The 2018 Six Nations championship kicks off tomorrow with a match between Wales and Scotland in Cardiff that is highly anticipated, as a result of the tactical shift both sides appear to be undergoing. Scotland, in particular, are receiving a lot of media attention in the lead up to Gregor Townsend’s first tournament in charge, due to their new head coach’s attacking reputation and their strong November showing against Australia and New Zealand – aspects of which showed evidence of Townsend’s coaching focus.
Scotland’s record since the former Glasgow coach took over is impressive: a 4-2 record across the June and November internationals (including wins home and away against the Wallabies), along with averages of 32.3 points and 4.5 tries per game. Of the 27 tries they scored in this period, an impressive 5 resulted from opposition turnovers – a mark which suggests that Townsend is already moulding this side into the type of all-court team comfortable in transition not often seen in international rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.
Dig a little deeper, however, and there are reasons to be sceptical of drawing such a conclusion only months into his tenure. Scotland made only a single pass – combined – across those 5 turnover tries, and indeed a full third of their 27 tries so far under Townsend came in the 62 minutes of play they enjoyed with a man advantage against New Zealand and Australia at Murrayfield.
In terms of their general indicators of effectiveness and efficiency with ball in hand, under Townsend they have remained toward the lower end of test match sides. This appears to be predominantly a result of a lack of ball-carrying ability among their forwards, which has been a constant across both the Cotter and Townsend eras: forwards made 56% of Scotland’s total carries in test matches in 2017, but averaged only 1.5m per carry (compared to an average of 3.6m/carry by all players from Tier 1 teams in 2016-17) and beat defenders on average every 16.1 carries. The graph below shows metres gained per carry plotted against average number of carries per 80 mins for every Scotland forward who played more than 160 total minutes last year:
As can be seen above, a number of Scotland’s most frequent forward ball carriers are among their least effective in terms of ball progression; this is particularly apparent with regard to the Gray brothers, who each average 0.8m per carry on over 11 carries per 80 mins. A number of other international second rows have been added as a comparison, and it can be seen that none come close to the carrying workload that Richie and Jonny Gray get through in an average game; however, all are markedly more efficient in terms of metres made per carry.
Despite these limitations, Scotland were able to score some exceptional tries in last year’s Six Nations, and Townsend has an excellent core to build around in his backline: Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg are integral to everything Scotland do in phase attack. In addition to their attacking talent, under Vern Cotter they were already willing to make decisions that made scoring tries in dangerous positions more likely – and Townsend has continued to build on these tendencies in order to tilt the balance of risk and reward further in his team’s favour.
Scotland’s attacking success in 2017 was built around their phase attack: of their 41 tries in all competitions, 27 came directly from a ruck platform – and of those 27, on 18 occasions the scoring play began inside the opposition’s 22m line. As noted above, Russell, Jones and Hogg were at the heart of this success: the fly-half scored 1 phase attack try, provided the primary assist on another 3, and the secondary assist on an additional 7; the centre scored 4, with 2 primary assists; the fullback scored another 4, with 4 primary assists and 1 secondary assist.
In simple terms, Scotland show a greater willingness to move the ball to wide channels in the opponent’s 22 than any other European side:
Finn Russell at 10 is the perfect player to implement such an approach, given his predilection for passing to width. In the example above – Scotland’s first try of the 2017 Six Nations – he knows that if he can get the ball into Stuart Hogg’s hands it will give the star fullback a chance to make a play.
Hogg’s opener against France in Round 2 was another example – the pass from the base of the ruck is scrappy, but Huw Jones’ footwork draws two defenders and he is able to open up a pocket of space for Hogg to attack:
Both of the tries above come after more than 10 phases; late in attacking sequences, simply getting the ball into the hands of playmakers is an effective attacking strategy – even if the ball is slow.
