Scotland’s last match of the 6 Nations ended in defeat to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. A Stuart Hogg wonder-try apart the opening 40 minutes must rank as the poorest half of rugby by the men in dark blue in this year’s Championship. There were a number of factors that lead to near total dominance for Ireland in that first period (spoiler alert – referee Pascal Gauzere barely rates a mention in the top 5!)
1. Passive defence
Scotland didn’t have the same line speed as in previous weeks and there was a drop off in the physicality of their tackling. The side faced a seemingly endless procession of Irish charges (lead by CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip) that powered through the first challenge. Scotland’s twin opensides were unable to attack the ball on the ground – playing as they were off the back foot. With Irish carriers making easy yards their supporting players were coming through the tackle area at full tilt, blasting potential jackallers away from the ball and leaving tacklers exposed with no opportunity to slow the ball down.
2. Poor quality kicking
Including restarts Scotland kicked the ball 15 times in that opening period. 11 of the kicks were not contestable, leaving the home side to catch the ball comfortably and set up for yet more possession. 2 kicks were close enough for Scottish players to challenge but both were lost. The remaining 2 kicks went straight to touch – unfortunately only one of them was supposed to with Duncan Weir putting one out on the full from a kick-off and handing Ireland a scrum on halfway.
3. Failure to take catches
While Ireland were keen to keep ball in hand when possible they also weren’t averse to putting their toe through it if the field position or situation merited it. Scotland did not cope well with kicks and Visser, Wilson and Hogg all knocked on up and unders while being pressured by Irish chasers. This was topped off by the combined failure of Hogg and Seymour to deal with Sexton’s chip through which let Earls in for a try. The frustrating thing was when Scotland were able to deal with the high ball they profited from possession and good field position. First Visser’s tap down set up 5 phases around the Irish 22 that lead to Scotland’s first 3 points though the boot of Greig Laidlaw. Then of course from the loosest Irish kick of the day Hoggy did this…
A lot has been made of the referee’s performance and interpretations. While he may have favoured the attacking side the difference from other match officials was marginal. The successful ruck completion rate for the game in Dublin was 97.6%. For Scotland’s other matches in the 6 Nations it was 96.2% (that variance equates to just under 3 rucks out of 211 across the whole game). In many ways the penalties conceded were a corollary of the pressure the Scots found themselves under due to the other points noted here. There did also seem to be a little less sharpness about their decision-making in some of the offences – for example John Barclay being caught out by the speed of a ruck and then later coming in from the side with Greig Laidlaw already in position over the ball.
In a game that became about continuity – effective handling and a willingness to keep the ball alive – the scrum’s importance was sidelined. Scotland didn’t have a single put in during the opening 40 minutes. The Irish scrum, well warned after the Scots’ demolition jobs on the Italian and French 8s, were focused on getting their own ball in and out and continuing where they left off on their last attack. The relative effects of a shorter turnaround from an intense game at Murrayfield may also have played its part in the most subdued setpiece performance by the Scottish tight 5 in the last year.
All of these factors combined contributed to Scotland only managing 5+ phases with the ball twice in the first half. With 81% possession Ireland were (for the most part) able to impose their gameplan and sideline the dangerous Scottish strike runners. The away side improved in the second half but there were still another 13 unforced changes of possession – several of them while in good attacking positions. The positive for Vern Cotter is that in each of the areas noted above his side have performed well at times during this year’s 6 Nations. The key going forward will be more consistency about reaching these performance levels and maintaining them when put under pressure by the opposition.