10 takeaways from round four of the Six Nations

Frustration and encouragement for all competing teams this weekend

Darcy Graham carries the ball for Scotland versus Italy. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Darcy Graham carries the ball for Scotland versus Italy. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

1. Dumb and dumberer

I was watching the England v Ireland game in a pub and a host of voices immediately declared Charlie Ewels’ hit on James Ryan a yellow “at worst” because it was an accident. It turned out to be a red, an obvious and inevitable red under the not-very-new guidelines. It was an accident, but only in so far as Ewels didn’t go into the contact intending to ring Ryan’s bell. It was an entirely preventable accident in that a sliver of common sense sees the English lock lower the point of contact and keep his (and Ryan’s) noggin out of the equation altogether. Ewels stays on the field as a result. England, perhaps, win the game, although I doubt it! The players know this. They see red cards flourished every weekend in their own domestic leagues for exactly this sort of idiotic challenge but pumped up players are desperately slow to learn. Ewels has just given everyone another lesson, so it will sink in eventually. Or maybe not?

2. Matches last 80 minutes, Scotland play for about 30-40

And not 30 successive minutes either, but rather Scotland play in patches, bits and pieces, here and there, when the mood takes them. So they were poor in the third quarter against England but salvaged it in the fourth. They were decent in the first half against Wales, woeful thereafter. They had a reasonable 15 minutes against France in the second quarter but were poor either side of the break. Good for much of the game in Rome until conceding twice in the final quarter. And Wales’ nail-biter with France does rather put Scotland’s six-try whipping into some sort of context. One pal reckoned that Scotland have been below their best simply because they won the Calcutta Cup on the opening weekend and had downed tools ever since. It’s a worrying theory because you can’t entirely discount it.

3. France

My mum was a heavy smoker back in the day and having left me in nappies to holiday in Africa for a few months I showed zero signs of recognising her when she returned … until she stuck a gasper in her gob, or so the family history would have it. I felt a little like that when watching France in Cardiff. Here was the France I knew and loved. Instead of looking like a well-oiled rugby machine, imagine the All Blacks partnering with Audi, it was the France I recognised from my youth, sublime one week, abject the next, with no rhyme or reason behind it. France were utterly appalling in Cardiff, leaderless and listless, playing some of the dumbest rugby we have seen from any team this season. They will surely learn from that horror show and, yes, they did win the match but only because Jon Davies, of all people, dipped his mitts in Brylcreem at half-time. They can thank Shaun Edwards for keeping their Grand Slam hopes alive. But if Les Bleus play like they did in Cardiff against an England side who can still salvage their season by pissing on the French parade, they will lose. Badly. But, of course, they won’t. Probably.


Premiership leaderboard –  THE FINAL RECKONING FOR 2021-22

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4.  Friday Night Lights … dimmed

A few years back, pre Covid etc etc, I read an article claiming that the Six Nations had just pipped the NFL for the best-attended tournament in world sport. In other words, a higher percentage of the available seats were occupied over the course. Yet on Friday night in Cardiff the camera caught sight of great swathes of empty seats behind the goal posts after Dan Biggar did his thing off the tee. There were about 11,000 empty seats in the Principality Stadium. In Cardiff! Against France! A Welsh pal of mine blamed the price of tickets (circa £100) and the fact that many of her fellow countrymen figured their team would get their backsides skelped on the night. Whatever the reason the Six Nations simply cannot afford that many empty seats because without the fans there is no ‘event’. CVC might be mulling over their investment. Hopefully it means we have reached peak ticket price, at least for the time being

5. Tadgh Furlong hung out to dry

England had a man sent off but it was Ireland that conceded a chaotic 15 penalties in all compared to England’s eight at Twickenham. The difference was at the set scrum where Ireland found themselves on the back foot for the first time in recent memory. They coughed up an astonishing six scrum penalties, many of which appeared to go against Tadgh Furlong, the Lions starting tight-head in case you had forgotten, and a prop who is the closest thing to an immovable object that we have seen. Until Saturday that is. He was up against Ellis Genge, the English loose-head very obviously fired up by that early red shown to Ewels. Genge seemed to have Furlong on toast although Irish eyes will swear Genge was pushing at an angle and the partisan crowd got into the referee’s head. Will Pierre Schoeman be inspired come Saturday or will Furlong bounce back to prove a point? It promises to be one of the key contests in Dublin.

