Scottish Rugby News and Opinion


And Now For Something Completely Different?

Greig Laidlaw plans with his troops - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography
Greig Laidlaw plans with his troops - pic © Alastair Ross / Novantae Photography

That was fun. Or was it? Not much cheering during most of that second half, but for Greig and the boys to close it out was brilliant.

With an extra day to prepare before Scotland begin round 2 of the 2017 Six Nations, attention in the Scotland camp now turns to Paris. While the emotional side of your brain rushes off to buy a Grand Slam Winners t-shirt, the other side should be urging you not to get carried away. Especially when Scotland are still seen as an inferior team by some wind-up merchants over the (Irish) sea.

Scotland beat France at Murrayfield last year in some style but haven’t won in Paris since 1999. That was a particularly vintage Scotland team who ended up 5 Nations Champs… do our plucky lads have the makings?

Things to work on

The line speed in defence was hugely impressive but Scotland conceded a large number of penalties for offside in a loosely-disciplined performance. That intensity level in defence is exactly what Scotland need to do to compete with the really top teams – of which Ireland are undoubtedly one – but on another day with another ref, there could have been more penalties or even a card. The first half tackle count alone suggests the level of work Scotland have to put in to stay in a contest; they can’t have the ball all of the time, but they can’t last the tournament making 200+ tackles a game just to maintain test match intensity.

Despite it seeming like a dominant first half – and in a lot of ways it was – it was almost one dimensional approach Scotland used in attack. Preferably from a lineout (as the scrum was crumpling): a big hit up from one of the Grays, Strauss or another forward, maybe a couple more close in then spin it out to Russell who often hit Hogg straight away: score try, or fail, and repeat. The top ball carriers were Jonny Gray (14), Richie Gray (13) and Stuart Hogg (12) which bears this out.

Dunbar had very little crash ball to work with (he was third in lineouts won though), while Watson and Wilson rarely got their offload games going. Laidlaw made no breaks that I noticed. The stats say Scotland had 4 line breaks, 4 offloads and only beat 4 defenders. It doesn’t sound like much for a team that were rampaging and 21-8 up at half time does it? It sounds more like a team that were steady, and yet who managed to be very clinical in the red zone.

Scotland were excellent at the breakdown: the ball was quick enough, with the fast rucking style Cotter wants still in place and Laidlaw getting it moving.

The next step is to vary it more.

As the tournament goes on, the available footage will make it a lot easier for teams to stop Scotland.

Ironically when Ireland got their offloads going it was devastatingly – almost fatally for Scotland – effective. There are parallels with Glasgow’s approach to Munster when compared to the way they played Racing and Leicester – although this time the Scottish team managed to take their chances and win.

Now they’ve survived that tussle and a very large green monkey removed from their backs, we might, I hope, see something very different in St Denis.

With Racing 92, the gameplan was to move them about and similar tactics could bear fruit against a French team who dropped off badly against England.

The bonus that the Ireland result offers is that aside from Dunbar’s lineout sneak – which he can now bluff with every time he lines up at that set piece – Scotland didn’t reveal any flash attacking plays. The inside ball to Seymour from a set scrum or ruck has been on the go since Visser debuted, and Hogg’s second, while a thing of beauty, was mostly down to quick hands from Huw Jones and Hogg’s individual instincts.

Scotland got the win and almost the tournament’s first try bonus point without showing too many of the cards up Jason O’Halloran’s sleeves, that they might need to unpick better-briefed defences.

Beware the threat from France

So what of the French opposition? As usual, write them off at your peril. England almost did and hilariously, the French back three had their best game in years against England. They have a considerable size advantage on our own unit and were frighteningly skillful at times, when in recent years they’ve just been frightening. We can’t rely on Scott Spedding suddenly becoming spectacularly bad again. There were moments during Ireland’s purple patch when the Scots kicked away too much ball and we must avoid this reversion to type.

