I was chatting to an English rugby man recently. He has done pretty much everything there is to do in the game and he knows which welly goes on which foot.
We were discussing a coach who he didn’t rate, whose rugby philosophy he dismissed with one damning phrase: “Give it to Carruthers on the wing”. We weren’t talking about Gregor Townsend, but we could have been.
The first unwritten rule of rugby is this: If you allow the opposition to bully you into submission, they will. The second rule is: You have to earn the right to go wide. Townsend ignored both and Scotland paid the price.
The Scots constantly shipped the ball wide before the forwards had not got onto the front foot or the Irish defence had been stressed, which is why the Irish backs won three or four turnovers in the first half alone, usually when Stuart Hogg found himself isolated in the wider channels.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the game from a Scottish perspective was the lack of any penetration from the backs. This is Townsend’s specialist subject yet he lost the coaching battle with Joe Schmidt hands down.
Scotland like the “out the back” play when the ball is pulled back to the player running the “unders” line. (Apologies for the jargon). Indeed Scotland like the play so much they do almost nothing but play “out the back”. I don’t know Scotland’s percentages when it comes to hitting short or playing out the back but, here’s the thing, I’ll bet Schmidt does.
If you never hit the “lead runner” on the gain line to keep the Irish defence honest, they will play the percentages and jump out the line to clobber the “unders” man exactly as Jacob Stockdale did to Hogg on 34 minutes.
The irony of that incident was that the “lead runner” Duncan Taylor was given a huge hole because Garry Ringrose makes a rare mistake and jams in on Russell, leaving a yawning gap outside for Taylor...who doesn’t get the ball.
Russell wasn’t the only culprit, skipper Stuart McInally had one of those days that he will want to forget. He seemed unable to inspire his team whose body language was awful and McInally was partly to blame for a missed tackle on Iain Henderson that led directly to Ireland’s opening try. But it wasn’t entirely his fault.
As a general rule of thumb the further you are from the breakdown, the wider the spacing is between defenders. From an Irish breakdown Henderson runs through a gap between McInally and Grant Gilchrist that looks upon first inspection as if the Scotland skipper has simply lined up too wide, until you look again.
Two forwards are expected to “wrap around” the breakdown (i.e. in this instance move from the blind side to the open side) to replace the tacklers on the floor. In this instance no one wraps. WP Nel thinks about it but changes his mind midway while Hamish Watson makes no attempt to wrap.
McInally believes that he will be third/fourth defender on the open side and adjusts the gap between him and Gilchrist accordingly only to discover too late that no one has wrapped and he is the second defender. Henderson is through the gap before the hooker can adjust.
It is a game of small margins that was a big moment leading directly to Ireland’s opening try. Even then the Scots make another mistake on their goal line. Jonny Gray wraps round the breakdown but leaves Hamish Watson, Scotland’s smallest forward, as first defender instead of pushing him wider and the flanker has no chance of stopping James Ryan from point blank range.
However McInally was at fault for Furlong’s try where the Scotland skipper, standing on the Scotland goal line, targets the wrong attacker and leaves Jonny Gray to halt the giant tighthead and Rory Best on his own.
And finally Townsend’s insistence on fielding a number eight in the backfield when the opposition have the ball helped Ireland claim their bonus point try when Ryan Wilson spilled a high ball and Andrew Conway dived over in the corner one play later.
Most teams hide their flyhalf in the backfield because he can kick the ball should he find himself isolated. Townsend prefers a number eight and the tactic has bitten him on the backside once before. When Matt Fagerson made his debut against the USA Eagles last summer, his mistake under a high ball led directly to an Eagles’ try in a match the home side won by one point.
Throughout the Ireland game Townsend kept a stony face in the coaches’ box, muttering into the mic from time to time. I think I know what he was saying.