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Six Nations 2023: The Forwards Of The First Two Weeks

Richie Gray towers over the lineout - © Autumn Nations Series/Inpho Photography
Richie Gray towers over the lineout - © Autumn Nations Series/Inpho Photography

Most Scotland fans may have felt like two wins from the first two games was certainly very possible this year given the relative form and health of the participating nations pre tournament. Most Scotland fans would also have been more than aware that such creeping confidence more often than not just makes the inevitable losses more painful to bear.

Scotland have for once not disappointed and England and Wales have been dispatched, left behind as the hype train gathers pace. More difficult challenges lie ahead but let’s take this opportunity to take a look at some stats and analysis before we have to face derailment.

Similar to the post Autumn Nations article, the focus will again be on the forwards however this time players from all 6 Nations will be included which allows comparison of Scotland’s heroes with their peers. The criteria to get onto the charts is simply either starting a game or playing more than 45 minutes over the course of both games, so starters and replacements do feature.

There are quite a few players included so the analysis will be split into front rows, locks and back rows. The scope of this analysis will include tackles, carries and impacts on the game. I’d love to include the breakdown or the set piece however these stats don’t seem freely available. Of course at this early stage the statistical playing field isn’t really fair and 45 minutes is a low threshold for inclusion but there should still be some interesting insights.

Front Row

There is one very obvious call out when it comes to tackle stats in the front row, and that’s that with the exception of George Turner Scotland’s frontrow don’t miss many at all. Turner has been impressive over the course of both games and his 4 tackles missed from 23 attempts does put him in amongst a clutch of hookers in the middle of the chart. Zander Fagerson justifies his return to the side averaging an additional 8 tackles per 80 compared to the man he replaced WP Nel. Though Nel at 13 tackles per 80 minutes is no slouch either and both men haven’t missed any. Amongst other nations, Wales’ Francis and Thomas were both busy though over only 40 and 54 minutes respectively. The French front row also features prominently, as does Finlay Bealham who seems to be seizing his opportunity with Furlong unavailable.

On the other side of the ball in general Scotland’s lower possession stats don’t help their carries per 80 minute numbers though Pierre Schoeman defies that trend impressively averaging over 12 carries per 80. Again Zander Fagerson’s numbers are an improvement on Nel who is the least prolific carrier on the chart. George Turner is having a great and eye catching tournament and it would be fair to say he’s by some distance Scotland’s most effective carrier when it comes to metres made (Jack Dempsey does manage similar numbers though from less minutes).

Amongst the competition Ireland’s hookers have been very impressive ball in hand, perhaps reflecting carrying in different areas when compared to their props. And if anyone was in any doubt about what Ellis Genge offers then as the chart illustrates he’s been both extremely prolific getting his hands on the ball and consistently pretty effective to boot.

This chart is a bit busy but attempts to show both positive contributions with and without the ball. I’ve also left out cards for now. As mentioned Turner has been eye-catching so no surprise to see him lead the way for Scotland with contributions with and without the ball. Dan Sheehan backs up his carrying stats impressively having broken 6 tackles, a number matched only by Italy’s Fischetti. If we’re looking at the negative impacts then Andrew Porter has conceded an unimpressive number of penalties and Genge has had his share of contributions both good and bad as you’d expect from his all action style.

Locks

Where is Jonny Gray? He hasn’t actually played enough minutes to feature but in his absence big brother Richie and Grant Gilchrist have picked up the baton and both not only haven’t missed a tackle but additionally have been getting stuck in averaging on or above 15 tackles per 80 minutes each. France’s big men haven’t been as reliable in the tackle but are putting in some big numbers. If you’re looking for James Ryan he’s tucked in somewhere behind the Scottish pairing, both he and Beirne have been reasonably strong in defence though the latter may want to see his success rate above 90% before the end of the tournament. Fair to say for all the magic Scotland’s backs have provided that there is a trend appearing here and it’s the forwards effectiveness in defence providing the platform.

Scotland’s second row although impressive in defence features much less prominently ball in hand, Gilchrist has barely got his hands on the ball and Gray hasn’t got much go forward when he’s been in possession, though what need for metres gained when you can tip the ball on with such slick hands? Elsewhere Dafydd Jenkins provided an impressive improvement on Alun Wyn Jones and sits near Chessum, Ruzza and Flament though exceeds their carries per 80 rate. Tadhg Beirne is well known for his workrate and carries more than any other lock making reasonable ground too as have his team mates.

Both Gilchrist and Gray have supplied dominant tackles in defence with some bonus offloads in addition to minimising negative contributions. Not featured on the chart but Gilchrist has also stolen 2 lineouts, more than any other lock whilst Gray’s 12 lineouts won is exceeded only by Chessum (15) and Ruzza (13). The standout has to be Federico Ruzza though as in addition to being Italy’s go to at the lineout, he’s topping both the positive and negative contributions amongst locks but with 5 dominant tackles has most notably been robust in defence. Coupled with some very solid carrying numbers Ruzza is having a good tournament so far.

Back Rows

Crosbie has been brutal with ball in hand for Edinburgh this season but for Scotland it’s his defence which has been outstanding. Only England’s Jack Willis can top his tackles per 80 numbers with only Justin Tipuric and Jack Dempsey able to match his 100% success rate. Matt Fagerson’s workrate is always impressive and he’s contributed numbers not far off Crosbie though notably has also played every minute compared to Crosbie’s 97.

Now if you’re the Scottish backrow then you don’t really need to make many metres because you can just let Duhan van der Merwe do all the carrying however Scotland’s backrows are some way off the level of contribution the likes of Dombrandt, Doris and Negri have made in terms of workrate or Jelonch, Macalou and Tshiunza have offered in effectiveness. Fagerson does sit roughly in the middle towards the back of a pack including the likes of Aldritt and Ludlam. Italy’s Zuliani has been really useful indeed as well so far and it’s quite positive to see some strong individual performances from the Italians throughout the back 5.

Unsurprisingly given the impressive tackle stats Scotland’s flankers are contributing dominant tackles with Jamie Ritchie also up with Jac Morgan and Alex Dombrant for turnovers. Josh van der Flier has become well known for his carrying but has also been robust in defense with a seriously impressive 8 dominant tackles with Doris also pitching in with all sorts of positive contributions. As in the Autumn Jamie Ritchie has been unfortunate and racked up more negative contributions than any other Scot though in his defence has played every minute and as Scotland’s main turnover threat will attract more penalties.

Conclusion

Statistics at this stage are always going to be subject to small sample sizes and at least until everyone has played everybody else should be treated as indicative only. There are some interesting points for Scotland fans though, Scotland’s forward effort in defence is probably the best from amongst the 6 Nations, pretty much everyone from 1-8 is putting in serious numbers and isn’t missing many either. In terms of carrying I’d suggest the pack are carrying very little out wide in the channels are instead focusing on the hard yards in close where the likes of Schoeman and Turner are impressing and buying the space for the backline to excel in.

My plan will be to revisit these statistics at the end of the tournament where we’ll see if Scotland’s defensive statistics can survive Irish and French onslaughts and additionally see which of our players can hold their own statistically against their peers as individuals over all 5 games.

As always any and all feedback is welcome.

30 Responses

  1. Interesting to see how our forwards aren’t carrying as much, or as effectively, as their peers. My guess is that’s tactical and/or a feature of how much possession/territory we have. As the article says, why carry when you have the likes of DVDM (or any of our backs) on your shoulder.
    Looking forward to the end of championship stats. Would be good to see the stats grouped by row/pack, as well as by individual, as that might give a better indication of tactics.
    Are you able to separate scrum penalties/free-kicks from other penalties for the front-row? It may give us a better idea of who can scrummage and who shouldn’t be going near rucks. LOL

    1. Hi Merlot. Grouping by row/pack is a great idea. Thank you for that.

      Unfortunately unable to separate scrum pens. Oddly the stats from the 6N site do include a scrum pen column but it’s always 0 and they’re just rolled into a general penalty count columm. A bit frustrating really.

  2. Thanks Scrummo for a really interesting article. As Merlot says, must be some tactical shift in the way the defence is organised, using the forwards to cut down the opposition low and hard as quickly as possible. Might that be the reason Harris is no longer starting and our back line is now being allowed to play to its strengths with fast accurate passing to the wider channels? It seems to be working but will be really stress tested against the physical French and Irish packs. Will be interesting to see if there is any move towards more ball-carrying from the likes of Gray, Gilchrist and Crosbie or if the defensive role continues to be prioritized. Any chance something similar for the backs and possibly a comparison with last years stats as that could really provide clues as to the coaches’ evolving thoughts

  3. Fascinating sir, from your analysis it looks as if my “want” of the forwards setting the platform for Finn R to have the space to work in, has been achieved.
    Crosbie 100% tackle rate in his 1st 2 6N…… fair play.
    France away is a greater challenge but almost a free hit….they won’t be comfortable playing against Russell and it will be very interesting if they simply try and out-play us.
    I advocated Dempsey starting v Wales but was proven wrong, however do we need the extra yards he makes against better opposition? Crosbie is very capable of making those yards too, but Dempsey has that footwork.

    1. I really think Townsend sets up the forwards to work tirelessly in defence and in attack to have a very narrow remit which is basically to carry hard and often close in to the ruck. Therefore buying space for the backs to exploit.

      Our backline is thereafter perfectly set up to make lots of metres once they’ve got space with a mix of brawn (VDM) and guile (Russell).

  4. Interesting stuff Scrummo thanks for the analysis. Somewhat surprised by Luke Crosbies stats, I thought he was pretty quiet. It’s almost like he is playing the traditional 6 role of doing a lot of the unseen grunt work and Jamie Ritchie is the 7 flashy stealer of ball.

  5. Correct & insightful re Crosbie, he’s much more to the fore for Edinburgh ………but no missed tackles and Finn getting plenty ball/space – the forwards must be doing something right.

  6. Thanks for the positive feedback lads. A lot of effort goes into this so good to know it’s interesting.

    The revisit at the end of the tournament should be even more so given we’ll be grand slam champions and will look to bring in the suggestions where possible.

    1. It’s very forensic, well presented and therefore very insightful.

      You work on this is much appreciated.

    2. Would be very nice to end up with a Grand Slam but I’d happily take the 6N title even if it included one lost Test.
      Thanks for your article.
      Watching (often) the highlights of our first two matches, it’s been good to see a pack keep its discipline, power, stamina and precision well into the final 15/20 minutes. We’ll definitely need the same on Sunday in SdF.
      It’ll be the first time in 24 years that we’ve gone there with something to play for. I was there in 1999 btw!

      1. And we never knew we had won till we got off the flight and watched Scott Gibbs score to allow us to win.

      2. I was there also.Watched the Wales/Eng match in a bar in Paris on the Sunday.Then the flight home on Monday was delayed for hours so missed the chance to go to the hastliy arranged trophy presentation held at Murrayfield late that afternoon.Happy days!

  7. A lot of noise about Toonie’s future, hopefully it doesn’t upset the apple cart too much, the tin foil hat wearer in me suspects that’s exactly why there is so much noise about it at the moment. It would be classic Scotland to go and win the 6N then get rid of our coach…

    1. Please don’t tempt fate with this talk of winning the 6N. Two swallows does not a summer make… I’m wearing a tin helmet ahead of both the France and Ireland game in anticipation of some incoming heavy artillery. Any talk of a Championship win is unjustified and rather too early to consider. Lets under-promise and over-deliver.

    2. A month ago, I’d have taken 2 wins in total from this Championship, hoping for more but expecting less – nobody would have been surprised if England had won at Twickenham, and Wales have been our nemesis so many times in the past. With Italy on the up we were probably staring down the barrel of a wooden spoon.
      Now with two wins – and bonus point wins at that – we can believe that we can compete with anyone.
      Townsend deserves the credit for building a squad that can win, and still play entertaining rugby, but mostly for building a squad with strength in depth. Whether he gets/takes an extension to his contract is premature, but he’s done enough so far to prove doubters wrong. So far so good.
      However, we lose to France and Ireland and thus come 3rd, then lose to Ireland and South Africa in the RWC and so go out…

    3. Looks like SRU is out selling the opportunity to possibles while the ‘high’ lasts…I guess we’ll see what happens but won’t hurt to have several good options on the table.

    4. Toonie has put us through it. Left Finn out a few years ago picked a few winners like Turncoat , I could go on. I am glad it is coming right, but if Toony asked the SRU for a whopping sum to stay, would it be justified ?

  8. re Toonie – its fine margins – 4 wins in 6 nations plus getting through the group stage in World cup would be exceptional – yet we are one loss away in each to end with a disappointment. Tricky to achieve but we are now at a stage where we must demonstrate that we can get to next level.
    Interesting times ahead – annoying that we are in a rubbish group in world cup

  9. Has anyone listened to Finn Russell on Rugby Union Daily?

    Fascinating and yet very open…I think he’s such a fine example for life and rugby….takes things in his stride and the insight he has with Townsend shows honesty and I think both men deserve credit. I don’t think I could give you another example of coach and player where it could be patched up. That took alot of humility on both sides.

    He said some interesting stuff about mindset against France….

    …main shift in this team is winning with stuff to fix…and if you look at any wining team that’s the case…it’s been a step forward with 3 wins with the way we’ve won especially. But win Sun we go into unchartered and that win can only bring belief to match against Ireland…2 years ago we had them and we let them off hook.

    Ireland are very very good but we have the tools to trouble them.

  10. Think it’s time for balance…a couple of good wins sure ..but we have still to play the two best teams. I think its way premature to talk about extending GTs contract at the first sniff of better times.
    It does seem like we are improving in both attack and defense after a long period of looking like we were regressing. If we can at least put up competitive performances against France and Ireland, even if we lose with small margins and beat Italy handily…it’s been a good 6N for us imo. It’s difficult to see past Ireland winning the 6N…if we could win that one it would be a huge statement going into the RWC.
    Our RWC group is pretty much the toughest we could have landed due to ridiculous early seedings. We’ll have to reach a level I don’t think Ive seen us play yet to get through.

    1. I do not agree and it is time for balance and accountanility.

      Our RWC group is pretty much the toughest we could have landed due to failing to get out of our group. Yes , we really made a mess of it.

      Toony said we were the fittest side in the tournament, yet we were burnt out. He took Duncan Taylor and played him bandaged like a mummy, we played a new brand of rugby ‘superfast rugby’. Which was actually super lethargic rugby.

      I see no point in not taking accountability for our own shortfalls. We just sleep walked into it.

      We got what we deserved in that RWC , whereas in 2015 we were denied progress by the most blatant refereeing howler in the history of rugby. I remain traumatized by it all.

      A tale of two coaches I believe.

      1. How can you say it’s time for balance and accountability and then harp on about Cotter? It’s irrelevant. For the most part, the people still banging on about Cotter are anti-SRU malcontents who see Townsend as Dodson’s man and therefore the enemy. Let’s leave petty politics at the door.

        Any fair assessment of Townsend will see achievements as well as some significant failures. He’s had a positive impact even if he has fallen well short of the summit. Let’s see how the rest of the 6N pans out. If he gets 4 wins he’s probably earned a 2 year contract extension to see if he can get us over the line. Otherwise, he’s had a good stint and there is a reasonable argument for a fresh approach, though it is by no means decisive. The RWC is basically irrelevant as long as our performances are positive.

        I would say it it unarguable that Scotland are playing the best rugby they have done in the entire 6N era at the moment. As always it isn’t just the head coach but the curious alchemy that happens between coaches, assistants, back room staff and players. Whatever is happening, it seems to be coming together at the moment and if that set up can be locked down we’d be taking a big risk to wipe the slate clean.

      2. I think you have misunderstood, read the comment again. I am not banging on at all.

        First thing : We made a mess of the last world cup but Ruggers wants to blame the group we are in on seeding .

        In my opinion that is not taking accountability or a balanced view and I put it out there that by not getting out the group we are culpable.

        Second: Townsend 2019 Scotland got what he deserved , Cotter’s 2015 Scotland did not IMO. Hardly banging on or anti anything, I am just pointing it out.

        In a nutshell, that is all I said The rest of your comment does not appear to be a counter argument to anything, but if you have time on your hands to tell us what we already know, no one will stop you.

        We know you have no interest in the world cup, you keep telling us, like an evangelical preacher. You will take interest this Autumn, you wont be able to stay away.

        Just enjoy the 6N , we are doing well, be united and enjoy the success, it could all change in 80 short minutes.

      3. No BassRock….I am not blaming our seeding solely on WROrg ..I totally think we did nothing to help ourselves in that last RWC. It was a car crash in slow mo. That said , as per my point ..imo the seedings process does nothing for teams who have improved considerably in that time frame..its an innacurate reflection of current form or even recent form.

      4. Well we better get used to it. Unless we can beat SA or Ireland we are going the same way this RWC and if they are consistent , early seedings again and we are stuck in a rut. Japan have our place now in the top 8. We were played but we are not victims, that is my point. We need to win our way out of that place,or maybe not , read on.

        I agree with FF, always have done on the RWC V 6 nations. Stuff the RWC where it belongs. Back in the Southern Hemisphere and put everything into the 6 nations. In fact just send the emerging players for training to the RWC. The 6 nations is the tournament and the RWC is the Southern Hemispheres wee side show.

        What do you think?

  11. Have to admit to agreeing with Bass Rock 100%, the 2019 RWC was a slow car crash from start to finish……. soooo many questionable decisions from top to bottom……. the 2015 SF haunts me to this day……..yes we are on the up now but if GT had listened to me (for the last 18 months) re Luke Crosbie and a 13 who could play who knows what results could’ve been had.
    Watched the full France v Scotland 2021 game today, absolutely fascinating to see what happens on Sunday.
    As for – For the most part, the people still banging on about Cotter are anti-SRU malcontents who see Townsend as Dodson’s man and therefore the enemy. Let’s leave petty politics at the door – nonsense, for me “it” simply felt better under Cotter

  12. FF steps in calling everyone else petty , meaaw. I rarely agree with that lump bass rock. We made a hash of it last world cup and we should learn from it, rather than avoid it. What is wrong with that. Decent challenge from no need for toxicity.

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