It seems a little redundant to talk tactics and strategy with an elephant in the room or, in Finn Russell’s case, an elephant not in the room. His revelation in a Sunday newspaper that he had zero relationship with Scotland boss Gregor Townsend despite working with him both at Glasgow and at international level for several years is revealing and depressing in equal measure.
The Scotland 10 is an interesting character, running far deeper than the “daft laddie” persona he sometimes projects. One insider was stunned by the stand-off’s attention to detail and his tactical intelligence but no one to date has suggested that Russell is some sort of shrieking diva, although his protestations “I need to do this for myself” come perilously close.
Rugby is now a job of work and in our nine-to-fives we have all learned to rub along with bedfellows we might ordinarily cross the street to avoid. You have to wonder why Townsend failed to build bridges with one of the few star players in Scotland’s squad? Was it as simple as jealousy? Perhaps now the dam has broken we will hear a few more “revelations” although not, obviously, from anyone on Murrayfield’s payroll, no matter how cathartic that would prove.
The drama off the field does not seem to have affected the performance on it, although Russell’s tactical awareness that we talked about has been missed. Scotland have been much improved from the World Cup, where regulation wins over Russia (recently beaten 31-12 by Spain) and Samoa (a shadow of their former selves) were hyped to the rafters by people who should know better.
It was revealing that Townsend used the “f” word in the build up to the Ireland game… “fun”. Perhaps he realised a tendency in himself to add to pressure his players felt? It seems to have worked because the players have put bodies on the line for their coach in the opening two matches.
You can argue about the team’s tactical nous – and we will – but the commitment is still there. The fact that the Scots missed just seven tackles on England in the entire match suggests that the team spirit is good, although that camaraderie becomes increasingly difficult to maintain following every successive defeat.
The two teams defended very differently on Saturday. England like to man the front line with 14 players, leaving full-back George Furbank to cover the entire backfield, even when Scotland had the wind at their backs. They were using it regularly and England still showed them deep space.
The Scots habitually drop two men back, Adam Hastings and Stuart Hogg and, in addition, the openside winger is anything between five and 15 metres behind the front line depending on what he thinks the opposition is going to do. He can even influence what the other team does. Wingers will drop a little in the hope that the opposition stand-off runs the ball before sprinting into the line to fill the hole they briefly vacated. The opposite is also true, standing high to persuade the opposition to kick the ball.
England’s aggressive defence continued when the Scots were pounding their try line at the start of the second half. Full-back Furbank was actually employed on the right flank, a few yards behind the line, but Willi Heinz was in that front line rather than employed in the scrum-half’s habitual role as sweeper.
The result of this aggressive defence was that there was acres of space behind the English line, most of which was in the English dead-ball area.
Scoring tries has proved a difficult business for this Scotland team when up against a well organised defence – they have spent a total of 11 minutes inside the opposition 22 without scoring a try in this championship.
In the absence of any training field moves to unlock England, Scotland don’t pack the requisite power to go through the opposition, so Saturday’s match was crying out for someone – Hastings or half-back partner Ali Price – to dink or grubber the ball behind the English defence and utilise those deep dead-ball areas that Murrayfield offers. That is exactly how Romain Ntamack created France’s first try against Italy yesterday.
It is the sort of tactical awareness that is meat and drink to the elephant across the water.