Scotland were my performers of the Autumn. No doubt about it. They have built on the great work of Vern Cotter and continued where he left off.
Gregor Townsend has come in and brought continuity, adventure, heart, fitness and most worryingly for this Englishman, direction. They’ve all bought into the new approach espoused by Glasgow and Townsend. No longer are they willing to be a brave and plucky team who compete for the Wooden Spoon. Nor will they lift their game for one particular team and then fall back to old standards. They genuinely believe (as they should) that they can consistently take the best right to the line. We saw evidence of this in their games against Australia and New Zealand last Autumn.
The way they’ve done this is by endeavouring to play the “fastest brand of rugby in the world“. They’re not there yet, but if they keep progressing in terms of fitness and skillsets at the current rate, they could be. And much sooner than a lot of people think.
In regards to this, a team can only get so fast. They have made great strides in their fitness and skillsets, but as they get closer to the point of optimum performance, progress slows. It’s the same principle in weightlifting or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). You may add 40kg to your clean and jerk within 2 months of learning the motion when your body is adapting to the new style of training. When your body has adapted and the technique is proficient your gains take longer to come. The final 20% is the hardest to get. The strength and numbers don’t improve as rapidly as it did before.
It’s the same principle with Scotland. Their performances and rise have been exemplary, which is why two years out from 2019 I don’t think they’ll be ready to take this World Cup. That might be an unpopular concept, but for me, it’s how I see it. However, 2023, is a totally different story. Townsend would not only have had time for his players to work but in Dave Rennie and Richard Cockerill, they have great coaches. Experienced, forward-thinking coaches who place a great deal on skill sets, fitness, and factors needed to succeed in the modern game (especially Rennie).
Another 4-6 years on top of their great progress? That is a sincerely scary thought.
However, are they right to fancy their chances in the Six Nations? Yes, they are. Very right.
They have England at home, but the big fish will be Ireland at the Aviva. That is the game that will test this Scottish side. It will be the big test of their ethos and nerve, more so than the English game. It’s not necessarily because the game against Ireland will be their hardest, but, it will be their hardest, away from home. The emotional energy and spark they drew at Murrayfield last Autumn cannot be stressed highly enough. I’ve never seen Murrayfield rock like it did against the All Blacks since I started playing and watching Rugby. The team had an edge about them, given by one passionate, fiery crowd. They will have that backing and that fire against England at home. They will not have it against Ireland.
This doesn’t mention that Ireland, are the team that have it in them to stifle the Scots newly found ethos and gameplan. Not only technically, but physically. The Scots have it in them to unlock the defence, but it will be hard, and they’ll have to be adventurous.
The Andy Farrell defence is designed to destroy and ruin the chances of teams like the Scots who thrive on quick ball. The Irish defence like to stifle teams, force them back, slow their ball down, get the Scots to kick to air, allowing the very adept Irish back 3 to catch and initiate their gameplan.
The reasoning behind my thinking of why Ireland will be the test for Scotland is based on history. We will get into the Scottish gameplan, patterns and tactics in greater detail over the next few articles, however, they are quite similar in philosophy, to England. And by this I mean in terms of their attacking tenets. In fact, two of them are near identical to the England tenets. These tenets of the English attack were unwound against the Irish at the Aviva, and if Scotland isn’t careful, the same fate could await them.
Scotland Attacking Tenets
- Players are on their feet as soon as possible in attack and defence. Presenting themselves as options in attack or back in the line preparing for the next assault.
- Speed is key, forwards must realign quickly within structures so as to consistently challenge the defence with speed and intensity to overwhelm teams with power on their side.
- Ball handling skills must be consummate from 1-15.
- Forwards must retain composure within their structures to generate quick ball.
- The gameplan and players must remain adaptable, fluid and visionary, as to initiate an attack themselves, or so Tactical Decision Makers (TDMs) can react to changes in the defensive line on the same phase.
All tenets are not equal
Tenet 5 is Key. Absolute key. Scotland, play true, heads-up rugby. They have a structure to their game, they have a pattern, but, their framework is full of variety. It is based on moving the ball into space as quickly as possible. Whilst demonstrating all the characteristics of play shown earlier. A high level of fitness, handling so the forwards can act as link players, and superior decision making.
The best way to describe it is free. No pun intended on Mel Gibson and William Wallace, but the Scottish style to me is one of freedom. It is clear to me that they have been given autonomy and a licence to play what’s in front of them from their coach, and under that trust, they are producing results.
We will go through examples in this series as we have with England, Ireland and Wales. But one thing I’ve noted is that out of all the home nations Scotland are the team that use their template in the most unpredictable way. We will see examples. But if space is available out wide, the 10 makes the call, and the pattern adjusts accordingly to get the ball into that area, fast.
It doesn’t have a prior phase where a sequence or pattern has been run, it is simply; “the space is there, let’s hit it.”
It is remarkably refreshing to see.
The next article in this series will discuss the 1-3-3-1, the way Scotland use it and start the patterns of the series.
Scotland come up against England this weekend in the Calcutta Cup. If you haven’t already seen the England pattern and tactics series you can start the journey here.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.