The big threat in the pack is King Louis Picamoles who seems to be benefiting from his time at Northampton. He had a colossal performance against England and always kept France moving.

France are also huge in the scrum and while their massive props don’t like running all that much, if Scotland have one of those games where they knock everything on then it could be a long day at the office for the Scottish front row.

Speaking of the scrum, it looked like Ireland’s dominant front row were taking a slight sideways step just after the engage but before the shove came on, so that any pressure forced Dell inwards. Some way to prevent that – even if France’s monster props got caught doing it where Ireland didn’t – needs to be found.

Do we need changes?

Finn Russell and Fraser Brown were the only injury concerns and were both cleared to train on Monday. So unless anything flares up over the week there should be no enforced changes, which puts Vern in the luxurious position of making purely tactical ones.

If we are following the standard line that the French lack fitness, there’s an argument to bolster the scrum initially, then bring pace off the bench. To that end Reid and Ford could partner Fagerson in the scrum, with the more athletic Dell and Brown moved to the bench for impetus late on when there should be a bit more space in the loose. Part of me thinks stick Ford on the bench anyway and bring him on after 5 minutes; he seems to react very well to being dropped. The guys over at the Thistle podcast (check it out if you haven’t already) tell us that Brown will start and Reid comes in to start.

Alternatively, Scotland could just run it so much that a) the starting props are knackered inside 20 minutes (this worked v Racing) or hope b) there are no scrums. Fat chance of that.

In the back row, the blend was pretty good. For reasons similar to the above there is an argument for swapping Watson to get his pace coming off the bench, but I’m not buying it. The balance was pretty good as Barclay’s fresh legs and cool head made a couple of hugely useful plays late on against Ireland. I’d keep it as is. Edinburgh’s Cornell du Preez needed to have played like Picamoles against Munster to break in: he didn’t.

Glasgow’s new signing Huw Jones should be well up to speed and pretty unfamiliar to the French (although even they’ve started sharing his YouTube highlights around this week) so should retain his place. He should now be familiar with his teammates, but he’s on one stormer of a game (sorry), one good game, one okay one and one 5 minute cameo. Let’s not put too much pressure on just yet; Mark Bennett is breathing hard down his neck for a start which will be pressure enough. Bennett could of course be distracted by contract negotiations (Huw might have been last week?), and there is also the prospect that Duncan Taylor might be fit again too.

It might also be suggested that Scotland start Price for the extra pace he brings, and bring Laidlaw on to close the game out if necessary. It’s not a terrible idea but it leaves Russell with the kicking duties when his concentration might be better served elsewhere. There’s also the possibility that the game doesn’t start to plan and Laidlaw is incredibly good at quickly getting Scotland back on message when before they might have wandered aimlessly for 30-40mins.

In all likelihood we’ll see the same 23 against France, possibly shuffled around a little.

England did not test France hard until they were running out of steam. Scotland’s skills look sharp and with some good weather we could see one of the attacking games of the Championship. It could be an absolute cracker, but we should definitely not get carried away.

France will be a very tough nut to crack, but it doesn’t mean Scotland shouldn’t try.

23 Responses

  1. Looking back at the match. I reckon 3 or 4 times Scotland were one penalty away from a yellow card and they actually lost points at a good time. Had Jreland not scored the try yellow was coming in probably each of their tries. We were able to repel with 15 but probably wouldn’t have with 14 and may have lost more points. We are notoriously bad with 14. I think this was key to the win. Another key was that we had conceded 9 penalties after 44 mins. This does not include the advantages that resulted in tries where there were two more for each of Ireland’s tries. However after 44 mins Scotland officially didn’t concede another penalty. Incredible statistics really. France were terribly ill disciplined which let England off the hook over and over and they were very unfit too so i reckon if we’re in it or not too far behind with 20 to go we win comfortably. Ford’s heft and ability to pass on advice to his young props is more crucial to Scotland than Brown’s loose work in this game. So excited. 2 from 2 with a confused Wales at home really makes it interesting. Very interesting.

