For all Scotland’s possession, they could not land a blow with ball in hand, most typified by a 25-phase possession on Ireland’s five metres line on the stroke of halftime that failed to yield any points.
Their only try of the match came from a brilliant heads up read by Finn Russell, thieving a Joey Carbery pass and streaking away before popping a well-timed ball to Sam Johnson.
However, with multiple possessions inside the five in the first half, Scotland could not crack Ireland’s code as wave after wave of attack failed to breach a strong defensive Irish side. A second half full of execution errors hamstrung the side and ultimately gave Ireland control of the match.
So, what went wrong for Scotland and what can they take out of this performance moving forward?
What Scotland must learn from Johnny Sexton
Scotland seem to suffer from a combination of overeager, individual play and ill-thought out red zone plans.
They have talented outside backs that are dangerous runners, but they haven’t figured out how to hunt as a pack or work in multiples to take apart edge defences in the simplest of ways – draw and pass.
They seem to be ‘allergic’ to committing defenders, with a preference for trying to beat defenders one-on-one at the expense of creating for others. When this fails, everyone else is run out of room.
Despite only being on the field for twenty minutes, Johnny Sexton was instrumental in crafting two tries, heavily influencing the outcome of the game without even playing a quarter of it.
Every one of Scotland’s outside backs are physically more gifted than the 33-year-old flyhalf – faster, more agile, stronger, but play for themselves first and others second.
This isn’t to say they are selfish, only that they want to come up with a big play for the team and try to do this the best way they know how – using the athletic ability that makes them who they are.
However, if they take notes from Sexton, there is a much easier way to pick apart a team.
Right from the first minute of play, Scotland has created a challenging situation for Ireland’s right-hand edge to defend.
Three tight five forwards (1, 2, 4) are defending inside Keith Earls (14), who is inside the 15-metre tramline himself. Sam Johnson (12) has received the ball out the back and has Huw Jones (13), Jamie Ritchie (7) and Sean Maitland outside him.
Johnson gives early ball to Jones, allowing Ireland’s tight forwards to slide.
Jones’ first instinct is to run away from the sliding defence and attempt to burn them on the outside. With Earls playing a non-committal bail technique, space quickly runs out despite originally having a three-on-one.
Rory Best (2) and James Ryan (4) are able to close on Jones who decides to kick in behind and give away possession.
On this occasion, both Johnson or Jones could have straightened to prevent Ireland from sliding.
If you have an overlap, Ireland will concede metres downfield in order to choke you out to the sideline. They want you to pass on without taking any defenders off their feet. Scotland’s runners didn’t sacrifice themselves in order to preserve the outside space and take the interior defence out of play.
The width they play with in the middle third of the field, despite making ground, fails to create space or holes and they frequently run out of room, ‘overeager’ to create something individually.
Playing the same shape to the opposite side a few phases later, again a lack of direct running costs Scotland.
Johnson feeds Stuart Hogg (15) again with early ball while Ireland is playing jockey/slide defence to handle the situation.
Jacob Stockdale (11) initially pushes up but has now turned outward and is looking to bail to buy time for Bundee Aki (12) and Chris Farrell (13) to cover, while Rob Kearney (15) is pushing down to cover the last man.
If Hogg straightens and commits Aki with a simple draw and pass, the opportunity to play Huw Jones (13) into the opening window presents. As Stockdale is pushing out, holding Aki will open this gap.
Hogg can prevent Aki and possibly Farrell from sliding by squaring up and running at him, while Stockdale has his hips turned, pushing out already making it difficult for him to cover Jones on an angle against the grain.
With Kearney pushing down and no rolling coverage from Earls, a simple short pass to Jones at pace into this opening window will likely result in a line break and potentially seven points for Scotland, assuming Stockdale doesn’t adjust and Jones can outrun Farrell.
Instead, Hogg tries to beat Aki on the outside, running into Jones’ lane. What was a numbers advantage becomes a two-on-two in a five-metre corridor with Stockdale and Kearney flying across, and again Scotland run out of room on the sideline.
