Ireland 28 – 8 Scotland. Another heavy away defeat for a Scotland side that, while imperious at home, can’t buy a Six Nations win away from Murrayfield or Rome.
However, in this game at least, the scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story. This was far from another Cardiff capitulation. So what did Scotland do in this game to give cause for optimism? And how did Ireland overcome the threat? In this article, I will pick out some of the tactics employed by each team.
Ireland win the kicking battle
Ireland enjoyed 62% possession and 63% territory in this match. One of their main weapons in achieving this dominance was the contestable kick. It is one thing knowing Conor Murray will box kick and Jonny Sexton will launch bombs from the back. It is quite another winning the ball in the air against the likes of Rob Kearney. Kearney carried the ball 138 meters, made 2 line breaks and beat 3 defenders, but it was his aerial game that really stood out and made him the man of the match.
Scotland showed how dangerous they are from loose kicks in the 29th minute. Finn Russell took a quick lineout and with 2 passes Huw Jones had the ball on the other side of the field. He created and then butchered a chance to put Stuart Hogg under the posts. It was a definite tactic of theirs to shift the ball to the opposite touchline after long Irish kicks and it nearly worked here.
Scotland stole 2 early lineouts and made a mess of others in the early part of the game. Against England, they were able to force several lineouts deep in English territory and exert pressure that way, although it didn’t lead directly to points. However, Ireland covered the backfield well, and Scotland were not able to exert the same pressure on them. Scotland were unable to capitalise on their early lineout advantage. During the first half Ireland sorted out their problems and started to win cleaner ball.
Scotland attack Ireland outside the 13 channel
It may seem strange to highlight Scotland’s attacking threat using an Irish try. However, Jacob Stockdale’s intercept on 21 minutes showed the ease with which Scotland threatened those outside channels. Scotland gives the ball to Finn Russell (10) who has a forward either side and Peter Horne (12) as a pullback option. Horne asks for the ball and now has Huw Jones (13), Stuart Hogg (15) and Blair Kinghorn (14) outside him attacking Garry Ringrose (13) and Jacob Stockdale (11). They are deep enough to give Horne time to pick his pass. They are in a shape that means Horne can choose any of the 3 players to give the ball to. For a moment Ringrose is caught in no mans land, which we see in the picture. He doesn’t know whether to step in on Horne, or pick a wider player.
However, unlike at home against England, Scotland lack the composure to take the chance they have created. Horne throws a speculative long pass straight to Kinghorn when simple hands would have allowed Scotland to set him free. Stockdale waits for the ball to be in the air, decides that he can reach it and picks off the pass. This was a good read from Stockdale, but with cooler heads could easily have led to a chance for Scotland instead. It should worry Ireland that a simple pullback in midfield created so much space and it was a very profitable tactic all game for the Scots. Wales too had a lot of success in wider channels two weeks ago.
Scotland’s backline shape was reminiscent of Saracens. They often have Owen Farrell with forwards around him, who then pulls back to Alex Goode. Goode then threatens the line with his quick feet and either goes himself or releases the third wave. Scotland did the same, with Stuart Hogg often in the Alex Goode role. Hogg made 15 passes in this game, showing the distributing role he was asked to play. This is a slightly different take on the second play maker. Usually, teams will try to have a playmaker on each side of the pitch to threaten both sides of a defence. Here Saracens and Scotland are using them to force defenders into making decisions wider out. Might this be something England can look to do with Anthony Watson next week?
Ireland’s ground and pound
Scotland were able to dominate the breakdown against England. They selected smaller, faster back rows in Hamish Watson and John Barclay. They also picked jackals like Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist to reach the breakdowns before the bigger, slower English forwards. Ireland must have feared this tactic would work again. It did to a certain extent. Fraser Brown, Watson and Barclay all won vital turnovers deep in their own 22. Scotland actually won 12 turnovers over the course of the game.
