While Scotland began their Six Nations with a 15-8 loss to France, their attacking approach was eye-catching. We analyse where they will look to hurt Wales on Sunday.
It may not come as consolation to Scotland fans – in fact, most fiercely nationalistic ones will probably refuse to entertain the notion – but Vern Cotter’s side can be hugely encouraged by how their predicament mirrors that of England 12 months ago.
A year back, Chris Robshaw and co. suffered a single-score reverse in Paris after playing a great deal of attractive attacking rugby, only to be somewhat suffocated at the breakdown. Concentration lapses cost them and a gut-wrenching defeat ensued.
However, they rallied admirably and earned a return of four wins. It will not be easy – especially in light of next month’s trip to Twickenham – but there is absolutely no reason why Scotland cannot aim for something similar.
In parts, their performance at the Stade de France encompassed some of the slickest back play over the opening Six Nations weekend despite going down 15-8. Here are some facets to build on when Wales arrive in Edinburgh on Sunday.
Clermont‘s Camille Lopez was the subject of many column inches in the lead-up to last weekend, and preposterously won the official man-of-the-match award from French broadcasters. However, Finn Russell more than held his own, demonstrating assertive awareness throughout.
His first contribution, a gorgeous clip into touch via a skim of the playing surface, set the tone nicely:
The Glasgow Warrior then went about introducing himself as a gain-line threat, this half-break so nearly slicing open France minutes later:
Scanning is the key here. As Russell receives the pass from Greig Laidlaw, he sees tight-five forwards standing in the defensive line and takes them on.
Calling blindside wing Tim Visser onto his left, he keeps the ball in two hands, therefore sewing seeds of indecision in the minds of Philippe Saint-André‘s men.
Watch how flat-footed Yoann Maestri is, watching Visser (who incidentally loses his footing anyway) as Russell bypasses him:
A closer look at the moment the line is broken gives an idea of Russell’s physical attributes. Pascal Papé only just shackles him:
Most refreshing about Russell’s approach, which was also in plain view during Glasgow’s recent defeat to Bath, is his constant willing to take on opponents.
With Scotland a score behind as the clock headed into the final five minutes, this chip-and-chase almost created something spectacular from a loose ball in his own 22:
Russell will be an integral figure at Murrayfield. While flashes of off-the-cuff brilliance may prove pivotal though, his powers of organisation and decision-making are more important.
Dunbar and Bennett set the structure
Midfield mates and fellow Warriors Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett have started this tournament in an extremely influential mood, and their combination on 25 minutes offered a great insight into Scotland‘s set-up:
But while Dunbar’s flat cut-out pass and Bennett’s pacey outside arc are impressive, the entire attack merits a second look. First, watch a screenshot from previous phase.
As Ross Ford prepares to catch at first-receiver, Dunbar is already thinking one ruck ahead, manoeuvring Rob Harley, John Beattie and Blair Cowan in a primary wave 20 metres infield:
In a movement used almost universally in world rugby now, the ball eventually comes wide via this pod of forwards.
Russell hits Beattie, who keeps the French defenders honest before finding Dunbar behind him. The inside centre can then distribute wider, where Dougie Fife is calling for the ball. Three intelligent, accurate passes have given Scotland an outside edge:
A different pattern created the initial momentum for the only try of the game:
Again Dunbar and Bennett are the most prominent protagonists, but more striking is how Scotland cut France apart with a neatly-executed team movement.
This time, we see a simple slice, loosehead prop Alasdair Dickinson hitting a hard line as Dunbar slides in behind to take Russell’s pass:
Dickinson cuts off Papé isolates Lopez and presents him with a quandary – shoot out or stay soft and shepherd Dunbar towards touch. He opts for the former:
Dunbar shifts the ball on too quickly and only excellent scrambling from the hosts stops a try. In the same movement though, the red wall was breached:
Hogging the limelight
One man who owes his nation a decent display on Sunday is Stuart Hogg. Last season’s contest in Cardiff against Wales will forever conjure painful memories for the full-back, a rush of blood and a red card helping bring about a 51-3 thrashing for Scotland.
Luckily, he seems in the right form to redeem himself. His opening salvo was this searing break:
Like Russell before him, this comes about from a classic mis-match as Hogg spies tighthead prop Rabah Slimani and Maestri:
Another clean break followed soon afterwards, this time from deeper as Lopez cleared deep:
In many ways, this is a copybook counter-attack. Beattie claims and wastes no time in moving the ball infield, from where Hogg can assess his options.
Identifying retreating Scotland teammates, Hogg heads off in their direction to capitalise on the confusion. Again, Dickinson (circled) is very clever in blocking a would-be tackler and his full-back can bend round to manufacture a two on-one with Visser opposite Yoann Huget:
Close to the breakdown and from deep then, Wales must be wary of Hogg. But he is also a handful in and outside the outside centre channel. Here, Scotland have front-foot ball from a strong Dunbar surge:
Visser is set clear with a sublime through-the-legs pass. The ball went loose in the next contact, but it is worth another look – if only for how non-plussed Huget must have felt:
Not all of Scotland’s back play was flawless, of course. This last attack ended their challenge on a damp squib as Visser and Bennett could not link up to take advantage of some more promising play from Russell:
Even so, Wales are in for a very tough time. If they hesitate or err in defence, Scotland will have a field day out wide. We are in for a hugely intriguing afternoon.