THE first real harbinger of how last Saturday’s Calcutta Cup victory for Scotland over England was going to go arrived in just the second minute, when Ali Price’s clearance from the base of a ruck on his own 22 was slapped down by Maro Itoje, and the big second-row then pounced onto the loose ball to set up an excellent attacking platform for the home side just five yards from the away team’s try-line, only for second on the scene Jonny Hill to go straight off his feet to concede a penalty, which Finn Russell cleared to halfway.
In the next phase of play, England hooker Jamie George was penalised for lying over the tackled player in the middle of the park, Russell kicked to just short of the opposition’s 22, and from that line-out drive Tom Curry swam up the side and shifted his binding to concede another penalty.
Russell stepped forward again to kick to the corner, and after George Turner, Scott Cummings, the Fagerson boys and Hamish Watson had all carried with intent, Itoje got himself penalised under the shadow of his own posts for lying on the wrong side of a tackle on Jonny Gray.
In the space three minutes and 34 seconds of game-time – one minute and 10 second of ball-in-play time – the Scots had picked up four penalties, travelled the length of the field and taken the lead when Russell kicked the easy three points on offer.
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By the time Duhan van der Merwe went over for the game’s only try on 30 minutes to put Scotland eight points ahead, the penalty count was 10-1 against England, and Billy Vunipola was in the sin-bin for a high tackle on Russell. Over the course of the whole match, England conceded 15 penalties to Scotland’s six. Compare that to Scotland’s last outing when they lost the penalty count 15-10 to Ireland, and the match by 31 points to 16.
Rugby, when you boil it down, is a simple game. Matches are decided by possession, territory, momentum and, ultimately, points. Penalties hand the initiative in all those areas to the opposition. Gregor Townsend made it clear before this match that sorting out Autumn’s indiscipline (they also lost the penalty count 16-9 at home to France, and 7-12 away to Italy) was a high priority, and his team reaped the rewards.
It is a chicken or egg question – did England concede so many penalties because they were under pressure, or did they end up under pressure because they conceded so many penalties?
As abrasive a character as Scotland flanker Jamie Ritchie is on the field, he is a diplomat on a zoom call, so he wasn’t going to get sucked into dissecting England’s penalty woes, but he did acknowledge that his own team’s discipline was an absolutely critical factor in their dominant performance at Twickenham.
“I don’t think there was a single holding-on penalty for them in the game,” he pointed out. “When you’ve got guys like Tom Curry and Mark Wilson playing in their team, no holding-on penalties is a great feat for us.
“It’s credit to the guys up front, how we dealt with the breakdown. It wasn’t necessarily about keeping the ball off them, it was about trying to impose ourselves on the game and, when we got the ball, to go through the phases and try to apply pressure.
“There are different interpretations, so it also depends on the referee and how they see the game, and also how you react to that,” he shrugged, when asked if the England players (especially the five Saracens men in last weekend’s squad who have played next to no minutes since the Autumn) might still be struggling to align themselves with how referees have started enforcing the breakdown laws since the end of lockdown.
“One of the things we spoke about going into last week was our discipline, not just in terms of not giving away penalties but being disciplined within ourselves, so it is something we have certainly focussed on,” he added. “It is no lie that the teams who give away the least amount of penalties mostly come away with the result, so, for us, it is a huge part of the game and something we are trying to minimise the best we can.
“But it is down to the interpretation of the referee, and sometimes you just end up in situations where you are going to get pinged. Erring on the side of caution is good but to the point where it changes your game, I don’t think it is the right things to do. So, you’ve just got to be aware and kind of adapt to how the referee is seeing it.”
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Intriguingly, a World Rugby presentation delivered to referees ahead of the Six Nations on key objectives for the tournament, warned them that the manner of their communication with players will be closely observed, with it being stated that: “Should we sell all our decisions? Clearly NOT. Communication must be reduced.”
This seems bizarre. Counter-intuitive to the general perception that the best referees are those who can work with players to establish an understanding of what is expected. Rugby is a hugely complex, fast-moving and physical sport, and there is a lot of grey areas in the rules. We don’t want to see referees being sucked into debates with players, or being leaned on by the likes of Johnny Sexton and Alun Wyn Jones who are masters at getting their point across, but it is hard to fathom that the game is better served by reduced communication between players and officials on matters of interpretation.
It surely can’t be a bad thing for referees to be able to demonstrate empathy for the guys who are putting their heart and soul into performing to the best of their ability for their country?
“For me, the best referees are the ones you can engage with in a polite manner and a respectful way,” agreed Ritchie. “Communication between referees and players at the weekend was really good. Decisions went our way a little bit but we’d talked about being as disciplined as we possibly could and I think that showed in the game, and showed in the penalty count, certainly.”
Of course, he would say that! The big test will be whether Scotland can back-up that almost squeaky-clean performance against Wales this coming Saturday, when Andrew Brace of Ireland (who was under the spotlight after his performance during England’s controversial Autumn Nations Cup Final success two months ago) is replaced by Matthew Carley of England (who refereed that Ireland match in the Autumn) as the man in the middle.
“We’re all aware we were on such a high on Saturday, but we also made it clear we had an opportunity to go again and hopefully do something even more special,” concluded Ritchie. “We know this is just the start and now we have an opportunity to take on Wales and hopefully we can win that as well.”
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The ref needs to be crystal clear on how they see the game situation change…especially the distinction of tackle/maul/ruck. Also “use it”, “ball’s available” and “open play” type calls. However, I agree, no need to give players a verbal prior to blowing the whistle.
Fascinating article. I also heard that Youngs passed the ball 18 times in the match. Probably his lowest in an England shirt. Shows that they were really under pressure.
Think it was Woodward that identified the weak English mindset and dealt with that prior to them winning the World Cup. Thankfully seems to have come back.
Another good article. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but our discipline was outstanding and no cheap yards were given away with stupid penalties.
I’m not sure I like the “less communication” idea, though. To me the best refs like Wayne Barnes stop penalties being awarded by telling players to stop running, roll away, tackle complete etc
Roll on Saturday though!!
Absolutely disagree. It’s not the ref’s job to coach players during the game. It infuriates me when someone is offside from a kick and the ref repeatedly screams “STOP” at them.
They’re offside. Blow your whistle.
Same goes for telling players to let go after a tackle or dipping hands in rucks.
A couple of penalties and they know where they stand.
If they still don’t get it send them off for a wee 10 minute sit down to reflect on playing by the laws of the game.
Good international player. I reckon he could be a midweek vice-captain for the lions at this stage of his career. That is of course in the hypothetical world were Gatland picks more than 3 Scots of course.