Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Analysis: Where did it all go wrong?

John Barclay and Ruaridh Jackson - pic © Al Ross
John Barclay and Ruaridh Jackson - pic © Al Ross

As many anticipated, Sunday’s 28-0 humbling at the hands of the Springboks was a real tough day at the office for Scotland.  There were precious few aspects of play that could be termed a “success”, precious few highlights from a Scottish perspective, and precious few players who earned pass marks.

Coach Scott Johnson said in the build-up to this clash that “everyone wants to go to heaven, but no-one is prepared to die.”  Well, in their second November Test, Scotland were well and truly slaughtered – and they played a leading role in their own demise.

South Africa are a brilliant side, and a very clinical one, but as Johnson alluded to post-match; “there was a lot of ‘us’ in there too”.  A heavy price was paid for a plethora of simple mistakes.

Here, I take a look at several of the areas that caused Scotland problems on Sunday, and must be rectified ahead of this weekend’s clash with Australia:

Set-piece platform:

Scotland’s inability to generate clean, first-phase ball was a real issue against the Boks.  The lineout malfunctioned terribly in the opening exchanges thanks to a combination of poor throwing, poor timing and probably poor communication between the men up front.

South Africa, martialled by Flip van der Merwe, did a great job of spoiling the hosts’ possession, but even against such high-calibre opposition, losing five from your first six lineouts is entirely unacceptable.  Though it was shored up as the match wore on, every successful take was greeted by a cheer of sarcasm from the home crowd.

There is certainly big pressure on Ross Ford to sort out his wayward throwing – a problem that seems to have blighted his game for quite some time.  The competition for places is now such that he is no longer without significant challenge for the number two jersey.

If things go as pear-shaped against the Wallabies as they did the Springboks, we can expect a similar outcome.  James Horwill will have done his homework.

The scrum was messy, partly due to the havoc wreaked on the Murrayfield pitch by a bout of parasitic worms.  Scotland infringed only once on their own ball, winning four from five of their scrummages, but the possession was often low-quality and scrappy for Greig Laidlaw.  Ford’s non-striking seems more tactical than through lack of ability, but it can certainly lead to some sticky situations.

The much-maligned Wallaby pack was dominant over their highly-rated Irish counterparts last week, and Moray Low in particular will need to be on-guard at tighthead.

The lack of a solid platform really stifled Scotland on Sunday – good first-phase possession is very important for attacking rugby, and without it, they seriously struggled to gain a foothold in the game.

Errors and execution:

“Error-strewn” was the term I used in the headline of my match report.  That was probably too kind.  The stats showed that of the 26 times Scotland lost possession, just over a quarter were due to handling mistakes.

It was incredibly frustrating to watch the home side cough up ball and opportunities so readily to such a quality team, and the errors often came when a pass going to hand or a more intelligent line being run could have resulted in a break.

Several players vented their frustration at the lack of quality execution, and the absence of such basic rugby technique stunted Scotland time after time – despite enjoying two-thirds of the second-half possession and territory.


In his post-match press conference, Boks coach Heyneke Meyer credited his charges for taking the right options at the right times.

The ruthlessness with which they struck to build an insurmountable lead shone in stark contrast to the Scots’ own stuttering attack.

Here is one of the more worrying stats from Sunday: Scotland made zero clean breaks, despite the aforementioned possession figure.

Here’s another: of the ten visits Scotland made to the South African 22, seven ended in error and two in infringement.  And of course, where the most important stat of all was concerned – nil points were scored.

Seldom did the Springboks look troubled, and seldom did the Scots look capable of breaching their try-line.  Though they did, at times, identify the visitors’ tendency to rush up in defence on the outside, and shut down space, Johnson’s men were rarely able to exploit it.

When opportunities to catch the likes of Jean de Villiers or JP Pietersen high and narrow arose, Scotland struggled to get the ball to the right areas of the pitch.  When they managed to get the ball there, usually via a cross-kick, they often lacked the personnel to keep it, with the Boks scrambling well and piling numbers into the breakdown.

I’ve highlighted an example of this “wrong option” rugby below.  We have Sean Lamont running what, initially, is a nice arcing line across the defensive line.  There are gaps to be exploited there, with Pietersen in that advanced, narrow position mentioned above.

Encouragingly, Scotland have three runners all coming from depth to support the winger.  However, only Duncan Taylor gives Lamont a real option on the inside line.  The other two players lack conviction with their supporting runs, and Lamont goes himself.

He ends up attempting a kick through off the outside of his right boot.  It’s awkward, it’s forced and it’s the wrong option.  Giving a pass, taking contact, or backing himself to make ground and keep the ball would all have been better decisions.  The miscued kick ends up going out on the full and gives away possession (ironically, Scotland managed to pinch the subsequent lineout!)


The Breakdown:

The difference between the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of the respective Scottish and South African breakdown efforts was marked, to say the least.  Ironically, it is a Scot – Richie Gray (no, a different Richie Gray) – who is credited with the improvements the Boks have made in that department.

That was yet another factor in slowing the Scottish play down – the quality of the contest offered by the likes of Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen was awesome.  John Barclay played well, and put in a tremendous shift trying to tame those breakdown behemoths, but he was always likely to be fighting a losing battle.


Those were four of the key areas, to my mind, in which Scotland struggled, or came off a poor second-best to the Springboks.  The good news is that, by and large, those issues are fixable.  They are the same issues Johnson has been talking about and focusing on for much of his tenure.

South Africa didn’t need any help from the home side’s errors and imprecision, but they got it in spades.  They didn’t need any help from Scotland’s quick-fire brace of slip-ups to bag two tries and extend their lead to 21 points before half-time.  And they certainly didn’t need any help in defence, but one-dimensional rugby and poor decision-making made for easy white-shirted targets.

“The mantra doesn’t change,” said Johnson this week.  The mantra doesn’t, but Scotland certainly have to.

4 Responses

  1. In response to your excellent article, I would like to point out that the reason Ross Ford does not strike for the ball is not tactical, but because he physically cannot do it, this information comes from a reliable source within the Edinburgh Rugby camp,
    I can understand against SA when you would want eight v eight, but he was just as ineffective against Japan, the powers that be either need to find a hooker that can do the job or get Ross Ford some help, (did one of the skills coaches not used to be a hooker)

  2. Thanks for your input, Donald. If true, that’s a big worry. I’ve done a lot of interviews and research on the new scrum directive, and most players/coaches etc agree hooking is now a vital skill once again.

    I’d thought it was tactical rather than through lack of ability vs Japan in particular, where Scotland were expected to be dominant at scrum-time.

    Having started off as a back-row, Ford has almost certainly never had to strike before. He needs to learn in that case, or possession at the scrum can become seriously jeopardised (particularly with the added emphasis on a straight feed).

    Guys like Tom Youngs were in a similar position and voiced concerns at the start of the season, but have adapted well to the changes. Admittedly, he’s got a fairly formidable Tigers and England pack behind him, though!

  3. I am not sure where the belief that Scotland should be dominant over Japanese scrum came from. In their previous game v the ABs they were at least their equal and put pressure on them on occasion

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion