In the previous tactics articles, found here and here, I have focused on the breakdown and the different ways pods are used. In this article I will instead look at the fascinating tactical battle that unfolded in the latest installment of the Calcutta Cup.
Scotland produced a magnificent performance to beat England at Murrayfield. They exposed England in a way that not even the Irish managed in Dublin last year. However, by the end of the game, England had actually already worked out some of the answers to the questions Scotland posed in the first half. In this article, I will focus on 4 areas where Scotland asked serious questions of England.
Problem 1 – Scotland get around the English press
According to Brian O’Driscoll, no less, England’s defense has the fastest press in the world. Jonathan Joseph at 13 is key to this system. Eddie Jones said in the press conference before the game his defence is the reason Joseph gets picked ahead of Ben Te’o. Most sides press hard with the closest 3 players to the ruck. Some teams go as far out as the fifth player. England often goes with the whole line, leaving only the wingers back.
Joseph reads when to lead this press and when to turn his shoulders out to drift. The faster a team press, the closer players have to be to avoid a line break. As a result, the English press can sometimes get narrow. This leads to England being vulnerable out wide.
In the picture we see a loose 3 pod spearheaded by Jonny Gray (5). Finn Russell (10) is behind the pod. Joseph is England’s 7th player from the ruck. Other teams would drift here, but England press. Gray pulls back to Finn Russell who loops the ball over Jonathan Joseph (13) to Huw Jones (13, out of shot). Scotland were brave enough to sit deep and get outside (or in this case over) the press of Joseph. This is where the majority of their running meters came from during the match. This phase led to a 50 meter gain and a try 2 phases later for Sean Maitland.
At halftime, England switched defensive alignment. They slowed their line speed just a little, defended as a straighter line and challenged Scotland to win collisions. The Scots proved entirely unable to do this and scored only 3 points in the second half. In future, England simply needs to read the way an attack is trying to exploit them and switch systems better.
Problem 2 – Scotland attack the 2 man ruck
As explained in a fantastic series of articles by Conor Wilson, beginning here, England use a 1-2-2-2 system with a free man. This attacking setup relies on forwards being fit enough to get into position before the defence is properly organised. This allows England to produce lots of fastball from 2 man rucks. England are able to speed the game up even more and this leads to a virtuous circle where there are ever greater holes in a defence.
Scotland negated this system by playing both Hamish Watson and John Barclay. This left them short of back row carriers, leading to problems getting over the gain line in the second half. However, it allowed these two turnover experts to slow up and pick off under-resourced English rucks. It exposes the critical weakness of the whole English attacking system. If you fail to get in place before the defence is ready, you risk being turned over because you only have one man clearing out the jackal. This was helped by Scotland adapting better to the refereeing style of Nigel Owens.
In the picture, we see John Barclay (6) over the ball in his own 22. Chris Robshaw (7) is the lone English forward in shot. He has missed his 1v1 attempt to clear Barclay and is now trying to pull the Scarlets back-rower to ground. 5 Scottish forwards are in the shot. They recognise there is no need to go into the ruck and complicate the picture for the referee. Barclay wins a penalty and the pressure is relieved once again. Scotland won 97% of their rucks. England only managed 91%, conceding 13 turnovers. This was a huge factor in the outcome of the game.
During the second half, you may have noticed England suddenly able to string together multiple phases, almost for the first time. Scotland were still able to effect turnovers, but these were coming after 15 phases rather than 5.
After Sam Underhill’s yellow card, England adjusted their alignment to better resource rucks. This was done simply by placing their 2 pods closer together. In order to maintain attacking width, they asked for a longer pass from the base of the ruck. A large proportion of England’s second half running meters and possession took place while down to 14 men.
England simply needs to recognise and adapt faster when an opposition is slowing their ball and gaining turnovers. Sam Underhill also made some difference in this area, but the real change happened as a reaction to him leaving the field.
The picture is from early in the game. It shows how isolated the 2 man pod of Dylan Hartley (2) and Maro Itoje (5) are. In this case George Ford (10) passes inside to Owen Farrell (12). The 2 pod is able to effect a 2 man clearout of Hamish Watson at the subsequent ruck. This results in an England penalty. If Ford passes to his forwards, England risk being turned over instead.
Problem 3 – Scotland defend the lineout maul superbly
France gained much from the rolling maul when they played Scotland. It was a clear tactic for England to try and replicate their success. This is an area where England are reasonably strong, at least historically. It was a sensible tactic to try. However, Scotland defended the maul extremely well.
Scotland were willing to slowly concede ground to allow an opportunity to break up the England maul. Some of this disruption was done legally, but in other cases players were allowed to ‘swim’ or come around the side of the maul. They were able to tie in the carrier and force turnovers or push England into touch. Scotland forced several lineouts deep in England’s half. When England tried to milk a penalty, Scotland stayed disciplined and forced England to kick instead.
Here we see England finally move away from the rolling maul. Instead, Mako Vunipola (1) takes a simple crash ball off the top of the lineout. He makes around 10 metres. The Scotland defence expect England to attack the open side through George Ford. England have been dangerous off lineouts in this 6 Nations. They scored a try off a similar 2 phase play against Italy. This time, however, England hit Owen Farrell on the blind side, who jogs in untouched.
Sometimes the opposition just have your number. England should have realised the tactic would not pay off on the day and chosen other options. Personally, I would like to see more strike moves off the top of lineouts instead. Owen Farrell’s try was a well-worked example of this. England could have benefited from moving away from lineout mauls much earlier.
Problem 4 – Scotland are alive to defensive errors
Scotland have become increasingly dangerous as their attacking instincts become sharper. Gregor Townsend, Vern Cotter and Dave Rennie can all take great credit for the transformation of Scottish rugby. The second Huw Jones try in this game looked very simple, but there was a lot to it.
In the picture, we see Nathan Hughes (8) and Owen Farrell (12) standing approximately 7 meters apart. We see Mako Vunipola (1) struggling to get in line inside Nathan Hughes. We see Jonathan Joseph (13) warning Owen Farrell that Scotland will probably pull the ball back to either Grant Gilchrist or Finn Russell. He sees the inside defence has numbers and wants Farrell to go after Russell.
On the Scotland side, we see Grant Gilchrist with his hands up ready for the pullback. This is what Joseph has spotted. We see Russell has Stuart Hogg (15) outside him. He already has Huw Jones (13) to worry about. Joseph wants Farrell to cut off Russell and force Scotland inside.
Huw Jones spots the small gap between Farrell and Hughes. He carries hard into that gap and is able to burst through. His pace enables him to finish fantastically well. Most people watching will assume England simply missed a tackle. There was far more going on than that. Scotland’s alignment around the ball created so many options that they caused a moment of indecision in the England defence. Scotland were good enough to ruthlessly exploit it.
There is not much a team can do about high quality attacking play. Farrell should have been tighter, and England should have called an extra man over to that side. Errors like this are usually missed by everyone but the coaches. Unfortunately for England, this time Scotland were alive to the possibilities they created.
Scotland were outstanding in more areas than I have covered in this article. Their scrum was a match for England’s, they won the kicking territory battle and dealt brilliantly with England’s attacking kicks. They had a very clear game plan and executed it to near perfection. They neutered England’s attacking game by playing two breakdown specialists and they successfully turned England’s line speed against them. England began to work out how to adjust, but by the time the changes were effected, it was too late.
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 teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.