Ireland had a number of tactics they employed to negate the Scottish jackals. They used their incredibly powerful carriers like Cian Healy, Tadgh Furlong, John Ryan, CJ Stander and Bundee Aki to target the smaller Scottish forwards and get over the gainline. Despite some heavy hits from the likes of Jonny Gray and Stuart McInally, Ireland’s pack made 165 meters between them from 102 carries. By contrast Scotland’s pack made only 90 meters from 69 carries. Ireland’s forwards crossed the gainline a lot more than Scotland’s, and this forward momentum helped their clearing men to reach the breakdown before the jackal could get in place.
As you may imagine from the stats above, Ireland love to carry off 9. The Irish scrum halves made 137 passes between them, while the fly halves made 32. In contrast, the Scottish 9s made 79 passes and Finn Russell made 40. This close game helped Ireland negate the Scottish jackals as there was always plenty of support for a carrier off 9.
Ireland had a clear tactic where, after placing the ball, the ball carrier would grab the leg of any Scottish player trying to compete. This helped destabilize the jackal and make it easier for the clearing player. This happened throughout the game.
As Conor Wilson points out in his article on England’s breakdown problems, England used the croc roll inappropriately. Ireland made a conscious effort to clear defenders towards the Scottish side of the ruck rather than completely away. They kept cleared players close to the ball, using them to help destabilize any Scots trying to compete.
A combination of carrying off 9, resourcing breakdowns, tackled players grabbing legs, gaining good ground in contact and using the croc roll more intelligently allowed Ireland to limit the damage Scotland could do on the floor.
Training ground plans
Ireland and Scotland both have phenomenal coaching teams. This was evident in most of the tries scored in this game.
Scotland’s Blair Kinghorn scored a great try in his first Six Nations start in a move straight off the training ground. Scotland had butchered a regulation try for Kinghorn moments earlier, one of three such costly mistakes. Fortunately for them, this time advantage is being played. A scrum from the middle of the pitch allows Scotland to set up with 3 men behind the scrum, which we see in the picture. They go right and the ball is pulled back to Stuart Hogg, who takes it to the line. The Irish defence is held because they know how dangerous Hogg can be. Hogg releases the third wave, passing to Sean Maitland. He has just enough room to draw the last man and put Kinghorn over.
Ireland’s second score came from a scrum as well, this time on the left side. Garry Ringrose crashes the ball up under the posts. Ireland hit the ball up again the same way through John Ryan. In the picture, we can see Greig Laidlaw (9) warning the Scots forwards not to leave the blind side unguarded. They ignore him and Ireland come back left, a classic Jonny Sexton loop putting Stockdale in for his and Ireland’s second try. This move was reminiscent of Owen Farrell’s try two weeks ago, although that was from a line out instead. It was a clear ploy for Ireland to look to exploit the same weakness England identified.
Ireland also scored 2 tries directly from line out mauls. In both cases Scotland were so focused on the maul itself that they were unable to react to the early break away from Sean Cronin and Conor Murray. In Cronin’s case this was a reaction to the maul splintering, but properly placed guards might have been able to stop him. For Murray’s try it was a clear tactic. England got no change from Scotland’s line out defense, and again the maul itself was defended well all day. However, Ireland’s analysis clearly identified a potential weakness and they were able to capitalise.
Congratulations to Ireland on winning the 2018 Six Nations title. They have been the most consistent team in the tournament, and the win is thoroughly deserved. This game delivered a fascinating tactical battle, where both teams demonstrated what they are good at and where their weaknesses may lie. Scotland showed a lack of composure which cost them heavily. However, this was a more even game than the scoreline suggests. The Scots showed up much better than in Cardiff. Ireland can look forward to a Grand Slam game and will rightly fancy their chances. They look potentially vulnerable out wide but negated Scotland’s other strengths and were always in control of the game.
If you wish to look back on the Scotland v England game the link can be found here. I will not be looking at the England defeat in Paris as I feel a lot of what I want to say would be a repetition of what I said about that Calcutta Cup match. Congratulations to the French on their deserved victory though!
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!