After the loss to Ireland at the weekend, Gregor Townsend seemed quite happy.

Some have found it difficult to understand when this is a ‘typical’ Scottish Performance where errors cost them in key moments. I believe his happiness comes down to one statistic: 38%.

In the game against Ireland, Scotland had the most Possession of any team in this tournament so far. Italy managed 35% Possession, France 32%, and Wales only 31%. Possession is not the be and end-all, but it is crucial to this Ireland team and how it wins.

Courtesy of Opta

In every game in this tournament, Ireland had the majority of Possession and have recorded fewer Metres per Carry than all of their opponents. When Scotland took New Zealand to the limit in November, they only had 40% Possession. New Zealand are experts at finding space, whilst Ireland are experts at denying it.

The main principle behind the Irish game is keeping possession. They go up the pitch slowly and don’t mind going through numerous phases. Scotland, Wales, and France have recorded their highest Tackle Counts of the tournament against this team. This keeps their opponents on the back foot and ensures they do not lose the ball in a dangerous area. Scotland are the only team to make Ireland give the ball away, more than they stole it.

Rucks lost. The black marks represent Scotland; with four rucks lost. The white, Ireland, with five. Courtesy of Opta
Rucks lost. The black marks represent Scotland; with four rucks lost. The white, Ireland, with five.
Courtesy of Opta

Now, what I’ve described so far sounds a lot like Warrenball, but Joe Schmidt has taken this strategy a step further. The last major outing of Warrenball was arguably at the World Cup in 2015. The most successful application of it was against England at Twickenham. In that game, Wales made 3.79 Metres per Carry. In the Six Nations, Ireland have never made less than 5.33 Metres per Carry. They give the ball to players who are happy to recycle, but they don’t actively seek contact as much as Wales did. This forces their opponents to make more decisions and tires their minds.

Finn Russell was the key man for Scotland against England. In that game, he made over 5 Metres per Carry, whilst against Ireland he only made 2.6 Metres per Carry. As Finn is far from a big ball carrier this means he was forced to make almost double the passes he made against England. Running at this Irish team is very much like in sand, you’ll make progress, but it will be slower and it will exhaust you.

You’re physically drained because Ireland force you to make an enormous amount of tackles. You’re mentally drained because their defence forces you search for space constantly. This makes you prone to errors. Scotland had the most Turnovers and Possession against a team entirely set-up to deny you both. It wasn’t enough to win this time, but it is something they can build on.


Author: Stewart Marshall

I played Rugby for years until discovering my agility and pace was better suited to Basketball. I became a qualified coach by the time I was 16. Unfortunately, an injury brought my sporting pursuits to an abrupt end.

Fortunately, whilst I was injured I found Theatre and I’ve never looked back. I now run a small Theatre company which has worked throughout Scotland and England.


  1. It would be interesting to compare these stats to last year and see if their losses came down to a lack of possession. Good article, interesting read.

    • Funny you should mention that, Ollie. When Scotland beat Ireland at Murrayfield last year, Scotland had 41% possession. Wales, on the other hand, got 47% possession when they beat Ireland. England got 39% and Lost. This shows that 40% is almost a magic number against this team.

      I say ‘almost’ because Italy managed 41% and still lost. However, Italy are a bit of a statistical anomaly. They can do all things you need to do to win and still lose. It’s something I’d like to do more of an analysis on, once I figure out what’s costing them games.


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