Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


Breakdown Analysis: Scotland’s downfall?

Scotland v Italy, a mess at the breakdown? - pic © Al Ross
Scotland v Italy, a mess at the breakdown? - pic © Al Ross

Ask any coach or player and they will tell you it is the most critical area of the game, especially in the modern game where fine margins define matches: the breakdown.

The breakdown is fundamentally made up of two key areas; ball disruption and ball retention.

In terms of ball disruption the current Scottish crop are showing they can be a nuisance; Blair Cowan leads the way with 5 turnovers, closely followed by Alex Dunbar on 4 – since O’Driscoll, centres have been shown the breakdown is not just the back rowers’ preserve. They are both chasing the impressive French Prop Eddy Ben-Arous who is shaming his competition with 7 turnovers yet only averaging 47 minutes per appearance. One also cannot forget the increasingly likeable Rob Harley, whose ability to destabilise the opposition’s clean ball has made him worth his weight in gold at both club and international level.

However ball retention is a different process all together: instead of nuggety and persistent, the whole team must be ruthless and clinical. Ignore Scotland’s current 94% ruck success rate, winning a ruck is not the issue, the intensity at which it happens is paramount. From my school days, many coaches used the “window” analogy: when a defender attempts to jackal, they create a window (of opportunity) between their arms, the ball and their head – that is where a player should get his own shoulder and burst through, clearing any hands off the ball and driving the player out of the contact area, a painful simple and effective measure when executed well. It requires pace, 100% commitment and ferocity.

Although that technique is ideally for dealing with a player in the jackal position, the scenario has 3 key aspects: get low, hit hard and show full commitment. Three ideals that should be well known to all players.

The importance of this cannot be underestimated. A backline can have all the potential in the world yet if it doesn’t receive quick ball then it relies on opposition defensive error. Taking a sample from the weekend’s games: in Ireland vs England, the opening 3 competed rucks on Irish ball took (in seconds) 2,2 and 3 to go from tackle completion to ball availability. This is compared to Scotland vs Italy, where Scotland’s first three rucks took 4,4, and 5. Have you ever thought on a pitch about what you could’ve done with an extra second; how about 3?

The 5 second ruck was following Alex Dunbar’s powerful break up to halfway, but it then took 4 Scots to clear the 2 competing Italian backs.

Here Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg demonstrate how not to clear out, kids look away.


That is the Italian scrum half and 81kg Edoardo Gori competing for the ball, it is clear Scotland have an option to attack if they free the ball, Seymour’s priority must be to get him as close to the West Stand as physically possible, yet look at his body position, high and lazy, makes barely any challenge to Gori and for Seymour dangerous as it exposes his neck and back. Furthermore it makes the next Scot’s job far more difficult.


Here comes Hogg. The first point here, where is he looking? His role is not the ball, he must concentrate hitting that contact and clearing the bodies on the deck. If he was paying attention, he would notice there is a far easier path to clear the Italian by approaching from the same angle as Johnnie Beattie, creating a quick play of the ball. Yet he goes too high and pushes with his arms, adding very little impetus to get Gori off that ball.

With the help of Horne and Beattie the ball eventually becomes free but immediately there is a defensive advantage, 13 vs 11. After taking 5 seconds to reorganise, in what really should have been a great platform to make more metres against a retreating defence, the next phase resulted in Scotland making -15 metres, a momentum killer to say the least.

Let’s compare this to the Ireland backs.

Here we have James Haskell over the ball in a relatively strong jackal following Jared Payne getting over the advantage line.


Once again, first man Henshaw has gone too high and struggles to get 115kg Haskell off the ball…more understandable than shifting the Italian scrum half.


And here comes Rob Kearney, who has attacked the situation at pace, look at him get low to attack that ‘window’ with his shoulder and bursts through, sending both Haskell and the embarrassed Henshaw well clear of the ruck.


The ball is now immediately available to Murray to continue the Irish momentum, with the next phase being Toner crash ball for another 5 metre gain.

I highlighted the backs for a reason, if Scotland’s fullback can clear out efficiently then you would expect every other player to perform in a similar manner. This is one of many, many examples of Scotland not being clinical enough at key breakdown moments. I could have picked 100 examples over the past 3 matches, this simply isn’t good enough and it’s costing us valuable options in attack.

It is important to note that Ireland thrashed England in the breakdown on Sunday and scored only 19 points, if we are going to have any chance down at Twickenham, Scotland must learn to be this clinical at the breakdown, as these are the fine margins of international rugby which define the best the from the rest.

2 seconds here or there makes a crucial difference.

29 Responses

  1. Presentation is another area where Scotland are weak. Too many players go to ground and dont immediately push the ball back to arms length behind their body. This makes it difficult fo the opposition to reach over the tackled player to get their hands on it and it gives a target for the second man in from the attacking side. I have heard arguments that this sort of presentation is difficult because the tackler has often already got a hand on the ball before the players go to ground. This is because another flaw in their technique of not shielding the ball in the tackle in the first place. Taking tackles face on (running at the man rather than the gap) and being too upright, not leading with the shoulder with the ball under the opposite arm, etc. Poor technical coaching in favour of big lumps using power to blast through is the root cause.

