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.