This was also exemplified by Hogg’s second against Ireland at Murrayfield; as Murray Kinsella highlighted in his post-game analysis, Andy Farrell’s defence have ample time to get themselves set:
It is the individual attacking quality of their three key backline players which turns this opportunity into points. It is interesting to contrast Russell with another of the best passers in world rugby, Owen Farrell: while the Englishman’s square alignment to the defencepreserves space for oncoming runners, the Scot roves among pods of forwards, fizzing miss passes into space with his shoulders often perpendicular to the touchline. This pass to Jones is a great example: the pace of the ball holds it in the air, and its direction into the space in front of his centre leads the man onto the catch with momentum. From there, Jones’ double-pump holds Earls just enough to give Hogg the space he requires, and the fullback’s unparalleled ability to carry at pace with the ball in two hands is enough to get past Rob Kearney in the backfield.
In the example below, we again see Russell’s ability to lead the receiver of the pass into space and force the outside defender to help off his man:
In Scotland’s first try of this game, however, it is the combination of Hogg’s timing and Jones’ outstanding decoy that sends Tommy Seymour into the corner:
The constant in all of the tries above is the tactical decision to move the ball wide to the 15m channels in phase attack, and their superlative ball-players take care of the rest. This was again observed in the Autumn internationals under Townsend:
The pass from Hogg is to Jones’ back shoulder, but the centre is able to adjust and use his footwork to create lateral separation – all while remaining square to the defence with the ball in two hands; his lower-body strength then allows him to break the arm tackle of his defender and finish through the cover.
In November, New Zealand adjusted well to drift and cover Scotland’s wide threats after being burned on an early-phase rewind in the game’s opening minutes. In the lead-up to Huw Jones’ try which brought the home side back to within a single score, they had covered Scotland’s ball movement effectively and shut down their space – even with only fourteen men on the field:
At the moment Stuart Hogg catches the ball, Anton Lienert-Brown – who has worked exceptionally hard to recover from the short side on the previous phase – and Rieko Ioane (out of shot) match up well with Scotland’s two attackers, pushing them towards the touchline; Liam Squire is also in a position to assist in a tackle if required.
It is from this position that the fullback and Seymour produce a try which exemplifies two other important features of Scotland’s attacking play:
Hogg’s grubber is perfectly weighted, Ioane is slow to turn and the winger collects it at full pace before sending Jones away. This was one of 8 Scotland tries in 2017 in which either the primary or secondary assists came from an attacking kick; they often did not come cleanly – Tim Swinson’s against France and those of Hogg and Dunbar against Samoa all involved fortuitous bounces – but this fact emphasises the value that can be gleaned around the margins from putting the defending team under such pressure in the right parts of the field.
The try is also notable for the excellence of Scotland’s interior support play: it is a score only made possible only by the running lines off the ball of Seymour, Jones and Pyrgos. Seymour’s in-and-out around Ioane without losing speed enables him to win the race to the ball, while the scrum-half and centre put themselves in excellent positions ahead of ball; Pyrgos begins tracking behind the defensive line early, while Jones’ footwork to sidestep the covering Squire is precise.
Hamish Watson’s try in Sydney is another example of Scotland’s interior attackers flooding through in support when a break is made in the 15m channel:
As in the New Zealand example above, Scotland are not able to preserve the space on the outside, and between them Hodge and Haylett-Petty should have the 2 vs. 2 covered:
However, the two outside backs react poorly to Lee Jones’ change of direction, and both take themselves out of the game:
Despite only starting with a single player in the 15m channel, Scotland’s interior support has spread across the field and is on hand to finish the opportunity – presented by the defenders’ mistakes – clinically.
Scotland are not yet a devastating attacking team; however, under both Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend, they have shown tendencies both on and off the ball that maximise their chances of creating and taking opportunities in dangerous positions: namely, passing to width beyond the opposition 22m line, using attacking kicks in the 15m channels, and excellent interior suppport play. In combination with a generational talent and two excellent attacking players in the backline, this enables them to be effective even without strong forward carriers.