  2. The team need to change the colour and design of their rugby shirts. To motivate them I would recommend playing in a bright luminous blue with a gold strip running diagonally from shoulder to waist. That would at least lift the spirits of the squad instead of playing in boring old navy blue.

  3. I just wonder if Ireland and SA have an advantage playing in the colour of grass. Could it have a camouflage effect- I wonder.

  4. What kind of hallucigenic drugs are you on Haas, or are you just bored?

  5. That was a fantastic article – well done. I love to see people actually taking the time to think through WHY we are failing. The still shots also show where the breakdown is not being refereed correctly. I can see the 2 Italians are using hands on the deck to support there body weight. However, we must play to the whistle. Keep up the good work!

  6. You would also have to seriously look at Furno as being offside. Not entered through the gate, blocking a player from attacking the ruck. I’m certainly not complaining, more making a point that the breakdown needs to be refereed much more tightly. It’s strange, you miss these things as the game is so fast. Also, I wish the BBC would stop crowd surfing for attractive fans after a penalty is given. Up until recently a slow motion replay was displayed and the commentators would explain who was pinged and provide a reason. I feel this a good for the occasional fan, it’s good for kids to learn and it gives the hardened fan a chance to mutter darkly into his pint.

  7. The strips need to change in order to motivate the players. Playing in a plain old boring navy blue shirt is no good. You would be amazed at the motivational power of colour. I also think the coaching staff could donne designed suits in the same colours as our new strip. In addition to this the fans need to play their part. So few seem to be dressed in team colours and engage in singing and cheering during the game. May I also recommend Cheerleaders to take to the field prior to the game. It works in Americal football so why not rugby. In short, we all need to more jolly and upbeat.

    1. Not sure if this is tongue in cheek or not !

      If saving Scottish rugby was a simple as bright shiny shirts, then we have all missed the boat for many years.

      Having said that, Super 15 shirts are getting bolder and brighter each season, so maybe Mr.Hass is on the right track as Super 15 is exciting rugby, unlike the 6 Nations.

  8. I’m not going to disagree that Scotland are really poor at creating quick ball, however …

    Looking at the first Italian picture, two defenders have their hands on the ground and their body position is at such an acute angle that they need to have their hands on the ground to prevent themselves falling over; another is coming over the side of the ruck. Fair enough, with the speed of the game, the match officials won’t always catch this, but wait, there’s the touch judge just 5 metres away.

    Second Italian picture, 1 defender now lying on the ruck, with his hands on the ball.

    Yes, we need to stop kidding ourselves on, and realise Scotland need to improve radically if we want to compete with the top nations, however, match officials need to start applying the laws:
    1) tidy up rucks – stop players going off their feet, insist both sides enter via the gate (not just the defending team), insist that players bind on someone (not just smashing things as hard as they can)
    2) insist on straight feed in scrums – make hookers hook
    3) stop dummy runners crashing into, and blocking, defenders

    I’m now watching games that are being decided by referees, and as a result, teams are playing to the ref and his interpretation of the laws, and not to the laws of the game.

    1. You are absolutely right but the truth is World Rugby puts a lot of effort into trying to get consistent interpretations but rugby is too complicated and too technical to really achieve this. At any given set piece you could probably give half a dozen infringements against either team so referees are instructed to use ‘materiality’, to identify and penalise infringements that materially affect the result of the contest. This means that is huge scope for subjectivity in what is material and what is not, as well as the ability to actually recognise what is going on at any given time (let’s remember you may have 300 breakdowns in a game, most lasting 2-5 seconds) particularly as there are 30 players on the pitch all instructed in how to cheat as subtly as possible to gain an advantage.

      Rugby is never going to achieve a perfectly refereed sport under the current laws. In the absence of that Scotland need to do two things – improve their breakdown technique and learn to identify what the ref is letting the opposition do and work out how to counteract it. We’ve lacked this kind of game intelligence for some time.

      I think we could have blown Italy away if they hadn’t been able to slow down our ball all match. However, we did get plenty of penalties and that is why we lost by two points after conceding the try count 3-1 – if we hadn’t given away soft points throughout the match we wouldn’t have been in the situation at the end of the game where we were within one score of Italy. Scotland should have put this game to bed long before the 70 minute mark and can only blame ourselves for not doing so. If we can learn from this ‘mugging’ then at least it will help our squad develop.

  9. In the pictures above the Italian players are off their feet.

    The law is that you’re supposed to support your body weight with your feet while contesting the ball.

    Going off their feet is something the Italians get away with alot.

    Other teams have a player who will simply pick and lift them off the ball with a big clear out. We don’t.

    But we shouldn’t need one because this area, like the scrum, is badly refereed.