6. Defence

Back in 2020 I wrote that Scotland’s defence coach Steve Tandy had salvaged Gregor Townsend’s career and his reputation as an international coach. After a calamitous World Cup in Japan had finally laid to rest Townsend’s favoured ‘fastest rugby’ ethos, Scotland went back to basics. In the following Six Nations the normally ebullient Scots scored just seven tries in five matches, one more than Italy, while conceding a miserly five, four fewer than table-toppers England. Just as the UK chooses Prime Ministers as far removed from the last one as possible (Boris will be followed by a technocrat), so Townsend’s team was the diametric opposite of the one that lost 27-3 to Ireland in Yokohama when throwing the ball about like it was an end-of-season sevens jolly. It played very little rugby but Rory Sutherland squeezed the opposition in the scrum and the entire team defended like it mattered. To explain this volte-face in terms of personnel: Chris Harris replaced Huw Jones. Enough said. After conceding two tries in the opening two matches, Scotland’s defence has now leaked nine in the last two rounds. Italy’s unheralded attack made seven line breaks against Scotland, the same number as they achieved against France, England and Ireland combined. Unless Scotland tighten up, next Saturday is going to get ugly.

 

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7.  Wales are sticky in a way that Scotland are not

I wrote as much a couple of weeks back only to replace the ‘takeaway’ with something else but it’s even more obvious now than it was then. Wales stay in the fight, with the exception of that opening weekend in Dublin when they were blown off the field. Otherwise, what looks like a mediocre Wales team continues to punch well above its weight. At 17-0 down to England they should have been dead and buried but had the second half extended an extra five minutes Wales would surely have won. Against France, the ‘best team in the world’, Wales again should have won. Scotland looked better than Wales for much of the first half but failed to put them away when they had the whip hand and the Welsh Dragon bit back. The Welsh hang tough, it’s a wonderful thing to behold, a show of real character, even if it pains me greatly to admit as much.

8. The Six Nations has long tentacles

I was sat in the nose-bleeds when France came to Murrayfield. I had two mates to my left and a random Russkie on my right. We got chatting, as you do. Although he was Russian, originally, he had grown up in Latvia, spoke that language better than his mother tongue and considered himself Latvian, which is hardly surprising in the circumstances. He now works in Sweden and plays on the wing for Gothenburg Rugby Club. The club boasts a few Frenchies in their squad so a group of them decided to make the trip to Edinburgh for the Scotland v France game. As you do. Isn’t rugby wonderful?

9. Ben Vellacott

I interviewed Scotland scrum-half Ben Vellacott a few years back, when he was doing good things for Gloucester and, briefly, sneaked into a wider England squad. He had come through the Scottish youth system and I, somewhat naively, imagined that he saw himself as Scottish. This was not the case. Vellacott saw himself as, well, a malleable commodity, because of the rules and regulations surrounding English-qualified players in the Premiership. At the time, Vellacott was English (as well as Scottish-qualified) so he didn’t take up a precious “foreign” place in the Gloucester squad. He was hedging his bets, keeping options open, trying not to antagonise anyone, and I don’t blame him for his survival strategy. Eddie Jones called him in to ‘train with’ England but only, you suspect, to annoy the Scots and muddy the waters, something it seems that the little scrummy eventually understood. Now that Vellacott has thrown his lot in with Scotland, I hope he gets some meaningful game time.

