Ireland v Scotland: World Cup hammering offers clues to redemption

Head coach Gregor Townsend needs to focus on getting his team onto the front foot if they are to pick up a first win in Dublin in a decade

Scotland flanker Hamish Watson carries against Ireland during last year's World Cup clash.
Scotland flanker Hamish Watson carries against Ireland during last year's World Cup clash. Image: © Craig Watson -

I approach rugby statistics with trepidation, all too aware that they can mean different things to different people. Missed tackles are a bad thing, right? Well, not necessarily. Richie McCaw used to miss a fair few because he would throw himself at lost causes that other players wouldn’t look at (possibly in the knowledge that a miss would result in a black mark against their name).

Scotland kick-off the Six Nations in Dublin where they haven’t won for 10 years but this may be a blessing in disguise. For one thing, a decade of defeats is a blink of an eye compared to the 37 years that Scotland have been kept waiting for a Twickenham victory. Secondly, the Scots were trounced by Ireland in Yokohama just a few months back in RWC’19: a result that actually improves Scotland’s chances of victory if Gregor Townsend learns some lessons from that shellacking.

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The possession and territory stats in Yokohama were about equal (49/51 and 51/49) so we can presume that any difference in playing style was the result of tactics rather than, for example, one side spending most of the match in their own half.



So, with the same amount of possession, the Scots made almost twice as many passes as the men in green.



Note: The difference above was even more marked when you isolated the two No 8s: Ryan Wilson for Scotland managed six metres, Ireland’s CJ Stander a whopping 42 metres in reply.

Put those two statistics together and they would suggest that Scotland were attempting to run around Ireland, while the Irish were happy to run through the Scotland’s defensive line, which is how I remember the game. Ireland were happy to play plenty of one-out rugby because they had the men to do it and they, rightly, suspected that Scotland’s defence was vulnerable to a direct, physical assault.

The unenviable task facing Scotland’s new defence coach Steve Tandy is to strengthen Scotland’s close quarters defence while retaining the ball-players that Townsend prefers.

Ireland also kicked the ball more than Scotland, 39 v 27 times, which is what we have come to expect, especially with Conor Murray in the number nine shirt. Interminable box kicks are now the bane of rugby, and the selection of Murray ahead of Ulster’s live-wire John Cooney at scrummy in Dublin indicates that new head coach Andy Farrell is not desperate to run away from his predecessor Joe Schmidt’s low risk tactics.

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Incidentally, this is Farrell’s first position as head coach. Ever. And to add to the pressure on him, Ireland’s long standing team analyst Mervyn Murphy, veteran of five World Cup campaigns, has stood down, as has the team manager Paul Dean, who is not being replaced. This leaves the new boss awfully exposed.

There are a couple of points worth making –

1. Even if one out runners are all that Ireland need to subdue the Scots, Farrell will want to stamp his mark on this team. Irish pundits, including Stuart Lancaster, expect a more expansive, Leinster-like approach.

2. Scotland are too predictable in attack so Ireland will rarely commit to the breakdown and instead keep numbers on their feet in the line knowing that Scotland’s main threats are in the wider channels.

Scotland can expect Ireland to play a bit more (ball-in-hand) rugby but Townsend’s team need to play a bit less. Above all, the Scots need to add variety to their menu. The selection of a running threat at scrum-half will help but the team needs the ability to play through, as well as round, an opposition defence. Remember the old adage about earning the right to go wide

Billy Vunipola doesn’t have his own tartan but, here’s the good news, Scotland may not need a bullocking type of ball carrier. Remember, Japan managed pretty well by using speed of ball, varying the angle of attack, and running hard and straight.

Should he recover from that rib injury, Matt Fagerson is a good ball carrier because his footwork buys an extra yard or two in the contact zone, but we won’t see that this weekend. Hamish Watson is effective because he combines speed with upper body strength and a dogged refusal to know when he’s beaten. Lewis Carmichael (omitted by Townsend) remains one of the few Scots who accelerates aggressively into contact.

Magnus Bradbury is a recognised ball carrier and has to start, although his lack of ball playing ability makes him more of a six than an eight. Townsend could utilise Watson at eight in attack, much as Wales used Josh Navidi there in the World Cup, for his speed off the back of the scrum. Throw in Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings and the twin hookers Stuart McInally and Fraser Brown, and Scotland do have the forwards to carry the game to the opposition.

But Townsend desperately needs a gain-line specialist in the backs and the best of them is kicking his heels in Brive.

In the absence of Alex Dunbar, it is possible that Matt Scott can best fulfil the role. I would have liked to see Edinburgh’s battering ram George Taylor in the national squad, if only as a statement of intent. Duncan Taylor is overlooked after being under-cooked in Japan which looks like a mistake and Sam Johnson is an everyman rather than a gain line specialist.

Rugby is so much easier going forward and this Scotland squad needs ball carriers who can get challenge defences and get their own side on the front foot … which is where their beleaguered coach needs to be after that World Cup disaster.

  • Townsend names his Scotland team tomorrow lunchtime.

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About Iain Morrison 151 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.

1 Comment

  1. Another excellent and insightful article. I’m hoping Townsend is beginning to listen to those around him and the exclusion of two of his long-term favourites- Wilson and Horne- perhaps points to this; good club players lacking definitive attributes to cut it at international level. It’s a great pity Taylor wasn’t included as I believe he would bring a balance and defensive organisation (as he does for Saracens) to offset the attacking qualities (but perceived or otherwise, defensive frailties) Huw Jones brings to the table.

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