I DON’T know who coined the phrase ‘defence wins matches’ but it has probably been around since William Webb Ellis said a metaphorical ‘sod it’ to himself all those years ago and broke with convention by picking up the ball and running with it.
Certainly, it is one of rugby’s unwritten rules that seems to have survived the game’s transition from an amateur to a professional sport and, if the mantra remains relevant, don’t stick your mortgage on Scotland for the Six Nations.
The second 1872 derby game was a free-scoring affair with the two teams sharing a total of seven tries in all, four of which went to the home side. This made for a fascinating and hugely entertaining match but what it says about the Scottish rugby mindset is a little worrying.
Glasgow’s opening score on 24 minutes by a rejuvenated Huw Jones was an exception to the rule as Edinburgh’s defence held firm for several minutes while Glasgow probed until the visitors eventually manufactured a two-on-one in acres of space on the right flank. Duhan van der Merwe was caught in two minds and ended up marking no one, rather than jamming in on eventual scorer Jones which would, at least, have made Ruaridh Jackson’s final pass that much more difficult.
But after the break it appeared that all either side needed to do to score a try was hold onto possession for a few phases inside the opposition red zone and the defence would wave the white flag and escort some attacker to the try line.
The five second half tries came in just 26 minutes, so at a rate of almost one every five minutes, and the only player who was forced to break sweat was Darcy Graham who had to find his top gear up the right flank of the field for that last hurrah two minutes from time.
What was it that Shaun Edwards used to say at Wasps and, more recently, at Wales? “You get into the defensive line and, if you’ve broken your leg, then you hop into the line.” Sadly, that sort of Alamo attitude seems entirely alien to Scotland’s players who either lack the technique, the conditioning or the mental resilience to defend for multiple phases on or near their own goal line.
Scott Cummings scored his 52 minute try following a good break from Adam Hastings, after just six phases of play following an attacking line-out; finding a hole beside the breakdown that should have been filled by Grant Gilchrist. Equally guilty was prop Pierre Schoeman who somehow won the man-of-the-match award despite tackling the wrong man altogether, a penalty offence in itself.
George Horne’s try was even easier because Graham was caught manning the piller/post position at the very side of the breakdown. The little Glasgow scrummy brushed aside the winger’s challenge thanks to a couple of big forwards who propelled him over the line.
It was shooting fish and scoring was even easier at the other end of the field.
Henry Pyrgos probably should have started this match but even he wouldn’t claim that he had to work terribly hard for his 61 minute try. Bill Mata picked and drove off a scrum to get behind Glasgow’s defence, sucking in so many defenders that Pyrgos had an open run to the line. Obviously Mata is a handful on the charge but one phase from set-piece was all it took to put a Pyrgos-sized dent in Glasgow’s defence.
And things could have been a lot worse had referee Mike Adamson policed the offside line strictly. Instead the referee turned a Nelsonian blind eye to repeated infringements which infuriated Richard Cockerill in the coaches’ box, “OFFSIDE!….OFFSIDE!”, and enabled both defences to stay on top for much of the first half.
Scotland have just hired a new defence coach and, if Steve Tandy was watching, it must have been with a sinking feeling because the Welshman has to change Scotland’s collective mindset in little over a month. And by a month I mean the one week he will have with the whole Scotland squad before the Six Nations. And by one week I mean whatever time he can beg off Gregor Townsend in those seven short days.
At the end of the 1872 derby at Murrayfield, I made my way home and watched another derby on TV, this one between Munster and Leinster at a raucous Thomond Park. It ended with just one try throughout the entire 80 minutes that went to Leinster. Both teams displayed John Wayne levels of true, defensive grit but the visitors’ resilience in keeping Munster tryless at Thomond as the home side threw everything at the thin blue line, in multiple phase play that was well into the twenties, was in stark contrast to the welcome mat laid out by Scotland’s pro-teams.
Many of those same Irishmen will play many of the players on show at Murrayfield when Ireland host Scotland on the opening weekend of the Six Nations. We will likely discover if defence still wins matches.