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Analysis: How Russell saved Scotland


Analysis: How going 'all-in on Finn' saved the Calcutta Cup for Scotland

Scotland’s unthinkable 31-point comeback delivered shades of déjà vu, as flyhalf Finn Russell made plays eerily similar to last year’s clash at Murrayfield.

Russell’s man-of-the-match performance at Twickenham showed that the mercurial playmaker could do it again when afforded a starring role, even without stars Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg.

So, how did Scotland deliver such a sublime second-half showing?

Russell as Scotland’s centrepiece

In the loss against Ireland at home, Scotland struggled to score despite having many opportunities. The attack suffered from lateral play with too many ball runners and too few ball-players to set them free. They attacked with width and made good metres downfield but no one was able to ultimately break Ireland’s line.

One potential solution to this is to scheme ways to put their primary playmaker and chief creator, Finn Russell (10), into a position to provide for players in wider channels in the absence of a secondary ball-player.

Against Wales, they hit a one-phase strike from set-piece employing this strategy, moving their centerpiece Russell on a sweep line to give him the opportunity to ball-play wider out.

The setup from the lineout maul is a traditional 10-12-13 formation with Russell at first receiver. Halfback Ali Price feeds Peter Horne (12) one wider instead, with Nick Grigg (13) running a tight option line and Russell sweeping out the back.

Russell is put in motion to receive the ball, in a position to attack Wales’ edge from around the midfield.

This is an example of ‘manufacturing’ a situation in which Russell can ball play on the edge and potentially isolate centres and wingers with his passing game. With his range on the long ball, any runner outside him is an option on the play but on this occasion, he feeds his inside runner and it leads to a try to Darcy Graham in the corner.

Low and behold, Scotland has the same opportunity again in the exact same minute of the game against England, using similar principles in play design.

This time they use a miss-2 pass straight to centre Chris Harris (23) and run a hook-wrap with Russell coming around again on a sweep line with his blindside winger.

Russell senses that England have got narrow and he fires a long rainbow over the top to fullback Sean Maitland (15). This catches Jonny May (11) by surprise, who can’t recover in time after drifting inside his assignment.

There are very few players in the world that can throw this anticipatory pass and land the pill on the chest of the intended target. Russell is one of them. It happened last year at Murrayfield when he exposed Jonathan Joseph with a special pass for Huw Jones, and it happened again on this play.

It’s a magic ball that gets Maitland outside May and creates a two-on-one against Elliot Daly, resulting in a try for winger Darcy Graham.

A gunslinger like Russell can come up with either rocks or diamonds, but by backing his ability and going ‘all-in on Finn’ you can power a high-scoring attack.

Not many would have said Scotland would hang 38-unanswered points on England without Huw Jones or Stuart Hogg, but Russell’s performance shows that Scotland’s ceiling in attack is much higher than once thought and with the right play-calling and game planning, anything is possible.

You don’t have to flashback too far to find a blueprint for Russell’s own try – his intercept was the same scenario as his assist against Ireland in Round 2.

He robs Farrell in the same fashion as he did with Carbery, picking off the pass intended for the two-man pod.

This calculated play preys on the predictability of most teams who generally run the same pattern, one that Scotland use themselves and one Russell is familiar with. When a flyhalf becomes robotic and is ‘programmed’ to map phases, it offers the opportunity to disrupt by making a heads up read.

As Farrell progressed in this game his footwork became poor and he often shoveled the ball on the same spot, offering little running threat or disguise. Russell gambled on Farrell ‘running through the motions’ and came up with a huge play with the intercept, leveling the game at 31-all.

Against Ireland, Scotland failed to hit gaps where drifting defence offered ‘sliding windows’ into the backfield.

If Stuart Hogg looked to draw Bundee Aki (12) into contact on this example, with Jacob Stockdale (11) pushing out, Huw Jones (13) has a lane right to the try line. Instead, Hogg attempted to take Aki on the outside himself, running Jones out of room and is tackled.

Russell found this same opportunity against England to free Sam Johnson (12). Working the same way after a few phases, this time Scotland had the ball-player in position on the edge to take advantage with Russell out on the fringes.

Russell squares up Nathan Hughes (20) and uses a head fake to bait Tuilagi into the ‘overs’ option of Chris Harris (23)  and instead plays flat to Johnson (12) on the ‘unders’ line, opening the window for him to run through.

Russell sacrifices himself and takes huge contact from Hughes (20), but with Tuilagi turned out the lane is available for Johnson (12), who runs through untouched and goes on to score a spectacular try.

Russell’s fingerprints were also in the lead up to Darcy Graham’s first try, which was scored after the flyhalf created another line break taking on the line and playing Sam Johnson back on the inside.

Re-visiting my original review of Scotland’s attack after the Ireland game:

If Scotland are going to beat any of the remaining home nations England or Wales in the tournament or opponents like New Zealand, South Africa or Australia at the World Cup, it is going to be because their playmaker Russell has a hot hand.

They need to put Russell in the right positions to feed players in the absence of a secondary ball-player in wider channels.

They settled for a draw against England, but after a 31-point second-half explosion at Twickenham without Hogg or Jones, the case is for going ‘all-in on Finn’ is compelling.

Jones and Hogg are immediate starters when healthy, but Scotland’s attack can be modified to create as many touches for Russell, revolving more around his ball-playing ability, not the ball-running capability of say, Hogg or Jones. If Scotland’s star outside backs can learn to play off Russell when they return, their attack could reverse their Six Nations fortunes.

The losses against Scotland and Wales at home showed that they are not that far off, going down by less than 10 in both matches. The Twickenham test proved that Scotland’s attack can put up plenty of points – if the ball is in Russell’s hands.

Gregor Townsend on Scotland being underdogs:

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Analysis: How going 'all-in on Finn' saved the Calcutta Cup for Scotland
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