Iain Morrison: Breakdown woes leaves Scotland in a spin

Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson. Picture: TSPL
Scotland interim coach Scott Johnson. Picture: TSPL
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I once went white water rafting on the Zambezi although by rights that should read “in” rather than on the river.

It was plain sailing until we got to the violent rapids known as “the washing machine” because once you are in their grip they give you a quick spin cycle before spitting you back out and those are the lucky ones.

It’s a while since I’ve been caught up in an international match breakdown, rugby’s equivalent of the washing machine, where the laws of physics are temporarily suspended in favour of the law of the jungle, but I imagine it must be a similar experience; at least it was for the Scots on Saturday at Twickenham. Arms, legs and various body parts are in complete turmoil and there is an almost total inability to assert any control over the mayhem.

Like all coaches, Scott Johnson will pore over the video of Saturday’s defeat but he already knows what went wrong because he pinpointed the key problem immediately after the match. “Our contact area with and without the ball was poor. It’s simple. It’s no coincidence that the best team in the world is the best in the contact area. We weren’t bullied, we just didn’t get it right. A lot of it is positioning and technique.”

Forget the economy, it’s the breakdown stupid. The breakdown is broken, or rather Scotland’s ability to compete in this key area looks in need of a service if not a complete overhaul. When he arrived in Scotland it was one of the things that Dean Ryan targeted for improvement. The forward coach still has work to do and Italy, who are not exactly shy in this department, will come to Murrayfield buoyed by a marvellously physical performance against France yesterday. In the first half alone the Azzurri had snatched three turnovers and they gave nothing away to a powerful French pack. Scotland have been warned.

Getting the breakdown right is fiendishly difficult. The perfect player requires the slide rule precision of a quantum physicist, the cunning of a pickpocket, the courage of a rodeo rider and the flexibility of a yoga master, all rolled into a superman physique. Oh, and once you have all the above the poor player still needs to borrow Stephen Fry’s brain just to understand the labyrinthine laws that govern this area. The official match data insist that neither team won any turnovers on Saturday which suggests that the man compiling the figures was napping on the job or, just possibly, was Scottish. It’s tricky without the data to hand but I’d estimate that England won at least twice as many turnovers at the breakdown as Scotland did even though Stuart Hogg’s second-half try was the direct result of a Kelly Brown steal. But England bossed more than just the turnovers, they bossed the collisions right from the start when the tone of the afternoon was set by Joe Marler who ran right over the top of Tim Visser in the opening play. From that moment on England won the battle of the contact zone, they went forward and the blue shirts went backwards more often than not, which has implications right across the game.

Scotland were constantly under the cosh which is why, according to Johnson, they conceded almost twice as many penalties as England did (12 to seven) and Owen Farrell filled his boots with four first-half penalties, keeping England’s nose ahead when, without points on the scoreboard and after Scotland’s opening try, they might have panicked. With England winning the collisions it meant that the Scots line speed in defence (the pace at which they get off the line to meet the attacking side) was slowed to snail’s pace, which is why Billy Twelvetrees had no trouble barging his way over the line. The tackle was made, but it needed to be made five metres further from the line to stop the score.

England winning the collisions was at least one of the reasons that Ruaridh Jackson was charged down because the white shirts are moving forward and on the front foot. A big hit gives the defending team a chance to slow the ball and ready themselves to sprint up to make the next challenge. It’s a virtuous cycle or a vicious one if you end upon the wrong side of it.

The odd thing is that this used to be Scotland’s forte and we are not talking ancient history. When Andy Robinson’s team beat Ireland in Dublin the “Killer Bs” backrow of John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown gave their much-vaunted opposition a lesson in poaching. Two years ago at Twickenham John Barclay was the hero of the hour and 20 minutes as he made a damned nuisance of himself all afternoon and when Scotland beat England at Murrayfield back in 2006 their main, at times only, source of possession came from Ally Hogg’s numerous turnovers.

There is no-one very obvious to come into the squad to bolster their work at the breakdown although Barclay may be back in contention before the end of the tournament. Johnson might be tempted to replace the injured Alasdair Strokosch with Rob Harley rather than starting David Denton. Harley is a smart player and an awkward one for the opposition and the Scots need both of those things in spades next Saturday.