Again late in the first half, Finn Russell (10) gets the ball away as Aki rushes up out of the line. It is a tight space, but Scotland has a three-on-two in the 15-metre corridor.
Jones tries to take Farrell on the outside and ends up colliding into Sean Maitland, using up 10-metres of the width, and is tackled by Farrell and Earls five in from touch.
There are times where trying to get on the outside and looking to turn the next man in works, when there is an initial alignment mismatch against a tight five forward for example.
Scotland’s backs continually tried this against other backs, and it didn’t work.
Whilst they were trying to create or do it all themselves, a simpler option of playing square and using catch and pass to beat the man was missing.
Ireland consistently shows that they can shut down lateral play even when outnumbered, and shut down talented running threats. In order to utilise the overlaps, you have to prevent Ireland from sliding, which means committing defenders and playing square, which is exactly what Sexton did to Scotland to open them up.
Sexton plays a three-on-two on the edge by squaring up Ryan Wilson (6) and drawing him into contact.
With the straight running lines of Farrell (13) and Stockdale (11), Seymour (14) is caught outnumbered and Sexton’s face ball finds the free man Stockdale on the edge, who gets a half-break and kicks in behind. Moments later Murray scores after Seymour’s errant pass is scooped up. Sexton’s play makes all that possible.
Again on Stockdale’s set-piece try, Sexton plays square and direct to commit a defender in close to the ruck to free the winger with simple draw-and-pass ball-playing.
Scotland has dangerous ball-runners and too few ball-players to set them free. They cannot do it themselves against top tier defences like Ireland. If Johnson is to develop into a ball-playing 12, it could really ignite Jones outside him who is able to run lines without fear.
Jones and Hogg also don’t need to always do it all themselves, instead, looking to play the numbers when available and showing some ball-playing ability as well.
The 25-phase failure on the stroke of halftime illustrates questionable game strategy from Scotland, but also shows opportunities to get Russell in this ball-playing position on the edge.
From the 5-metre scrum, Scotland use Tommy Seymour (14) to carry on first phase. They then proceed to play five forward carries around the corner off halfback Greig Laidlaw to the opposite left 15-metre line.
Finn Russell doesn’t get any touches and centres Johnson and Jones are used as cleaners as the forwards try to bulldoze their way over. The backs don’t get the ball until the 9th phase with rather static ball as the carries fail to provide tempo or inroads into Ireland’s line.
This is the picture on the second phase, after Seymour’s first phase carry, where Ireland’s line is still under pressure to fold numbers.
Scotland have most forwards coming just around the corner, and one a bit wider in Jamie Ritchie (6).
The opportunity exists to use Ritchie as a ball-playing forward to run a screen with Jones (13) running flat drawing/holding Earls and playing Russell (10) out the back.
If the screen gets Russell on the outside of Earls, he will be ‘manufactured’ a three-on-one opportunity, five metres from the line with Kinghorn (23) and Maitland (11) wider.
We can see the potential to release Russell out the back as Ritchie draws two defenders into contact. However, his first instinct is to duck and burrow into the defence for a carry, and Jones and Russell are stationary not expecting anything other than a carry.
As Ritchie fights through contact, Ireland still only have Keith Earls (14) and Rob Kearney (15) covering half the width of the field to the left.
If Scotland gets ‘hot ball’ and Laidlaw finds Russell, with that much room and a three-on-two advantage, scoring is almost inevitable. Finn Russell loses interest in playing the same way again, instead, standing back and waiting for forwards to come around the corner.
Just when Scotland needs to up the tempo and use the talents of Russell, they don’t.
In the red zone, Scotland tried to bully their way over, playing everything off nine. When this occurs, Laidlaw often slows the play down as forwards get into position. The strategy failed miserably as Ireland’s forwards swallowed up runners for no gain. Slowing down proceedings is no way to beat an elite defence.
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 and dynamic runners like Jones, Hogg, Maitland and Kinghorn are finding holes.
They need to put Russell in the right positions to feed those players in the absence of a secondary ball-player in wider channels, or their outside backs need to build combinations with each other, instead of trying to do everything themselves.
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