Six Nations: round four takeaways

Scottish and Irish defeats was exactly what the tournament needed

Italy prop Danilo Fishetti captain Michele Lamaro show their passion during the national anthems ahead of playing Scotland on Saturday afternoon. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Italy prop Danilo Fishetti captain Michele Lamaro show their passion during the national anthems ahead of playing Scotland on Saturday afternoon. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

1. Underdogs bite back

Apologies to Scottish (and Irish) fans but Saturday’s scores were exactly what this tournament was screaming out for. After a turgid few weeks of dull, predictable rugby, lightened somewhat by Italy’s draw with France, the Six Nations finally burst into life with swagger and stardust; and let’s not dwell on the fact that it has taken until the fourth weekend of five to do so. Not one but two 11 point underdogs found their bark and their bite to topple the favourites in two wildly entertaining games that offered incident, accident and drama galore. Even the one-sided affair in Cardiff was good value for the first 50 minutes with eight tries in all, making a total of 20 tries over the weekend with some absolute belters. For any neutrals out there this was just what the grand old dame that is the Six Nations needed. The intensity of the clashes was several notches above what we have seen to date as England and France unearthed their inner playground bully. I think England were motivated largely by the fear of humiliation. Italy got over the line thanks to their emotional heft too after 11 desperate years without a championship win in Rome. Did you see skipper Michele Lamaro and prop Danilo Fishetti belting out the national anthem like they meant it? Scotland won the statistics battle hands down: tackle completion (90% v Italy at 85%), attacking minutes (24 v 17), metres carried (1129 v 581), defenders beaten (37 v 15), offloads (19 v 2) but still lost the war because ill-discipline (12 penalties conceded by Scotland versus five conceded by Italy) kept the Azzurri interested and old fashioned desire did the rest.


Six Nations: raised expectations leave Gregor Townsend feeling the heat

Six Nations: Andy Christie backs Scotland to bounce back against Ireland

Six Nations: Italy v Scotland: Scotland player ratings


2. Scotland, sublime to suboptimal

It is a little ironic that Gregor Townsend’s worst ever result as head coach of Scotland arrived after his team arguably played their best ever rugby; if only for the habitual 25 odd minutes. An Italian pal of mine joked that he thought the All Blacks were inhabiting those white Scotland shirts during the opening salvo when the visitors were scalding hot and looked like they might win by 50 points. The forwards carried with real intent and energy, the backs ran excellent lines and it seemed, in the opening quarter, that Italy were going to be humiliated. That particular boot ended up on the other foot. How do we explain this sublime-to-suboptimal nose dive that occurred in Rome when Scotland let slip a 22-10 advantage after 30 minutes, because something similar happened in the France match when the lead was 13-3 before Gaël Fickou scored dead on the half hour mark? The obvious place to look is the players’ conditioning. It is exhausting playing at high intensity for long periods of a game and it is possible that the Scots are simply not fit enough to manage it for 80 minutes? But captaincy is also an issue. Finn Russell has quite enough on his plate, kicking and running the show, while Rory Darge has not blossomed with the additional burden.


3. Who is the quickest player in the team?

If we are asking the question in Wales, the very obvious answer is the midfielder Mason Grady who copped a speeding ticket last week after registering 115 mph (do not try this at home kids) on the M4. He did it in a VW Passat, which is an achievement in itself. World Rugby will be furious. Which football star would be seen dead in a Passat? Where’s his Porsche for heaven’s sake! Returning to rugby, the weekend saw hugely impressive runs from some pacey breakaways: notably England’s Ben Earl who snaked his way past green shirted defenders like a latter day David Duckham in the opening half at Twickenham. He was not alone. Italy’s No 8 Ross Vintcent also showed astonishing acceleration when he latched onto the ball 40 metres from the Scottish try line and was just three shy of it when Blair Kinghorn finally stopped him, with Stephen Varney scoring a few phases later. And finally, Scotland’s own Andy Christie showed almost everyone a clean pair of heels when he intercepted the ball just inside the Italian half only for man-of-the-match Ignacio Brex to reel him in a little short of the line. Rugby is now a power game and these guys are conditioned to play in high intensity bursts. Wales No 8 Aaron Wainwright is cut from the same high octane cloth but he was too busy tackling buffalos to showcase his pace on Sunday.



