Scotland’s setpiece dominance key to victory

Murrayfield - home of Edinburgh Rugby

There is one crucial aspect in Scotland’s 12-8 victory over Ireland at Murrayfield yesterday which seems to have been largely overlooked. All the commentaries this morning have focused on how far behind Scotland were in terms of territory and possession while still managing to win the match. That was indeed true but, while Scotland were pulverised in terms of territory and possession, they won the battle at the setpiece and that was vital. What that proves is that a team can concede possession and territory and still win but a team is unlikely ever to win if it loses the battle at the scrum and lineout.

Scrums now seem more an opportunity to win penalties than anything else and, except for one notable example when the Scotland scrum went backwards (and two when the Scottish eight was pinged for early engagement and conceded free kicks) the Scottish pack was dominant. It was much the same story in the lineout. The Scottish forwards stole four Irish lineouts and two of these were crucial.

Twice Ireland opted to kick for the corner only to lose the subsequent throw ‘against the head’ when, had the Irish managed to catch and drive, they may well have come away with three points or even more.

So due credit should be given to the Scottish eight, not just for the ferocious tackling job they had to do during such long stretches without the ball but for winning the setpiece battle time and again.

Rugby Union - EMC Test Match - Scotland v Ireland - MurrayfieldRyan Grant at loosehead and Geoff Cross on the tighthead deserve particular praise, as does Jim Hamilton in the second row and Kelly Brown at seven.

The Irish may have been without three first choice scrummagers but it was a good Irish pack and, in the setpiece at least, it was made to look second best. It is worth bearing that in mind amid the thousands of words being penned to insist just how ‘lucky’ Scotland were.

Yes, they could easily have been beaten but they showed it is hard to beat any team which wins the tight forward exchanges – as Scotland did.

In many ways, though, Sunday’s match was reminiscent of other famous Scottish victories of recent years – either of the two recent defeats of Australia, for example. It was built on mean defence, heroic tackling and almost no possession or territory but with a willingness, though, to take the points when they were on offer. But where this victory was different was that it showed that Scotland have more to offer than they did in the past.

A fortnight ago, Scotland played fast, accurate, backline rugby and destroyed Italy in the process: on Sunday, the side dug deep to register the sort of victory which England enjoyed over in Dublin the round before. To beat Wales, they are likely to have to show both, the tenacity and bloody-mindedness of yesterday and the flare of the Italy game. To do that, Scotland are going to have to keep the ball in hand better and play the referee better.

One of the reasons Scotland were constantly on the back foot was the string of penalties awarded against them by referee Waynes Barnes who did his best to stop the match get going at any time.

When Scotland did get possession, more often than not it was kicked away. That was sometimes understandable given the places possession was gained, but Scotland always looked better when going through the phases and the team have to kick less and run more against Wales.

It has often been said that Scotland possess one of the best back threes in the championship – but they have to be brought into play, and not just by chasing high kicks. As far as the back three were concerned, all three had their worst games of the championship. Tim Visser looked hesitant when he got the ball and seemed to lack the confidence he has shown for years in taking the ball deep and running at opponents. Sean Maitland showed up well in defence but had almost nothing to do in attack while Stuart Hogg knocked on the first two high balls he had to cope with and looked a little uncertain in defence too. Similarly, Matt Scott – who has enjoyed a great Six Nations so far – was embarrassed by the lines that his opposite number Luke Marshall cut in the first half to leave Scott trailing.

Even Ruaridh Jackson at ten was not immune from criticism. He tackled well but, when he was replaced by Duncan Weir in the second half, the Scottish backline immediately had more zip and sparkle to it – something it had lacked conspicuously while Jackson had been running the game.

Given Cross’ immense performance on the tighthead, Scott Johnson has a tough call to make ahead of the Wales match. Does he reward Cross for his efforts and keep him in the side or does he bring back his chosen first-choice tighthead, Euan Murray, who didn’t play yesterday for religious reasons?

The rest of the pack picks itself once again but there is another call to made further out. Did Weir do enough to get a start against Wales or does Johnson simply stick with a winning team?

The coach’s instinct will be to stick with the side that held out so well yesterday but, to beat Wales, he may need both Murray and Weir on the pitch, and not just in the last ten minutes if Scotland are chasing the game by then.

The Welsh obviously think they can come to Murrayfield and win – anybody listening to the chat around the Wales-Italy game on the television on Saturday would have noticed how they all seemed to be jumping ahead to a championship-deciding match with England without really being worried about Murrayfield – but, given yesterday’s performance, they will not do so without a fight.

As far as Scots battling for Lions places are concerned: Kelly Brown enhanced his credentials by topping the tackle count, Ryan Grant edged his way closer (despite his harsh yellow card) and Jim Hamilton showed that there is still a place for big, bulky locks and not all second rows have to be in the athletic, Courtney Lawes/Richie Gray mould.