Our resident analyst returns to look at where Scotland are making strides in attack after their narrow loss to Australia.
Attack Speed and Confidence for New Scotland
What did we learn about Scotland after their narrow defeat against Australia? Results wise, not a considerable amount. This incarnation of Scotland can push any Tier 1 team close, unfortunately, they seem unable to fall over the finish line.
Since the start of the World Cup last season, Scotland have beaten Japan, Samoa, Italy, USA and France, but when faced with better opposition, Scotland have come heartbreakingly close.
By results alone, this Scottish team is not clearly better than the teams in 2009 or 2012 who beat the Aussies. It’s commonly accepted, and I would agree, that this new team have better pieces than either of those two previous ones. Unfortunately, great talent, which isn’t matched by the results, is a great way to shorten a coaches’ life span. The question for this article is simple, are they a better team and what needs to happen for them to push on?
Scotland beat the Australians in metres made, defenders beaten, offloads, clean breaks and tries scored. Defensively they had a better tackle completion rate, 92 percent to. 88 percent, and they had a greater success rate at both scrum time and on lineouts. Early on, Scotland reconfirmed that they aren’t afraid to attack from anywhere on the pitch.
Finn Russell receives the kick from Will Genia, bounces off a hit and then feeds Stuart Hogg. Hogg has two options, he can go back into his forwards, confident that they can win the ball back. But, Hogg sees that Henry Speight is very narrow and with John Barclay (in the picture) and Ryan Wilson (behind Barclay) preventing the drift by running hard lines, the full-back knows he has room to spread the ball wide.
The move ultimately ended in a penalty but between this break and the referee going back to the penalty, the Scots averaged just 2.7 seconds per ruck, with a high of 3.7 seconds. It was this unstoppable attack which characterized much of the early play.
The first Scottish try is a perfect example of the confidence that Scotland are playing with in attack. The first thing to notice is that Bernard Foley is defending the fringe of the lineout and Stephen Moore is defending the first receiver.
As with any defence with quick line speed, the weakness is directly in behind, that is especially the case at the midfield point; any closer to your own line and it’s very risky but any closer to the opposition line and you don’t have enough of a gap between the deep players and the defensive line. Russell judges the kick to perfection and Huw Jones gathers for a try on his debut.
The above example comes from near the end of the first half and there are two things I love about this play. Firstly, Scotland have spotted that Foley is defending in the narrow channel, this time Moore is involved in the lineout, so they run straight at Foley, taking him out for the next play. Laidlaw sells this perfectly by peeling away to the open side and dragging the Australian forwards with him.
That sets up the following play after one phase. Russell doesn’t have a huge overlap to work with but if he can fix the group of three players he will create an outside threat. Enter John Barclay again, who runs a really hard angle to fix the defenders and allow Russell to space outside of the defensive pod.
Alex Dunbar hits the line and although it’s not a clean break, he gets beyond the gain-line and, most importantly, frees his hands to offload to Sean Maitland who steals more ground. This play directly involves six backs, the Scots were confident throwing men forward and they continued to break the Australian defence by doing this in the first half.
The final example of the new Scottish attack comes in the build up to the second Scottish try. Laidlaw kicks at goal, he misses, but all the red circles represent backs who have hung back. Reece Hodge kicks to touch, misses, and Maitland has an almost complete set of backs and ball carriers to move the ball to.
He doesn’t use them immediately but they hang around and two phases later Russell is able to use the entire width of the field and put Tim Visser through for a sizeable gain.
The break leads directly to another break from Russell and Richie Gray who link up beautifully just ten metres away from the line. One of the main changes to the modern Scottish team is that they have done away with the fly-half lining up ten metres behind the breakdown and distributing to a second receiver who is another seven metres behind him. Russell is constantly fixing the defence and probing for gaps.
Laidlaw takes just 3.02 seconds to get the ball away once Gray hits the ground, and Jones is left to glide through a disorganized defence to score his second try of the game.
The exceptional Scottish attack didn’t slow in the second half, although there was less of it. Unfortunately they were hampered by a number of injuries in the forwards which meant that possession was hard to come by.
On the face of it, this Scottish team is no different to the false dawns we’ve seen before. They beat the teams you’d expect them to beat, they grab an occasional big scalp, France, and they push the best teams in the world without snatching a victory. In truth though, this is a serious improvement from what we’ve had previously.
There should be heavy Scottish representation in the Lions squad; Hogg is a certainty as are the Gray brothers. Finn Russell should be a serious consideration along with WP Nel, if he recovers from his neck injury. Before that, they have fixtures against Argentina and Georgia which will be serious Tests, especially if Scotland blood new players against the eastern Europeans.
The key to any future success lies in keeping the Gray brothers healthy. They were heroic in defeat on Saturday, combining for 47 tackles without a single miss and 20 carries. Jonny also operated as the link man; he passed the ball 12 times, the third most for the team.
Laidlaw is equally crucial, his kicking at goal is a metaphor for the rest of his game, incredibly steady and assured without producing flourishes. He passed the ball 93 times and realized early on that the man who needs the ball in his hands is Russell.
If Scotland continue to play like they did in their opening November fixture then they will put together a run of victories which will finally befit their talent.