Two recent rugby stereotypes were ended on Saturday. Firstly Scotland managed to close out a game and match victory with exciting ball in hand play.
Secondly, France, a rugby nation of hulking beasts who run at each other for 80 minutes, making minimal yardage, before the home side wins, threw that away and delivered a scintillating display of running rugby.
They didn’t quite come away with the win, but they did top the metres made charts, 586m, and took the top three individual spots with Louis Picamoles, Virimi Vakatawa, and Scott Spedding. To give some idea about just how unusual Picamoles’ performance was, he was the only forward in the top ten and one of only two non-back three players in that list; the other was Jonathan Davies.
France will face Scotland in Paris next Sunday, and, Scotland might well go into that game as favorites despite what history and home field advantage say.
However, the Scots will also go into the game with the second best tackle success rate and second worst metres allowed. They are also unlikely to see the same inept level of defending which contributed significantly to the two Hogg tries.
This all means that Scotland will need to bring the level of defensive effort they employed in the second half of their Irish victory for the entire game in Paris, against a revitalized French side. However, to understand what the Scots face, let’s look at how the French broke down the English on Saturday.
They’re going to go wide. This is their first attack and they spread their entire backline out to the right with Virimi Vakatawa stood behind the centers. The pass from Camille Lopez is perfect and when Vakatawa gets the ball on the loop he is facing a scrambling English defence.
From Baptiste Serin’s pass out the back of the scrum, to Vakatawa passing the far 15 yard line takes just over four seconds.
That speed of distribution will be difficult to defend for any team and especially for a Scottish team whose defensive weakness lies in their outside backs; Alec Dunbar and Huw Jones combined for 27 tackles but they also missed 9 and the less tackles Stuart Hogg is exposed to, the better – for both Scotland and the Lions.
Even when the French don’t have the benefit of the ten-yard cushion at the scrum they’re still willing to fling the ball wide and put pressure on the outside defence. In the above example they’re essentially using the 2-4-2 formation, fairly common in rugby in the modern era.
In short, this means that a team has two forwards on the left side, four forwards in the middle and two on the far right side, normally the two players on either flank are the quicker forwards – back row and one lock or hooker for example.
Unlike in thirds or vets rugby, where the whole forward pack trudge from ruck to ruck, the 2-4-2 allows forwards to conserve energy but also support attacking rucks right across the pitch which increases the attacking possibilities. What this means for Scotland is that Picamoles will, throughout the game, be in space with room to run at the Scottish wide defence.
With the fastest forwards on the flanks, the blindside proved to be fertile hunting territory for Serin and France.
In the above example, Joe Launchbury fails to spot the overlap on the blindside and Serin exploits it, with the speed of recycling and distribution that France bring, these mental errors will happen, but, they will also be heavily punished.
Picamoles is clearly a fantastic player and Scotland will have to account for the fact that unless he’s tackled by two, or sometimes more, players he is likely able to offload and get his team across the gain line.
If the number eight is left on the flank then Scotland will need to match another forward up with him. If they don’t, then expect to see the outside backs flock to him and the French feed off the offloads and increased space that the number eight provides.
Picamoles isn’t the only Frenchman who can offload, although he did top the round one offload charts, the French racked up 13 offloads, five ahead of the next best team, England.
As you can see below, Sébastian Vahaamahia is so big that when Launchbury goes low he still has the easy offload available – if he had gone high then he would have been able to gain an additional few yards before hitting the ground. Once again, Scotland will need to throw numbers into the tackle to stop these offloads.
We’ve talked about how France attack with width and how they utilize their size to create an offloading game, but, one of their best assets is their broken field attack.
As England realised early on, any kick chased by just one person is liable to be returned for a big gain. When Spedding took the ball he had a disorganized English line to run at and also a mass of French players free to shepherd him towards the try line. When England tightened up their kicking game, Spedding was largely starved of possession. Scotland need to do that immediately.
In this final example of what France have done in attack, we’ll take a quick look at the French ball placement and how it speeds up their attack. In the three examples below, the first two are on consecutive play and you can see how hard Gaël Fickou and Rémi Lamerat are fighting to put the ball on a plate for Serin.
In the below clip, Uini Atonio, who was probably the least impressive player on the pitch, realizes he’s not going to gain any yards and changes his focus to getting the ball back quickly. He does and France continue their march towards the line.
This is going to be an exciting game, and both Scotland and France seem to be emerging into the light. The Scottish defence is immense but it’s certainly led by their forwards; last weekend the forwards made 126 tackles and missed just nine, whereas the backs made exactly half as many tackles, 63, and missed twice as many.
As we saw above, the Scottish backs are going to be the ones under pressure as the French spread the ball wide very quickly. With Picamoles spending time on the flank there will be mismatches, but Scotland need to find a way to shut the number eight down.
Luckily, on the above point, the French attack behind Picamoles, Spedding, Vakatawa and Nakaitaci is not all that impressive. Lopez is a good distributor but neither he nor Serin gained any real yardage in attack.
The starting front five were completely anonymous, gaining a combined 27 metres from 23 carries. Scotland certainly can’t ignore the 11 other players on the pitch but they will need to prioritise those four.
They can limit some of the back three’s effectiveness by not kicking anything loose, or at least making sure there’s a good kick chase. They can limit the effectiveness of Picamoles by throwing two men into the tackle with him and preventing his offloads. However, the speed of French ball complicates matters significantly and it will likely leave the Scottish back row chasing shadows as they try and steal ball.
Lastly, expect to see the Gray brothers team up for 40 tackles with one or two misses, but this game is going to be won out wide in defence. France may have gained 586 metres against England but they only scored one try. Scotland will very happily settle for that once again.