    1. France will examine where they fell short against England, so expect a bit more discipline from them. They will also be fully aware of what Glasgow did to Racing and may pick a fitter, more mobile pack to compensate.

      I make France slight favourites for the game, mostly due to our record in Paris, but I agree that if the game is close going into the final quarter then we should have enough to pull away.

      1. France’s attack likes to go wide just as much as we did against Ireland, so they will struggle to hold onto the ball like Ireland did in the second half. Their wingers are fantastic ball in hand but make mistakes and I expect we’ll see much more turnover ball. However, whilst France are as unfit as many T-14 sides they are nowhere near as lumpen as Racing and have a mobile backrow well able to reach breakdowns around the pitch. They might run out of puff but we aren’t going to dance around them with the ease Glasgow did in Paris or Scotstoun.

        I expect our attacking shape will be quite different. Ireland are notoriously narrow in defence (eg. vs Argentina) and we exploited it magnificently in the first half.

    2. Absolutely agree with Referendum on the potential for carding. I breathed a sigh of relief when Ireland scored their last try, as you could see the card coming and I’m certain with the way momentum had swung we would have shipped more than 7 if we’d gone down to 14. Sunday’s game will be fascinating though – thought France looked v impressive against England. I expect ambition from both sides.

      1. Refs seem to be much more lenient than in the first week of the new interpretation. There was a few tackles that were high enough for a yellow on Saturday but just resulted in a penalty, including the one by Bowe late on in the game. I must say I’m glad that people’s fears seem to have been misplaced.

  2. Forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys has backed his props to deal with the threat of France’s front row: “They understand what we’re trying to do and their responsibility — we’re delighted with them”. Indeed he has full confidence in the whole pack, and I think his claim that Scotland solved their scrummage difficulties after the initial setbacks is a fair one.
    I believe the whole match will hinge on how we deal with the French onslaught in the first half. Our pack will have to match their opponents’ physicality in all phases and our defence must be ferocious. If we can hold them in the first 40 minutes, our backs will be able to cut loose in the second — the inverse of the pattern in the Irish game.

  3. Valid comment about the tackle count. Wonder if this should mean a bit more rotation in the pack – or if it just means that the first choice guys will be told they are playing four games and we have enough confidence in the squad players to beat Italy. Best way to reduce our tackle count is by having another ball carrier who can make yards, to that end I’d play Bradbury and controversially drop Wilson.

    1. Would like to see Bradbury get some game time asap, but not sure away against the French beasts is the best place. Would have been nice to see him get 30mins+ against Italy who are still clearly struggling to see a game out so could do wonders for MB’s confidence to punch a few holes.

      Plus, he starts for Edinburgh tomorrow! As does Hardie – surreal being able to afford not to take him to Paris but can’t argue with 6/7/8 performance last week.

      1. Bradbury will be a star for Scotland but Vern has told him to go away and up his work at the breakdown. Until he does, he shouldn’t play just for experience, he has to earn his next cap.

        In two minds about the rumours that Edinburgh are in talks with Cockerill trying to persuade him to become our new coach. On the one hand, he is a d*** and champions a pretty forwards orientated brand of rugby. On the other, he takes no prisoners and has an excellent record. Maybe he would be a good influence on our young forwars like Ritchie, Bradbury, Toolis, McCallum, Dell etc. and push them onto bigger things. Scottish teams could do with a bit more b*stard.

      2. Cockerill always strikes me as that physics teacher you had at school who you thought was brutal, but on reflection 15 years later, you can see he just wanted you to learn. Reckon it would do the young lads well to have a no-nonsense gaffer and, barring Leicesters last few months, he’s been fairly successful.

        Unrelated – what exactly happened with Ryan Grant? Appreciate he had injuries but he’s went from ‘Can’t believe he isn’t starting for Lions’ to surplus @club and country in relatively short prop years. Did he get the harshest punishment re Grant/Wilson/Maitland dust up in the Glasgow chippy? He was unbeatable on his day.