4. Jamie Heaslip has a point

The former Ireland No 8 was generous in giving England plenty to chew on ahead of that Twickenham encounter when the men in green were an unbackable 6-1 on to win. Heaslip suggested that Ireland would need to drop to “13 or 14 players” thanks to red cards for England to have any chance. Peter O’Mahony did see yellow, harshly perhaps, but only for ten minutes and England surely used Heaslip’s comment as further motivation on a day when they had oodles of the stuff to hand. Heaslip was gracious enough after the loss, praising England’s efforts and rightly so. However, he did also point out that the sporting underdog can drink from the well of emotion only so often. It can work on a one-off basis but it does not bring consistent success. Teams need to look elsewhere for that because emotion, by its very nature, is an unreliable master/motivator. Let’s see how England goes in Paris before we laud Steve Borthwick’s team too highly.


5. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery

Thanks to England, the Scots now know exactly what is required to beat Ireland next weekend in Dublin. England have always had the players and on Saturday the players put their hands up. Physicality was the name of the game and England back five of the scrum provided it in spades. It not only loosened the fillings of Ireland’s forwards but it made Ireland make poor decisions. So when England’s kick is fielded by Bundee Aki inside his 22 and very close to the touchline, the Ireland centre just needs to head infield and recycle the ball to give his kicker a better angle. Instead he is confronted by the ginger nut of Ollie Chessum and the red mist descends. Aki resorts to physical point scoring, takes on the English lock and ends up being bundled into touch deep inside his own half. He may, or may not, have won that physical challenge, but that is irrelevant because it was the wrong fight to pick in the wrong area of the field. So Scotland now knows how to combat Ireland, but will Townsend pick a pack that can confront the Ireland eight in the same way as England’s big men did? Perhaps the real question is, can Townsend pick a Scottish pack that is physical enough to confront and confound Ireland?


6. If you want to weep, save your tears for the 20s

While the national side came unstuck in Rome, spare a thought for Scotland’s age grade team because the 20s were kyboshed by the Italians 47-14 on Friday evening. If you thought that Townsend’s team had a poor second half, Kenny Murray’s youngsters were actually winning 14-7 at half-time and leaked 40 unanswered points after the break. Ouch. We have touched on this before but the point is worthy of repetition. Are Scotland’s age grade players uniquely useless or do our administrators continue to let down our youth because Scottish Rugby has failed to construct a pathway that tests them on a weekly basis? One insider told me of a player who had two hours of competitive rugby in the seven months leading up to the Six Nations. Two hours, seven months, no wonder they ran out of gas! Super6/Series was an attempt to rectify this issue but not enough teenagers got picked to make a real difference. The gap between the URC and the domestic game will continue to widen. Daily. All the money swilling around English rugby can’t close the gap between the Premiership and the Championship so how did Mark Dodson ever believe Murrayfield’s coffers could do the trick? There are people in Murrayfield who went along with Super6 simply because it was the boss’s pet project. We need radical thinking and a radical clear out. The new chief executive should have his/her salary linked to the 20s performance because their health is the true barometer of Scottish rugby. We wish the 20s well in Ireland, there are some good ‘uns in the squad but they are up against it.


Six Nations: raised expectations leave Gregor Townsend feeling the heat

About Iain Morrison 143 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.

21 Comments

  1. I do wonder if the Toony Tombola approach to selection has lost him the respect of the players. The most recent instance is Watson being discarded, yet again, to the four winds, just as McInally was. It appears that GT has his favourites even although they may be out of form. It is perhaps self contradictory, but how can you build a strong bond among the squad, if there are regular ins and outs, some of whom don’t even get a game or place on the bench ? Does this build squad loyalty and do or die bonding with the coach ?

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  2. Some interesting threads here. Couple of things….

    It’s not about size for carrying – our pack in Rome was heavier that the Italians and at least on par with the Irish if not also slightly heavier… I’ve said before, it’s about the fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight, and that picture at the top of this article captures it so well. And… before someone says it, that doesn’t mean no imports cos both the Irish and Italians have their fair share.

