Allan Massie: The definition of insanity

Pat MacArthur, centre, is stopped in his tracks in the match against Toulouse. Picture: Getty
Pat MacArthur, centre, is stopped in his tracks in the match against Toulouse. Picture: Getty
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How do you score tries against well-organised defences? Toulouse and Glasgow both have the ability, and usually the 
desire, to attack; but in the two matches each side scored only one try.

One might qualify this by saying that Toulouse came to Scotstoun in a defensive frame of mind, and since they were never behind, had no great incentive to play more adventurously. Glasgow, on the other hand were determined to attack. They dominated possession for much of the match – much of both matches actually – and spent long periods in the Toulouse 22 without ever crossing the line. Indeed they didn’t often look like doing so.

Though they didn’t play 
exactly as they had in Toulouse, moving the ball more often 
between the forwards, nevertheless they kept on doing the same thing time and again, doing it well, but not well enough. Occasionally their handling let them down, but not very often. One might say their mistakes were in the head rather than in the hands.

The closest they came to scoring was when Henry Pyrgos threaded a left-foot grubber which bounced just the wrong way for Tommy Seymour, going into touch rather than into his arms five or six yards from the line. I think he would have scored if the bounce had 
favoured him.

In Rugby League an awful lot of tries are scored from a chip or grubber kick which puts the ball behind the flat-lying blanket defence. Admittedly the 5-tackle law of that code means that you can’t go through a long succession of phases, but must either kick or surrender possession. Nevertheless, now that defence in Union is organised on League lines, players who are thinking for themselves should be alert to how so many tries are scored in League. It is usually only when you have a distinct physical advantage up front that repeated bludgeoning will result in a score. But Glasgow were outweighed by Toulouse who were also immensely strong at the tackle point and so repeatedly denied Glasgow quick ball.

Tries are scored by moving the ball wide in the 22 even against good sides, but this usually happens only when their defence has been over-committed and either space appears or there is a mismatch – prop forward defending against a fast, light-footed back, for instance. In other circumstances moving the ball wide within 20 yards of the opposition try-line rarely brings a good result, and increases the chance of being turned over. So, for safety’s sake, scrum-halves will often work the blindside, even when it is so congested that there is no chance of breaking through unless a defender falls off a tackle. You may not score but you are less likely to lose possession.

When teams are evenly matched, three-quarters often have more chance of making a break from deep, within their own half , than in the opposition 22. Indeed there may be better opportunities to run the ball from their own 22 than when they are in the opposition’s. Last Sunday some of the most dangerous attacks by the Clermont-Auvergne backs against Munster started there. Of course, this can be risky – an interception by their replacement hooker gave Munster their only try.

The other kick which can be productive is the diagonal to the wing, and this produced Clermont’s third try, Lopez’s kick being perfectly judged and delivered as soon as he saw that Munster were for once rather narrow in defence. It looked the easiest of scores, and indeed it was, but it was created by the fly-half’s perception of what was on, his ability to read the game.

In short, teams should be readier than Glasgow were to try something different when what they have been doing isn’t producing results. Patience is, of course, a virtue and it is often right to go through repeated phases in the hope, or even expectation, that eventually the defence will be wrong-footed and out of position, and a gap will appear. It’s understandable too that players are reluctant to risk losing possession – as they will often do when they kick. But the fact is that, no matter how many phases you go through, you will eventually surrender possession if you don’t score a try. So, if you aren’t getting anywhere with ball in hand, it makes sense to do something different. In any case, a switch of tactics asks a different question of the opposition, and means that they may have to rethink their defensive structure.

The two defeats were disappointing and mean that Glasgow will have to win against Bath away and Montpellier at home, probably with a bonus point in one of these matches, to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the three best second-placed pool teams. Given that Bath will be able to field a stronger side than they did in the first game, this is a tough proposition. It’s likely that Glasgow will have to target the Montpellier game as a five -pointer.

Finally, there was a remarkable incident in the Leinster-Harlequins match. At the first Harlequins scrum, the ball was heeled quickly and immediately released by the number 8. Consequently, Danny Care was able to collect it on the move and make a sharp break up the right-hand side of the scrum. It was just like old times – the sort of break that Roy Laidlaw used to make 30 years ago – and everyone was taken by surprise. So it can be done. The scrum can still provide quick possession and the chance to run with the ball. Who’d have thought it?