Analysis: Where Scotland can trouble England

Date published: March 8 2017

Our analyst charts where it has all gone right for Scotland so far during the first three rounds of the 2017 Six Nations.

Scotland have been the revelation of the Six Nations so far, after recent seasons where it looked like they were improving without achieving success.

However, those seasons, where the team were gelling, have now unearthed an immensely talented group of young players who are finally repaying the Scottish public for their support through the doldrums.

The unusual thing about Scotland though, is that despite their reputation as a free flowing attacking team, they languish dead last in the metres made charts, second last in clean breaks, second last in carries and last in defenders beaten. They do have the third most tries and the only teams above them, England and Ireland, have both played Italy.

Country Tries Metres Metres per try
England 9 1488 165
Ireland 13 1559 120
Scotland 7 899 128
Wales 5 1135 227
France 2 1347 674
Italy 4 903 226

The table above shows metres made per try scored; I’m using metres made as a rough proxy for chances created. The more metres you run, the more tries you should be able to score because you end up playing in the right parts of the pitch. Although Ireland top this tally, Scotland are only slightly behind, and the pair of teams are way ahead of the next challengers.

If we take the same approach and choose defenders beaten and clean breaks as perhaps slightly more accurate replacements for ‘chances created’ we can see a similar trend.

Country Defenders Beaten Defenders Beaten per Try Clean Breaks Clean Breaks per Try
England 55 6.1 30 3.3
Ireland 86 6.6 33 2.5
Scotland 41 5.9 23 3.3
Wales 55 11 25 5
France 56 28 28 14
Italy 42 10.5 11 2.8

If we briefly step away from Scotland for a moment, the shocking thing about this table is just how many chances Wales need to create before they score a try, but even more unbelievably, just how poor France are in this regard. The French might well be having a resurgence but they are about five times less efficient than England in all three of the stats above.

With the above data in mind, what are Scotland doing which allows them to be so clinical in attack? The game plan so far has been, largely, to get the ball in Stuart Hogg’s hands as often as possible. Although serious question marks remain about the full-back’s defence, he is the most exciting player with ball in hand in the Six Nations.

In the below example, when the ball is spread wide there is disorganisation in opposition defences and metres to be made.

A Josh Strauss midfield carry pulls the defence in marginally which allows the one-man overlap to be exploited. This is repeated against Wales, a hard carry in midfield opens up just enough space for Scotland to go through on the outside.

Even when the Scots are close to the opposition line, they still have comfort and confidence in their handling in the outside channels. In the below example, Finn Russell’s pass isolates Jonathan Davies and gives Hogg room to put Tim Visser through on the outside.

None of this is possible though, without hard midfield running by the forwards and good ball placement, which speeds up the second phase and allows the minimal overlaps to be exploited.

John Barclay acts as the link man and puts Richie Gray into a position where he is running directly at Rhys Webb. The gain, and quick distribution of the ball, allows the try that we saw higher up the page.

This example above is in the build-up to the first try against Ireland, Richie Gray takes the ball from Laidlaw, shows a bit of footwork to make sure he goes beyond the gain-line and works really hard make sure the ball is back for a quick next phase.

This is the key for the Scots, give the outside backs the ball with no overlap and there’s a chance that they might break through the defensive line. But if the forwards can draw just one more man towards the break and give an overlap, then this Scottish team don’t need more than that.

This has the potential to cause problems for England. Against Italy, some of England’s weaknesses occurred at exactly the points where Scotland will hope to capitalise.

For Michele Campagnaro’s try he simply runs directly at George Ford, through the fly-half, and beats Mike Brown in a small space.

If England continue to push Ford towards the wide spaces, expect Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour to run directly at him, if they move him inside then expect to see Jonny Gray or John Barclay distributing so that another forward can crash into him.

As you can see above, Scotland have been taking advantage of the short side for the last three games and England had real difficulty when Italy did the same thing two weekends ago.

Expect to see Scotland split their quick-footed and quick-handed backs to the blindside and their hard running forwards to the openside to really stretch the English defence.

Finally, although the below example results in a large loss of yardage for Italy it will be heartening for the Scots. If Ben Te’o starts at 13 then he will represent the point on the pitch that the Scots want to get outside of. If they do get outside of him then they will, more often than not, be running at a winger who is back-pedalling and hoping for some support. Prime Hogg hunting ground.

Although the blitz out of the line is effective here, if he makes a habit of doing this at the weekend he will need to make sure he times it perfectly. Otherwise Huw Jones’ quick hands or Hogg’s feet will put England in real difficulties.

Conclusion

Scotland have never won a Six Nations. They last won the Five nations in 1999, since then they have ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon four times. Yet they stand third in the table with two games left to play, a win on Saturday would mean that they almost certainly finish ahead of Ireland and at the least, grab second place.

Few would begrudge them a long overdue Six Nations triumph but they need to get past England before they think about that.

As of yet, no team have been able to shut down all of Scotland’s weapons, even France couldn’t stop Hogg before he racked up 84 metres against them. As we saw above, the Scottish attack won’t crumble if England manage to shut down Hogg, their forwards are too good for that.

Even after losing Greig Laidlaw and Josh Strauss, Ali Price and Ryan Wilson have come along and done the same job with almost no drop in quality.

Scotland will probe the blindside all game, so don’t expect to see anyone hidden there defensively to be hidden for very long. Scotland benefit from the fact that their strengths specifically target English weaknesses, and, as we know, Scotland don’t need chance after chance to score a try.

They are a brutally efficient machine and will go to Twickenham on a wave of confidence, and probably the backing of the other four nations.

The last time they won a Calcutta Cup in England was 1983. Roy Laidlaw scored a try in that game, and while there will be no tries for regular captain Greig Laidlaw in this game, his men have a chance to sign off on the new age of Scottish rugby.

by Sam Larner

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