    Some players naturally connect with their “dog” more than others, but they all have it – a coach should be able to tap into the psyche of each and every player and understand how to push their buttons – however our coach despite his best heartfelt efforts just doesn’t seem able to bring it out of our players, and that is his job after all. GT is a phenomenally gifted individual, but as time has shown managing and motivating people doesn’t seem to be one of his better attributes.

    If he can’t, then short term we need someone else (probably new) in the coaching team to do it or for GT to admit we need something else and either stand down or move to the side, but like most others in similar positions throughout time his ego/pride (and contract £) will get in the way of doing the right thing for the team.

    We can’t wholesale change the squad, player base etc, so need to change how and what we coach.

    No matter how many times I look at this, I can’t get to any other route to improvement than changing the coaches – not that they haven’t tried their best, but they aren’t what this group of players need to bring out their best.

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  3. From what I know all the best pathway systems in the world involve getting the best players into intensive set ups in their mid teens.
    Ireland do it with schools and province academies, France through wealthy clubs, Italy have 4 residential academies (though they’re replacing with 10 regional ones).

    Dunno what the answer for Scotland is. We’ve got some great rugby schools, some kind of tie up with them?

    • Pete D makes an excellent point re fight in the dog, always liked Miller but he’s been injured too much.

      I would appoint Crosbie captain through to 2025 6N, aggressive, makes hard yards

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      • John, I really rate Crosbie but can you pick a National Team captain who isn’t guaranteed to start for his club side?
        Back to the pathways problem and too many players over 2 clubs.

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      • Adam, a fully fit Crosbie starts for Scotland and gets played regularly for Edinburgh.

    • Can you imagine the uproar. Closed shop, picking favourites, only there because of their surname. Same old chat, my son, nephew, friend, boy from my club wasn’t picked so system is rigged or not fit for purpose.

  4. I think the photograph atop this article and its headline says much about the mind-set of the Italian team going into the fixture, especially as when our team was offering up their rendition of Flower of Scotland as I was fetching some ‘refreshments’ my Son shouted through that one of the team [no name no pack drill] wasn’t even making an effort to join in.
    Perhaps he can’t sing with a gum shield in, or hasn’t had time to learn the words, or even embarrassed by his singing voice: perhaps I do him an injustice’ that said, look at the photo again and perhaps it offers up why Italy had the tenacity to come back in the second half.
    Picking up the gist of Donald MacDonalds comments regarding the demeanour of a head coach before during and after a game. Elsewhere I was critical of Townsend’s “Saturday night wasn’t the time to lift them [the players] up, because they were very disappointed and we [as coaches] were very disappointed, too,” said Townsend !!!!
    Perhaps at the very least a critical “What on earth were you doing out there, think about it long and hard and ask yourself before you get back to training on Monday, did I put in a good enough performance to get the Nod for the Dublin game”.
    Townsend should know like most of the rest of us that in reality we should be going to Dublin for more than a chance of the Triple Crown, although if they thought the trip to the Eternal City was a difficult day at the Office wait till they run out at Lansdowne Road. I hope Townsend’s apparent ‘touchy feely’ technique takes a couple of days off.
    My go to book for any waiting room or non driving journey is Jeff Connor’s book Giants of Scottish Rugby and more than a few mention the player management of a certain Mr. Telfer, I wonder if he is available to give Townsend and the Players a morale boosting chat on Monday morning; it couldn’t make things worse.

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    • First of al it was DVDM who wasn’t singing. Who cares. The Italians have been belting out their anthem for years and havent won a game.That has no relevance whatsoever to the result. For those laying responsibility for the defeat on the players only I would remind you that from the 30th minute we looked devoid of ideas and running out of gas. Townsend then had 10 minutes to sort it all out and re calibrate the tactics. He didnt and things went from bad to worse as we are all painfully aware. Either he doesnt have the nouse to turn things around or he made the wrong choices or the players just don’t listen to him. Finally a case in point , look at the turn around in Italian fortunes since Quesada took over. Im just saying.

