Scotland have had every opportunity under the sun to frequently beat their Home Nations rivals over the last two Six Nations but the same problems keep persisting.
Again, in treacherous conditions at Murrayfield against England, they were there in the contest at 3-all and faded in the last 10 minutes on the back of a critical kick coverage error.
Last week against Ireland, a mountain of possession could only yield four penalties and a losing bonus point in a 7-point loss in Dublin.
In both of these losses, there are similar skeletons buried in the grave, and if you rewind to last year’s tournament you will find they existed then too.
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In particular, red-zone attacking efficiency (points converted from possessions inside the 22) is diabolically low.
Six entries into Ireland’s 22 in the first half yielded just three points at a measly rate of just 0.5 points per entry. Even worse, at Murrayfield, three entries into England’s 22 in the first half yielded zero points.
The first key problem to this issue is Scotland’s persistent but unproven desire to score tries from lineout mauls.
It cannot be ignored any longer that Scotland’s lineout maul is a massive anchor on their red-zone attack. It is a malfunctioning mess that coughs up crucial possessions and turnovers at the worst times.
Their lineout maul from five metres out was sacked and turned over nearly every time it was used in last year’s Six Nations, leading to many wasted opportunities. If it wasn’t sacked and turned, it was severely disrupted, creating messy ball for any strike or phase play afterward.
Just one pushover try has been scored from a lineout maul from inside 10-metres over the last two and a half Six Nations campaigns, with John Barclay’s try against Italy in 2018 the only success. This is not for a lack of trying as it has been deployed regularly without success.
Against Wales last year at Murrayfield, after two failed maul attempts from the five, the backs were finally released on a third maul in the second half. A slick strike play built around Finn Russell as a playmaker resulted in Darcy Graham scoring in the corner to reduce the deficit to 15-11.
They used a similar play at Twickenham on another majestic Russell pass that again resulted in another try to Darcy Graham in the miraculous comeback.
There are lessons to be learned from the contrasting returns from the two strategies. One has been profitable and the other is seemingly a money-losing machine.
As Storm Ciara worsened in Edinburgh in the 15th minute against England, Scotland turned down a kickable shot at goal to kick to the corner for a lineout.
The resulting lineout maul from the five was sacked and turned by Tom Curry, foiling what turned out to be the easiest chance of the half to score some points.
Alternatively, when Stuart Hogg was penalised at the other end for holding on down near his own goal line in the 26th minute, England immediately took the shot at goal at the expense of a 5-metre lineout maul that was on offer.
Even with the size advantage up front, England recognized the premium on points the conditions would force and took shots at goal.
With a horrendous track record of converting their maul into points, Scotland turned down a chance for three points so their pack could once again attempt the impossible.
It is at the point now where there is no evidence to suggest that giving Scotland’s pack the ball in the most valuable area of the field to maul is a good idea, and is, in fact, a terrible one.
This year without a playmaker like Finn Russell to lead their attack, they are resorting to using Sam Johnson as a crash option to generate gain line on set-piece platforms and looking to work off the back of that momentum.
In Dublin last week, the closest they come to scoring a try came off a strong Johnson carry before playing back to the short side a few phases later. Hogg’s putdown blunder left the opportunity begging, but it showed the method that best suits Scotland – just use the ball in some way that isn’t a maul.
Preferably, Scotland would work in strike weapons like Huw Jones, who has hardly touched the ball so far, and their best-attacking player and captain, Stuart Hogg. Against goal-line defence, they only need to find weak shoulders to potentially find their way over.
The second pain point regarding converting valuable possessions into points seems to be the tempo of the side when inside the 22, which in the past has ground down to a slow pace as the pack tries to pound the way over.
In the conditions that presented at Murrayfield over the weekend, this is probably not a bad idea. In every other scenario, it has proven to be largely ineffective.
Against Ireland last year at home, the red zone problems became apparent in the first half as wave-after-wave of Scotland’s carry game was repelled. They pounded the goal line and came away with nothing in return on multiple occasions, at one point going over 20 phases before turning over the ball.
Trying to bully the way over with endless carries off 9 just does not work for Scotland.
Often, what gives the side these 22-entries in the first place is a well-worked width game from midfield launch patterns that they actually do very well when they execute. The opening five minutes in Dublin to start this year’s campaign is a testament to that.
But Scotland then go from being super expansive and fast-paced, relatively easily making ground downfield, to becoming narrow and slow and getting nowhere.
If Scotland played to their strengths when knocking on the door more often, you wonder if their key possessions would yield more.
They have lost three games by seven points and another by eight points against the other Home Nations over the last two tournaments. Converting on two or more of these 22-entries would have swung the result in their favour. Yet the strategy has remained steadfast in certain areas despite the evidence piling up that it simply doesn’t work.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. Scotland could be institutionalized by this point.
For the love of free-flowing rugby, please, don’t try another maul from five metres out.
Eddie Jones warns against Six Nations expansion:
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