Fraser Brown: Where Scotland went wrong in Rome, areas to target Ireland, slim chance of winning Six Nations

Scotland and Glasgow Warriors hooker writes exclusively for The Scotsman

Amid all the doom and gloom of Rome, we mustn’t lose sight of the huge game that is taking place this weekend in Dublin.

Theoretically, Scotland can still win the title. They would need to beat Ireland by 39 points, deny them a bonus point and hope the France v England result goes in their favour, but there’s a chance, however slim it may be. But they can also finish fifth. So it’s a massive week for this Scotland team. It’s about how they bounce back against the side I consider to be the best in the world and who they haven’t beaten in nine attempts.

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While everyone is picking over what happened against Italy, the players can’t afford to do that. They have to move on quickly and focus on Dublin, a city Scotland haven’t won in since 2010.

Stephen Varney scores Italy's third try in the 31-29 win over Scotland despite the efforts of Jack Dempsey and Andy Christie. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)Stephen Varney scores Italy's third try in the 31-29 win over Scotland despite the efforts of Jack Dempsey and Andy Christie. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)
Stephen Varney scores Italy's third try in the 31-29 win over Scotland despite the efforts of Jack Dempsey and Andy Christie. (Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images)

The team collectively just seemed to have an off day in Rome which is something we’ve not seen from a Scotland side for a while. The hardest thing after a game like that is how you recover mentally. You can’t dwell on it. You can’t agonise over what you should have done differently. When it’s a quick turnaround, as it is this week, you can’t sit around and think ‘what if?’ As depressing as last Saturday was, you have to move on.

I was sure Scotland would beat Italy but I didn’t really understand the decision to rest Ben White. I felt Scotland needed to play their strongest team and that’s no slight on George Horne who I thought played well. And I thought they should have had another back on the bench, a centre, in case they needed to change things there. Stafford McDowall would have been my choice and if it were me, he’d be starting at 12 this week against Bundee Aki.

It was pretty hectic at the start against Italy, the tempo was high and there were offloads all over the place. It was helter-skelter stuff. But to be 22-10 up, as Scotland were, and not appreciate the need to shut the game down in that period 10 minutes before half-time was disappointing. I know I’m writing with the benefit of hindsight but they should have been looking to maybe nick another penalty and get to the break with a decent lead. But they conceded two penalties and, instead, it was 22-16 at half-time.

It’s easy when you’re not involved to criticise, but at times there seemed a lack of respect for the ball, of how hard you have to work to get hold of it. The start was good in terms of the points scored, all off the back of hard direct carrying, good physical work at the breakdown and a lightning speed of ball, but then it required a little pragmatism. Someone needed to say, ‘Let’s get to half-time with a 12 or 15-point lead and we can go in, take on some more messages and look at how we attack the second half’.

After the break Scotland again started brightly scoring what they thought to be the bonus point try but after it was disallowed the whole team seemed to shrink in confidence.

What then followed was a procession of soft penalties in the second half. Sam Skinner was two metres offside from a box kick, Scott Cummings hooked an arm at a lineout, and there were a couple of unlucky ones as well.

I felt the decision to chalk off George Horne’s try was really soft. Pierre Schoeman was adjudged to have obstructed Ross Vintcent in the build-up but, for me, that shouldn’t have been disallowed. France scored against Wales on Sunday with exactly the same sorts of running lines and blocking. Pierre should have been a little more cute and not initiated the contact but the Italy No 8’s play acting was embarrassing to watch.

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It was a big moment but it doesn’t legitimise Scotland’s capitulation after that. The mindset should have been, ‘that’s how easy it is to score, let’s go and get another one’. The team collectively just seemed to have an off day which is something we’ve not seen from a Scotland team for quite a while. They now have to go out and believe that their best rugby will beat Ireland and think about how to construct that game.

Ireland don’t lose very often and it’ll be fascinating to see how they respond to the England defeat. It’s very different to when they lost to New Zealand at the World Cup. That was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. That wasn’t the case at the weekend at Twickenham. England-Ireland was a good game of rugby and England did enough to put away an Irish side who didn’t quite hit the heights they needed to.

Ireland will recover quickly. They’ll believe it was a one-off and that they can go out against Scotland and play their natural game, which they weren’t allowed to do against England. England did a really good job of frustrating Ireland around the contact area and that will be a big focus for Scotland. Defensively, Ireland weren’t able to slow up the speed of England’s ball which they’ve done against Scotland in the past.

It’s going to be hard for Scotland. Ireland will bounce back so how do the Scots nullify them? The World Cup match against Ireland will still be in Scotland’s heads because they didn’t really perform that night in Paris.

I think Scotland will look to go after the Irish at the lineout. When Ireland are unable to get their set-plays working off of lineout ball they sometimes struggle. They can find it difficult to get into their attacking flow. They like to launch plays off their lineout because it gives them the speed of ball required. They are a very systemic team. Every player knows which ruck they’re supposed to be at so it gives them clarity. England managed to disrupt a couple of their lineouts on Saturday and it stopped Ireland’s momentum in the second half, so I think Scotland will target that.

They will also have to do a job at scrum-time. Andrew Porter is a very powerful and very effective scrummager whether or not you believe he’s always legal. Ireland’s scrum used to be all about Tadhg Furlong but now Porter is key. Furlong’s job now is to anchor down the tighthead side and allow Porter to be aggressive so there’s a big job there to not allow Ireland a platform into the game.

Italy’s attack shape at the weekend was similar to Ireland’s. Their forwards were tight and took the ball to the line, the release player out the back was well tucked and Scotland couldn’t bring a lot of line speed.

Scotland seemed to get caught quite narrow in their phase play which meant they ended up chasing any time the ball went out the back of that forward pod to midfield. And when they got quick ball off the back of that Scotland found it difficult to get back on the front foot so that’s a bit of a concern because there’s no-one better at running that shape than Ireland. They’ve been doing it for a number of years and they’re brilliant at it.

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The other concern is Scotland seemed to struggle with their phase attack in Rome against a team that is not particularly aggressive but brings decent line speed in midfield. The wide passes from Finn Russell, whether they were to the centres or the forward carriers, didn’t get them any momentum because of the Italian line speed in midfield. They didn’t compete at the rucks so could have numbers on feet and filled the line and came up quite hard and shut down the Scottish space. Scotland’s attack looked a little one-dimensional. It was a case of trying to get the ball into someone’s hands, hope they can create something then try to play something a bit unstructured off the back of that.

It’s a concern because that Simon Easterby-driven Irish defence has been incredible over the last couple of years. If Scotland can’t get momentum and front-foot ball around those midfield collisions it’s hard to see how they’re going to manage to break Ireland down.



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