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      • Actually it was Dempsey that didn’t sing. But who could doubt his commitment.
        I’d take the co-captaincy off of Darge and let him develop as a player.
        Cummins will be out first choice lock in the future due to the age of GG and RG, so give him the responsibility to lead the pack and lead by example by cutting out all the daft mistakes.

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      • In the first place the name my son mentioned wasn’t the one that you did, and the critique wasn’t directed at a player as much as the difference in demeanour at the anthem, although other views are available I just thought it indicated that the Italians wanted it more, after all they came from a significant way behind.
        Regarding the players and coach, non of them came out of the day with particular glory and a monumental change in attitude is needed on Saturday from all sides.

    • The Italians were singing like that before the NZ World Cup game as well and got beat by 90 points.

  5. I’m a wee bit old school and believe a head coach absolutely must have a ‘fear factor’ about them, particularly where a team has an obvious deficit; ours being the power game Iain discusses here, among other, most psychological aspects underappreciated in their importance.In ’99 we had by no means the biggest pack of forwards, not necessarily the best players across the board – but we had Jim Telfer.
    What was readily apparent back then was the group we had would’ve walked to the ends of the earth for the head coach. Be it fear of chastisising, be it fear of a weekday beasting, be it straightforward, profound respect for the big fella, the ’99 group were an exemplar of every drop being squeezed out of a playing group. No-one pretends a Telfer or a Gatland to be the most technically minded coaches but history has shown they get the everything and all from their charges.
    I’ve never had that sense with Townsend, he just does not have that je ne sais quoi charisma and presence a Telfer oozes. Townsend could doubtless talk the hind legs of a donkey around technical, scientific aspects of the game but these are skills more apt to a skills or specialist coach, not a head coach at international level. Mike Blair is another: fantastic rugby brain, well liked by players, but with the self-awareness (and man enough) to admit he’s no head coach. Finn-gate, boozegate, whatever-else-is-next-gate, the signs are all there Townsend does not have have complete and utter, unconditional buy-in from the group. Even listening to the players in interviews, there are wee hints here and there that allude to as much. The players are trying, no doubt, but can we honestly say we don’t think this crop have more?
    On the pitch, I can recall Sean Everrit making a recent quip about there not being many Edinburgh private school boys among the Saffers. This is not to have a go at this group: played against them several times and they are hardy lads with some fine players. But guys who come from tough backgrounds as is often the case with the South Africans can take the gladiatorial nature of rugby today to a whole other level we just cannot live with. Watch them defend in the most recent RWC under the cosh, it verges on frenzied. But a (pardon the oxymoron) controlled frenzy. The best boxers come from hardship. How to attempt to bridge that gap? A coach whom the players will totally and completely empty the tank for.

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  6. Point 2 is the $64,000 question, against Wales we looked like we were heading for 50+ against Italy the same , then it fell apart. What happened is the only question in Scottish rugby at the moment. An unplayable 30 minutes at the start and a frantic last 5 to salvage a game. I hope Squidge rugby does an article on it , because I see it in Glasgow as well.

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  7. Great insight.
    Think among all the wailing and gnashing of teeth some are missing that Scotland’s game puts huge physical demands on the players.

    When they do it they are unplayable.

    The question occupying the coaching staff should be whether in the long term the players can get fit enough to sustain it and whether in the short term they need to have periods of the game where they do something else- kick for territory etc.

    • Interesting thought.
      If you right, surely this makes the bench even more vital and Townsends notoriously late use of subs even more daft than it appears?
      Also why do keep doing this (running out of steam) but never making a tactical adjustment as you suggest?

      • Possibly overcomitted to the game plan? I think Townsend is fundamentally an attacking visionary. That’s what he was as a player, that’s what he is as a coach. That’s what he reverts to.
        That’s why I think he’d be best as a double act with a Jim Telfer style pragmatist if there was one he respected enough. Someone who’d do the percentages. Big question.

    • Interesting. As someone who is hugely anti box kicking I recall as a s/half back in the 70s using the box kick from the line-out. I let the forwards know and all 8 were ready to swarm the box. The receiving opposition player was usually tackled in possession or bundled into touch. 8 kick chasers instead of the 2/3 usually mustered from scrum/ruck.

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