    Makes me not want to watch rugby when I see an area of the game so badly refereed. It doesn’t do the game any favours.

  10. Great article, very informative and made it easy for a breakdown tactics “dummy” like me to understand.

  11. Great read. Intresting to see some times for the ball to be played. 5 seconds is absolutly shocking, although i do wonder how many of these seconds were from Greg laidlaw standing and waving his arms – as he does most rucks. Scotland could learn the benifits of quick ball from watching the super 15, I recon they must recycle the ball in 1 – 1.5 sec 90% of the time.

    1. Watching the Edinburgh game on Saturday, I was struck how “snappy” SHC is when passing from a ruck. He must deliver the ball to first receiver about 2 seconds faster than Laidlaw. He’s inexperienced but he is the future of Scotland.

  12. What I don’t understand is; if the same players play the breakdown at professional club level. and excell at it, why can’t they perform at international level with the same skills?
    Although I accept that the speed of thought needed is greater at international level, and the thinking time allowed at is much less, there still seems to be a gap between Scotland and other teams.
    Looking at the first picture. This guy can’t be removed by a straight on hit, only from the side. All he’s doing is lieing across the ruck and stopping release. It does look like Stuart Hogg needs a few lessons in geometry and physics to try and get his angles right.
    He is one of the ‘girls’ in the backs, so maybe they need a few specialist training sessions.

    1. One thing that I cant understand is how goof club players cannot seem to take their form onto the international stage. It could be because they are playing against better quality opponents and that the game is played at a higher pace. Or is it down to the fact that they are playing with a new set of players who do not know each others game plan. Who knows?

      1. Thats the million pound question. For me it comes down to coaching and tactics. Look at Ireland, years and years as kings of the domestic game but never could reproduce it in a green jersey. Then as soon as Schmidt takes over they start getting the results. He has given Ireland a clear and precise game plan. He has also coached them to deal with what ever is thrown in their paths. VC may have been Schmidts senior at one point but the apprentice has become the master.

      2. Ireland were actually decenet before Schmit took over but I take your point. In the late 90’s-early 00’s they had very good club teams with great Irish born players but somehow they could not reproduce the form on the international stage. Maybe we are in the position Ireland was in the early 2000’s but, based on current 6 nations form, I think we have a long way to go. We lost the three games by narow margins but 5 points in rugby seems to be a big deal. Unless some miracle happens we will be destined to lift the wooden spoon this year. If we had just shown a bit more passion and playeed to our potential we couold have been competitng for the championship having won all three games by arround 5 points. Thats how close the margins are. We probably dont deserve the wooden spoon but, based on the players lack of willingness to try their best against Italy, they probably do deserve it. I point the finger mainly at Laidlaw and the forwards but I’m racking my brains to think of any player that stood out as being outstanding against Italy. It was alsmost as if they were either drunk or had been training in the pub the night before.

        Why cant our forwards show a bit of agression. They need to be reminded by the coach that they have turned up to represent our nation in a rugby match, not visited a theme park in Florida.b VC is a great coach but I’m starting to wonder if if is capable of kicking the players backsides as that is what is required. If I were in his shoes I would pull some individuals asside and make them sweat.

      3. Yes, this will certainly be a huge test of Cotter’s credentials. We’ve got to remember that Cotter hasn’t coached an international side before so is learning on the job – not only do you have less time with the players but you can’t bring in guys to plug gaps.

        Anyway, if you read the Scotsman’s pre-match fluff this morning it says Laidlaw will retain his place and the captaincy but up until now Cotter has been very supportive, now they’ve seen another side of him and he is a ‘hard man’ and his individual analysis with them went back to previous tournaments to show the mistakes they need to rectify. You might infer he’s been showing clips of good Laidlaw (versus Argentina) with bad Laidlaw.

  13. I wonder why he is still bothering about Laidlaw. presumably he has already pointed oput his mistakes (there were many) in all three internationlas but he has not improved at all. In fact he has got alot worse. Its only my viepoint but he had 3 games to show VC what he is made of and has come up short on all 3 occassions so 3 strikes and he should be out. We have far beeter options and he certainly isnt captain material.

    1. I imagine Cotter is reluctant to dispense with his captain and goalkicker mid-tournament. Disappointing that his selection may hinge on such negative considerations but that’s where we are. I think most fans have run out of patience with Laidlaw – I don’t know if SHC is ready or if Pyrgos is fit but Cusiter could step up and he is more experienced and more reliable than Laidlaw.

      Anyway, we’ll find out tomorrow whether the Scotsman has it right.

  14. Thank you all for your comments, just to highlight a couple of issues…the timings were based on when the ball was available to be passed, not when Laidlaw actually DID pass. Furthermore to those interested in the Italian ‘foul play’, these rucks were deliberately chosen as to show the effect of clearing the men out regardless of infringement and the advantage it would bring to the attacking side of playing the game rather than playing for the penalty.
    Keep the comments and feedback coming, much appreciated.

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion