WELL, the secret is out. Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan are collaborating on a book entitled ‘Winning Rugby Without The Ball’. It was early days at Twickenham and we lost.
Plans were more developed against Italy and we won. Something approaching perfection was achieved on Sunday, and, if progress continues we’ll beat Wales handsomely with no more than ten per cent of possession. What makes it better still is the Johnson-Ryan bluff about competing vigorously at the breakdown.
Seriously however, it’s extremely difficult to do that against Ireland. When they take the ball into the tackle, a couple of players throw themselves to the ground, Munster-style, either side of the ball-carrier, while two others come in directly behind him to secure possession. Strictly speaking the first pair are not interfering with play because they are not off their feet over the ball. What they are doing is making efficient counter-rucking very difficult. Consequently it usually makes sense not to compete in these circumstances, preferring to keep your defensive line strong. This is what Scotland did, and very effectively, too.
There were many after the match who thought Ireland deserved to win because they “played all the rugby”. Conversely, any team with so much possession and territory that fails to score tries or kick penalties deserves to lose. As it happens, Scotland kept the head while Ireland lost theirs. The Irish decision to go for the corner in an attempt to score a try when they got a penalty in front of the posts four minutes from the end, and were four points behind, was evidence of scrambled brains. A year or two ago Ireland or Munster would have taken the points, backing themselves to secure the restart, work the ball up-field and either win another penalty or have Ronan O’Gara drop a goal. That’s what I feared they would do. It was a relief to see them go for touch.
Some blame Ireland’s young fly-half Paddy Jackson for the defeat. Certainly he missed three kicks out of four, but two were very difficult. In the first half his captain Jamie Heaslip twice – or three times? – denied him the chance to kick a goal from an easier position, choosing instead to go for the corner. All the statistics indicate that when teams are evenly matched, the odds are against scoring a try from there. The odds were proved right and Heaslip was proved wrong.
Others were surprised that Scotland had so little of the ball even though they dominated both set-pieces. The Scottish set scrum was indeed terrific, but the legislators in their cock-eyed way have so arranged things that the set scrum has become a means of winning a penalty rather than launching a handling attack. The look of surprise – indignation? – on Johnnie Beattie’s face on one occasion when Wayne Barnes declined to award a penalty as the Scotland scrum advanced, and so he had to pick the ball up, told the story.
We did very well at the line-out, Jim Hamilton and Rob Harley both stealing Irish throws, but we rarely got the good ball off the top which allows the scrum-half to move it quickly. So we had to maul most times and our maul rarely made much of an advance and even more rarely at speed. Laidlaw therefore had little choice but to send up a series of box-kicks, which usually resulted in Ireland regaining possession; this emphasised their statistical superiority.
Of course, as is often said, a kick is only as good as the chase, and it was noticeable that the chase was better when Laidlaw was kicking up the right touchline rather than the left, probably because Sean Maitland is a more complete rugby player than Tim Visser.
Some thought Harley fortunate not to be yellow-carded when in chasing a kick he tackled Peter O’Mahoney in the air. I thought the penalty was the right decision and sufficient punishment because O’Mahoney was descending from the heights and was at most a couple of feet off the ground when Harley hit him. The really dangerous tackle is when the jumper is at the height of his leap. But I daresay I might have thought differently if the roles had been reversed and it was O’Mahoney who felled Harley.
Well, we have two wins out of three, and this victory was well deserved in the end, because all the players kept their nerve and composure, didn’t allow themselves to be unsettled by the ease with which Ireland made a couple of early line-breaks or the occasional missed tackle, and struck hard when opportunities at last presented themselves. All the same it should be said that this win was achieved by a fully committed defensive display, and was therefore like a couple of recent Calcutta Cup victories at Murrayfield, and defeats of South Africa and Australia.
The game was won on the back foot. Let us hope that we get on the front foot against Wales and that Johnson and Ryan can re-title their handbook simply as ‘Winning Rugby’. Hamilton was fully entitled to the man of the match award, because he put in a tremendous display, but he must have been run close by his blood-spattered captain Kelly Brown and by the coolest and least flustered man of the 40 or so who took the field, little Greig Laidlaw.