  4. Just quickly, one of our group has dropped out of our Paris trip. We have a spare 58 euro ticket we’d be happy to sell at face value to a fellow fan. If interested please PM me via the Edinburgh supporters’ forum (my handle there is abbeyhillexile). Also happy for this site’s admin to pass my private email address on if anyone would prefer to make contact that way. It would likely be a Paris rv and handover as we’re travelling out from St Pancras on Saturday morning.

  5. Agree with pretty much everything said here. A lot depends on who France pick, they put on the Bruisers to play England, will they pick the same to play us? They would be foolish if they did. That said we need to be prepared for an onslaught in the first half, if we can live with that, not give away too much penalties then I think if we get the starting / bench right we could run them around in the second half. As others have said I would start Ford and Reid for some initial ballast and then sub them if they tire in the second half. As usual with France it will depend entirely on what version of France turn up.

    Not that fussed about the back row, Barclay had a stormer and probably deserves a start but if he can do the same off the bench again it would be great. If I was to swap him it would be for Wilson, but I don’t like him coming off the bench, coming off the bench seems to be when he gets exited, flying into the fray and becoming a penalty machine. Was Watson injured or had be just ran himself into the ground?

    Same backs again. Despite being one of Price’s many fans Laidlaw had a superb game and it would be inconceivable to drop the captain off the back of such a strong performance. Jones was quiet but will improve (I just need to decide whether to drop him from my fantasy team). The more I look at Hogg’s second try the more I think it was the brilliant pass from Jones that put him in, it was timed to perfection, held it just long enough to keep the Irish guys attention on him so that he couldn’t reach Hogg when he got the ball.

  6. There’s obviously a lot of optimism out there and as someone who’s watched Scotland for longer than he cares, or can, remember, (’71 v Wales since you ask), I do think that the current team are matched in the excitement stakes only by the classes of ’86 & ’99.
    For this game I’d like to see us start with Ford, Reid & Barclay with Brown, Dell & Watson off the bench when the French are, hopefully, blown.
    As they say, it’s not the losses that kill you, it’s the hope…

  7. I was in Paris last time we won and have to say on that day they played their biggest men and we won by running them everywhere in the first half. On that day we did not have our finest pack , but a good pack, we were by far the lighter and the backs were classy. It feels like a similar setup to the current side , so I suspect we will try and run them everywhere in the first half.

    The secret in France (and Cardiff) is silence the crowd and that implodes on them , not us. They need to ride out the first twenty at worst , win it if they can. Modern game , traditional but proven tactics


  8. Just, apropos of nothing, I have heard a lot of commentators and fans saying that there is no way we will ever get away with a lineout like that one again. I’ve had it lurking in the back of my head for ages that we scored a similar try once before, and I’ve just been reminded by a colleague which one I was thinking of:

    Henry Pyrgos vs South Africa. It wasn’t actually as similar as I had remembered, but it was equally clever and well executed.

      1. There is clearly a smart operator somewhere in the Glasgow/Scotland ranks. I recon it’s JGray, he’s immense at everything else!

    1. Very well taken – could have driven a lorry through that gap though. I’m just happy when we secure lineout ball, let alone scoring from them!

    2. I had the same feeling, maybe I was thinking of Pyrgos too? No we probably won’t get away with it again but if we put backs in the line out agin the opposition will pay attention this time which means they will have less focus on the forwards, win / win.

  9. I mind that Henry Pyrgos try – i think we might try it again towards the end of the French match when their gourmands are panting hard.

  10. I watched the highlights of our win over France last year. I had forgotten the quickly taken penalty by Duncan Taylor that led to a try. And really enjoyed the Hogg flick for Visser to steal in. Excited for Sunday – when are the teams going to be announced?

  11. Interesting….ultimate rugby has Hardie named on the bench…no CdP. Backing up after Edi game? Or some sort of clever dickery?

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Scottish Rugby News and Opinion