvement; genuine depth in certain positions in their squad have stopped them from falling away in the last quarter of games, and they work around their size disadvantage by avoiding set-pieces where possible and being tactically smart with their lineout throwing and maul defence. They remain as effective as ever at competing on the ground, but more importantly, there has been a greater sense of maturity from their squad.
Off-field incidents have plagued Scotland in the past, but their players as a whole seem more focused and disciplined, and you get the impression that the narrow losses to the Wallabies and the All Blacks last November were a turning point with regards to reinforcing their ability in their own minds and instilling a drive in them to achieve something tangible. Murrayfield has never been an easy place for Ireland to go to, and on top of always being happy to spoil an Irish party, Scotland now have the added incentive of a Triple Crown being on offer.
Finn Russell is still Scotland’s most important player, and the result of this Sunday’s game will largely be determined by the standard of his performance and his level of interest in the match. He faded out of Leinster’s clash with Racing 92 back in December when the Irish club side stormed into a big lead early on, but he was much more engaged and spiky in the return fixture in the Aviva Stadium in January.
The last-gasp kick to clinch a win over La Rochelle at the end of January was uncharacteristic but shows increased concentration on Russell’s part, and while it’s another string to his bow, Ireland will be more concerned about minimising his influence on proceedings in open play. His creativity is well-documented at this stage, so Ireland need to shut down the attacking options available to the maverick out-half.
Not unlike what happened when teams figured out how to defend against Beauden Barrett a few years back, Russell can be nullified somewhat when opposing sides send a defender rushing up into the space just outside him as soon as his scrum-half passes the ball to him:
Forcing Russell to cut back inside like he does in the first example above has the extra bonus of him being involved in heavy collisions, but this will only happen if the inseam of Ireland’s defence is solid across the 80 minutes. Russell does have the pace and footwork to elude would-be tacklers even in the tightest of spaces close to the breakdown, so there is an onus on the Irish forwards to get up off the deck and back into the pillar position as quickly as possible.
Every team makes it their business to pressurise the opposition 10, and impacting Russell physically will be of huge importance to Ireland’s hopes of winning this fixture, but there are other ways they can go after the Scottish out-half. Spontaneity is what separates Russell from most other players in his position at international level, but it can be a hindrance for his side at the same time.
He spends a lot of time occupying the backfield in Scotland’s current defensive system, and for good reason. His slight frame makes him a regular target for opposition forwards and centres, and he’s prone to giving up the gain line by only half-getting involved in collisions before dropping out of them altogether. The issue with leaving him in the backfield is that when the ball is kicked to him, his first instinct is to run due to the space in front of him.
This can work out in his favour if the opposition chase-line is slow or jagged, but if there are no gaps to ghost through and opponents manage to swarm him, he can be rushed into mistakes:
I’d expect to see long grubber kicks from Ireland’s midfield axis with a view to making Russell scramble back to regather the ball to try to draw a mistake out of him. Even poorly returned kicks from these types of scenarios would be enough to get Ireland lineouts in advantageous positions from which to launch their maul feint/multi-phase attack patterns.
Regardless of how much effort Ireland put in to preventing Scotland from getting the ball beyond first-receiver it’s inevitable that the hosts will do so at some point, and Ireland have their work cut out for them in terms of dealing with the rest of the Scottish back line. Stuart Hogg might not be lighting up this year’s edition of the Six Nations as he has done for the last decade, but Duhan van der Merve certainly is, and Kyle Steyn is productive with ball in hand, too.
More pertinently, though, the Scottish centre pairing of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are on top form at the moment, and given the level of scrutiny Ireland’s centres came under after a few early wobbles against the Azzurri, Scotland are sure to go after them in this part of the field, different personnel notwithstanding. Tuipulotu’s power in contact is his main strength, but he has shown some deft handling to release the Scottish outside backs in this tournament to complement his ballast:
Huw Jones’ return to the 13 jersey for Scotland has made them much more incisive in midfield, and the Glasgow centre has been unlocking defences for fun with his trademark style of taking passes at pace as late as possible right on the gain line with a devastating change of angle:
Performing brilliantly as individuals would be difficult to contend with for Ireland on its own, but the Scottish centres have developed a synergy in this Championship that makes defending against them even more challenging:
Scotland’s propensity for throwing long over the tail of the lineout is a clear attempt to get the ball into the hands of their centres swiftly, so they will have no shortage of involvements irrespective of how well Ireland negate Russell. Bundee Aki is big enough to match Tuipulotu in the physical exchanges and Garry Ringrose is a similar kind of player to Jones and his defensive reading will be crucial, but closing down a centre combination who both pose kick/pass/run threats is the toughest of asks.
That being said, for all the qualities that they bring in attack, Tuipulotu and Jones don’t have the same potency in defence. Chris Harris brought a defensive assurance to Scotland’s back line over the last couple of years, and even though Jones is a better line-breaking threat, he’s doesn’t have the same hunger for big defensive plays as the Gloucester centre.
It’s not that Jones is a poor tackler or defensive reader, and he and Tuipulotu usually do a good job of staying connected in defence, but the absence of the imposing physical presence of someone like Harris at 13 combined with Scotland’s relatively slow line speed means that their defence can have something of a soft edge in wider channels:
This isn’t helped by Duhan van der Merwe being hesitant in his decision-making around tackling or Kyle Steyn getting knocked over in collisions, and to make matters worse, Scotland’s defensive line can be extremely narrow at times:
Marcus Smith doesn’t pull the trigger on the pass out wide in the above clip, but if he did, a line break was on the cards as England had acres of space outside the edge of the Scottish defence (highlighted in red below) and a probable 2-on-1 with Stuart Hogg given that Duhan van der Merwe had turned his shoulders in completely and Freddie Steward was on an arcing run around the outside of the Worcester winger with Max Malins in support (as indicated by the yellow arrows below):
Wales identified this shortcoming in the Scottish defensive setup, too, and exploited it with a flat cross-field kick that would have led to an immediate try if not for bad execution from Dan Biggar:
Ireland use the full width of the pitch to attack with forwards and backs, and with Johnny Sexton back in situ and two 6’2” wingers in their starting XV, cross-field kicks are definitely on the cards.
It’s hard to know what effect the loss to France has had on this Scotland squad. We have seen them fade out of Six Nations tournaments in the past after both big wins and big losses, and while it’s possible that losing to France in such dispiriting fashion at the death could deflate them, their aforementioned greater resolve makes an angry response is more likely.
Ireland’s scoreline against Scotland last year suggests a convincing win, but the bonus point try only came at the last play of the game. Scotland made it a tough contest, and although Ireland were hamstrung by scrum penalties on the day, they also had their attacking rhythm disrupted by venomous tackling and superb breakdown competition from Gregor Townsend’s side, not to mention plenty of off-the-ball niggle. Ireland can expect more of the same this Sunday, and Scotland having home advantage makes it an even bigger challenge for Andy Farrell’s team.
In Rounds 1 to 3, Ireland have steadily gotten themselves into the ascendancy over the course of the game, ultimately notching a bonus point in each fixture. That won’t be the case this weekend, as Scotland’s capacity for scoring tries out of nothing and the influence of the Murrayfield crowd mean that this match will be a rollercoaster with the lead changing hands several times, so Ireland’s heralded ability to cope with adversity will be put to the test once again.