10. A not-so-happy meal

If you are English and still scratching your head over that Calcutta Cup loss I may have an excuse for you. A pal of mine arrived in Edinburgh good and early on the morning of the match, well ahead of kick-off. He was wasting time in the West End when he spotted a few of the English subs, trying to remain incognito under their hoodies, walking back to the team hotel laden with several bags of McDonald’s goodies. We all indulge from time to time but on the morning of an international!


Ireland v Scotland: four players added to visiting squad for Six Nations finale

About Iain Morrison 62 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

16 Comments

  1. Point two from IM’s pal may be worth further discussion. I have felt for some time that there is a hangover from the England result, good or bad. Mostly when we win, however poor they may have been.
    Now here I go on hallowed ground.
    Our beloved anthem concentrates on England and only England.
    On the basis that a psychological shift is needed I would propose ,copyright etc’ allowing, changing “England”to “ our en’ mies ‘ .
    Send them all home.

  2. I’m wondering if Townsend has a plan to beat Ireland and what it is? Maybe the plan is to keep them guessing until the next world cup and then to unleash the full play book when it matters most to send them home.

    To beat Ireland or South Africa going forward I think we need to match their physicality and set piece. Then we need a mid 90% tackle completion which probably requires our best defenders playing on top form (Gray, Watson). We need to be able to play under pressure for 80+ minutes without nearly constant mistakes and conceding penalties so our fitness and mindset needs to be exceptional along with basic skills. Finally we need our attack to fully function. I dont think we’ve achieved anything like that for more than 15 minutes in any of the games so far this year which is pretty depressing. We know when it all comes together we can beat anyone, maybe even the All Blacks in their current form, but its getting increasingly frustrating that its not coming together.

  3. “To explain this volte face in terms of personnel: Chris Harris replaced Huw Jones.”

    Of course Huw Jones didn’t make the RWC squad even though Scotland were still trying to play the fastest rugby in the world, but Chris Harris did. Duncan Taylor of course started the RWC2019 game.

    If I put this little effort into my work I’d be fired.

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      • I think what FF is saying is that the way the author has written point 6 it appears that Huw Jones was involved in the terrible world cup representing Townsend’s “Fastest rugby” brand. However of course, Huw Jones was not selected for the world cup, and in fact Harris played 13 the majority of the games already at that point.

      • A volte face means taking the opposite position. Iain Morrison says Townsend performed a volte face following our miserable RWC when we went from fastest rugby in the world to a stuffy defensive team. Fair enough.

        But he says this can be explained in a personnel change from Huw Jones to Chris Harris. Huw Jones was excluded from the RWC squad and Chris Harris was included, so this is clearly nonsense.

        Actually Jones was dropped because his form for Glasgow and thereafter Scotland was poor. Harris was included because Townsend thought he could fit into the systems he was already playing (I.e fastest rugby in the world). Worth noting that Harris didn’t just beat out Jones but also that purveyor of fast, skilful rugby and man of the moment (then) Rory Hutchison.

        It is probably truer to say Scotland were already evolving away from the fastest rugby approach before the REC debacle. Was not the infamous half-time argument in 2019 at Twickenham about kicking too much instead of playing Scotland’s running style Finn favoured?

        Maybe this is nitpicky, ok. But IMO facts beat narrative every day of the week.

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  4. I wonder if we’ve been worked out a little bit.
    Just an observation but in elite team sports generally it seems to me that you can’t do the same thing 2 seasons in a row and get away with it.
    Somehow you’ve got to spruce things up – a couple of new players, some subtle changes in the style of play otherwise the opposition know what’s coming and just nullify it.
    There’s still a question over how we can temper Chris Harris’s defence with some of the attacking flair we have available. Imo there’s still too much placed on Russell. If we could crack it that would be a big step.

    • I agree but since 2021 championship we have recruited a new attack coach, I think he obviously hasn’t had any positive impact yet.

      It’s been obvious that Toonie has been looking for something different at 12 but injury time Redpath has frustrated that for another year, whilst Tuipulotu is a very different player. I’d have liked to have seen Hutchison perhaps at 12 but don’t really know what his form has been like.

