This is the wall, the defensive line which stretches across the pitch, a wall which is hard to penetrate and which denies space to the side in possession of the ball. How do you breach it? Occasionally, there is what we call a mismatch, when a talented runner, Finn Russell for example, spies a narrow space between two bulky front-row forwards and, with a dummy pass, slips through the smallest of gaps. But this is rare. More often one sees players batter at the wall, trying to force their way through into the open space behind it, and a first failure to do so will then be followed by a succession of pick-and-drives until eventually, one way or another, possession is surrendered.
This battering-ram rugby may be impressive in its power and commitment, but it is usually boring. As the great Sergio Parisse said in a recent interview, “to take the ball and charge into a wall is to lose the essence of the sport”.
So what do you do if there is no mismatch? The wall is formidable. Statistics show that props and locks often now make more tackles than other players. They do so because they are stout and efficient defenders of the wall.
Well, you can try to outflank it by quick passing and getting the ball to the wing. This was the classical way of playing before the wall stretched across the field.
It rarely works if you try this from first-phase possession because the wall is quickly constructed, though one feels it might be effective if there is a quick heel from a set scrum and, rather than having the No 8 pick up to drive into the defence, the scrumhalf is able to move the ball away with a fast pass to his fly-half. Yet moving the ball wide to outflank what is often a blitz defence is more often effective only after a turnover when the wall hasn’t yet been formed.
If you can’t outflank it or go through it, then you must try to go beyond it by a chip or grubber kick in midfield, a diagonal kick-pass to the wing, or a steepling Garry owen under the posts or, from further out, aimed to land just short of the 22. Of course any kick risks losing possession and critical fans may moan about “kicking the ball away”, but the fact is that, faced with the nigh-impenetrable wall, intelligent kicking is now often the best form of attack.
France have been the best team in the tournament so far, and they have kicked in attack more than anyone else.
Their outstanding young halves, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack have kicked intelligently and accurately and tries have resulted, either directly from the kick or because the defence has been put under pressure in the space deep behind the wall.
Scotland, in contrast, have scored only three tries, all against Italy, in their three games, despite having enjoyed lots of possession and territory. The reason for this poor return is that, for too much of the time, we have battered at the wall and ignored the space behind. We have played conservative rugby and it has delivered little.
France will deservedly start favourites tomorrow afternoon. Winning in Cardiff will have given their confidence a boost; we, more than anyone, know how hard it is to do that. They played with more imagination than Wales and they defended as one now expects any team whose defence is organised by Shaun Edwards to do. Yet the Scottish defence has also been very good, with only two tries conceded, one against Ireland and one, a rather fortuitous one, against England.
If the weather has at last relented, this should be a fine and entertaining match, as indeed Scotland-France matches usually are. Gregor Townsend and his coaches will have remarked that France have started every match brilliantly, scoring early tries. But they will also have observed that in all three games they have been better in the first half than the second. Italy scored three tries against them after being well behind. England and Wales both finished the match battering at the French line and England kicked a late penalty to salvage a losing bonus point.
Meanwhile, the England-Wales match at Twickenham has an immediate interest for us, since, all being well, fingers crossed, with regard to the coronavirus, we are due to go to Cardiff next week. If England win this afternoon Wales will have lost three games in a row and might be somewhat unsettled when they line up against us. Well, perhaps.