Scotland’s third-place finish in the RBS Six Nations cannot be underestimated, but it was a set of Scotland performances the like of which we have never really seen before. They showed promise in the backs, scored tries, but lost the contact areas and breakdown when it was really crucial.
The first game promised much in some areas, and failed to deliver in others. Scotland hadn’t won at Twickenham in 30 years, so any sniff of a result would be warmly received by a Scottish fan base well aware of the transitional nature if this year’s Six Nations. As it was, they played open running rugby, thanks in no small part to break-out performances from Sean Maitland, Tim Visser, and Stuart Hogg, in whom Scotland have at last found an exciting winger, a finisher, and a world class fullback. Between them, they gained almost 150m, well over half Scotland’s yardage for the game, and provided two tries at Twickenham for a Scotland side whose points-scoring ability has traditionally been a problem. The major disappointment, as pointed out by Scott Johnson, was the loss of the contact area. Scotland missed 22 tackles, conceded 655m of running, and had less than 40% of possession. It’s easy to get bogged down in statistics, they didn’t lie; Scotland were truly awful in defence, and deserved to ship almost 40 points.
A home tie against and Italy side who had just beaten the French seemed a tricky prospect; the new-look Scotland thumped them in terms of points, despite once again conceding a large amount of possession and territory, and missing almost as many tackles. Fortunately, whereas in years gone by, a poor defensive performance meant defeat for Scotland, their attack got them out of trouble: 20-year-old Hogg was once again magnificent, and went fully 80 metres to score Scotland’s third try.
These two games, where Scotland found a way to score points without having much ball or territory through ruthless finishing, can be seen as the best preparation possible for the game against Ireland, where once again, Scotland had almost no possession or territory. Their tackle percentage was as high as it was all tournament, and even factoring in Ireland’s profligate kicking in the absence of Jonny Sexton, Scotland’s defensive stand was impressive at the very worst, heroic at best.
Scotland’s final two games followed a similar pattern. They were both scrappy, tight games, the first of which Scotland lost by an unflattering 10 points, and began to look like the old Scotland, as every time the ball went out through the hands the home side seemed to lose ground. Duncan Weir, a large part of the reason for Glasgow’s success this year, showed some of his class with a relatively solid defensive performance, and Greg Laidlaw’s shift to scrum-half didn’t feel too unnatural for it to be permanent.
The defeat in Paris was equally bipolar, as Scotland struggled to get going, albeit in horrible conditions that hampered both sides, but made a huge improvement in defence. Once again, Scott Johnson’s side were dominated in possession and territory, especially in the first half, but found themselves leading 6-0 at half time, in no small part thanks to captain Kelly Brown, who made more tackles than the entire French back row. Unfortunately, the effort in the first half had sapped too much energy from the Scots, and they couldn’t handle a backline involving Bastareaud, Fofana, Medard, and the incredibly impressive replacement scrum-half Maxime Machenaud. A late Visser try, impressively taken, and some bright Max Evans breaks, put a gloss on the result, but it closed a highly productive championship for the Scots, who finished third in the table, ahead of Ireland, France, and Italy.
Some of the most interesting statistics come from looking at historical points scoring in the Six Nations. Scotland’s tally of 7 tries is their highest since 2007, their points tally is their highest ever in the Six Nations, they were only outscored by Wales, the champions, and all this in the record low year for points and tries: Scotland had their largest ever “market share” of tries in the championship (18%). Equally, only Italy conceded more points, and Scotland conceded 9 tries in their 5 games.
What does this tell us? On a basic level, it tells us that Scotland are playing a more open game. However, when we drill down and look at the Kick/Pass/Run percentages, especially with Weir at 10, Johnson knows he has an outstanding back 3, and is desperate to use them. This leads to Scotland spending more time in their own half, as they look to strike from further out. The loss of Richie Gray cannot be underestimated and although his performance as a ball-carrier was sub-par before his injury, he provides a huge amount of defence around the edges for Scotland, an area which the French especially dominated. The lack of quality ball-carriers such as him in the pack led to a heavy reliance on the likes of Hogg, and Visser, in wet, cold conditions like Paris (either through hands or through kicking) or against an exceptional umbrella defence like the Welsh, Johnson needs a Plan B.
Gray may yet go to Australia in the summer, which will improve him as a player enormously, and Hogg looks to be nailed on as the back-up fullback. Both are still very young, as is emerging fly-half Duncan Weir, (two of them are younger than me) and if Johnson is given the full-time job, which I sincerely hope he is, then he looks to be developing a team around young talent, and creating a side which might spring the odd surprise in England at the RWC in 2015, as long as someone up there watches over Stuart Hogg for a while. Please, no more injuries – we’re not Irish…