    • Sacrificing our attack to indulge picking Harris seems to lead to us conceding a heck of a lot of tries…..we noticeably conceded fewer once he departed against France. It’s an odd choice of a player for any coach to be willing to pick no matter what.

  5. Totally agree regarding Scotland playing only 30-40 minutes. Where is the motivation for players who put in a shift from start to finish for their clubs that they can’t do the same for their country? Lack of pride? Lack of self-motivation? Lack of motivation by the coach? I doubt these fellows have had a roasting since Toony took over five years ago. With the exception of the English game, when Scotland finally woke up in the final 10 or 15 minutes, the trend has been for the team’s performance to trail off alarmingly in the second 40. I have yet to see us deliver a convincing performance this year – and that has to be fixed quickly before the Irish get their hands on us and shake us to our bootstraps.

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  6. I’m surprised that the list didn’t include Scotland’s appalling record of giving away penalties.
    In the autumn tests we were conceding a penalty once every 8 minutes on average, and it hasn’t got any better in the 6 Nations. In fact, it’s probably worse.
    The galling thing is that the majority of penalties are repeat infringements caused by complete stupidity.
    Combine that with a team performing below the level of its abilities, and no wonder we’re heading back to the dark old days at a rate of knots.
    Lose badly on Saturday and questions will rightly be asked about Townsend’s abilities to take a talented group to the next level.
    Frustrating doesn’t even begin to sum this Scotland team up.

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  7. Rather than only playing gor 30-40 minutes in each game, the problem for the Scottish team is their coach offers no game strategy based on their proven ability. Xander Fagerson’s flopping on yet another brainless penalty aside, the players are good enough to play better rugby, but it’s quite clear the coach won’t let them. Russell looks bored half the time, which is quite understandable as the ball is kicked backwards and forwards, with no subtlety or purpose. If they’re going to kick anyway, why not put some effort into exploiting the 50:22 rule for example?
    As things stand, I am less concerned about the coming game against Ireland, it’s another World Cup fiasco that I’m dreading. I took a friend to our last warm up game aganst Georgia at Murrayfield and was embarrassed by how clueless we were. That set the tone for the appalling display aginst Ireland in our opening game. Townsend remains our biggest problem and we’re running out of time to address it.

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  8. Thanks Ian, great takeaways from round 4.

    Here’s mines for what it’s worth, Scotland are gonna be overwhelmed by the Irish this weekend, especially up front, the England pack have done us no favours in that regard.
    You can imagine the Irish pack reviewing the hammering they took from the English this week and vowing to a man it’s never going to happen again, starting with the Scots this weekend. Geez they are going to be so fired up, it’ll go two ways, they’ll either march us back at a rate of knots, or there pack will have a couple of red cards because I fear that’s the only way we will get a result?

    I’m happy to be shot down, but just cannot see anything but a heavy defeat for Scotland.

  9. Morry, Morry, Morry – 15 caps at flanker and you still know hee-haw about the scrum. Genge couldn’t scrum if his life depended on it – same goes for Sinckler. But, fair play to Matt Proudfoot, who managed to teach the pair of them how to cheat well-enough to get Mathieu Reynal, who also knows hee-haw about scrums, to penalise Ireland. Genge wasn’t pushing straight once, and he got away with it. If no completed scrums in a game is the way we are going, we might as well stick to Rugby League.

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    • Tbf Furlong never scrums straight either but the point about refereeing the scrum still stands. Get the ball in down the middle and make the bind engagement much quicker. It’s impossible to hold that much weight and momentum for the length of time it takes to engage and if amateurs could do without feeding thirty years ago time pros should be able to now as well. I would also allow the loose head to have the option of bracing left hand on knee to provide stability. It would also cut out a lot of reset nonsense if the match clock stopped at scrum and didn’t restart until scrum was completed.

    • Matt
      I had always assumed that the rule re scrummaging was that neither side should move sideways to prevent unfair shove.
      I’m big enough to take brickbats if I am being naive.

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