With the 2018 Six Nations Championship in the books, I am publishing report cards based on my data and observations.
While Scotland have received praise for their style of play during this Six Nations Championship, there is still a long way to go particularly defensively. The way Scotland attack is very exciting but they still lag behind England, France, Ireland and Wales in terms of creating opportunities which take them into the opposition 22. Arguably, Scotland’s risky way of attacking may help create opportunities for their opposition via pass intercepts and other thrown away possession. Scotland allows the opposition into the Scottish “red zone” far too much compared to the teams they want to challenge.
Scotland won three of their five matches in the 2018 Six Nations Championship but needed to come back from at least 10 points behind against both France and Italy to claim two of those victories. Some will point to this being a sign of their “battling” qualities but few teams come back from a deficit of 10 or more and even fewer do it regularly. There should be concern in Scotland that they are needing to, particularly when considering that opposition teams entered the Scotland 22 more than eight-and-a-half times per match during the Six Nations.
In the two matches Scotland lost, against Wales and Ireland, the first try scored against them was from a pass interception in their opponents’ half. These “gifts”, particularly early on in matches need to be cut out. Another risky looking pass, Finn Russell’s long pass to Huw Jones deep in Scotland’s own half against England, has been praised and it was spectacular. However, only a tiny bit of imprecision on a pass like this will put it into an opponent’s hands with a clear run at the try-line. It looks great but is it too risky?
Even with this high risk and exciting play, Scotland only entered their opponents’ 22 six times per match on average. This is simply not enough for a team wanting to challenge the best in the world as is illustrated by Italy being the only team to enter the opposition 22 on fewer occasions than Scotland in the 2018 Six Nations. Scotland remedied this to an extent by being the third most effective team once in the 22, scoring 2.67 points per visit. Again though, a really elite attacking team should be converting these chances into at least 3 points each time. These figures combined with the risks taken to get them probably make Scotland too vulnerable.
The 43 breaches of the Scotland 22 in this Six Nations Championship are a big issue if Scotland are going to improve. This was about 60% more than the best defences (Ireland, France and Wales) with only Italy allowing opponents into their 22 more frequently. The 2.56 points conceded by Scotland on average after an opponent went into the Scottish 22 doesn’t look too bad on the face of it but that figure in such a small sample of matches is heavily influenced by England’s toothless attack at Murrayfield.
Opposition teams crossing the 22 as much as they did against Scotland is simply not indicative of a top class team. The amount of points conceded from those visits against all opponents bar England mean that Scotland will be up against it in most matches. Even France, who only crossed the Scotland 22 five times, scored 20 points from those visits. A relatively poor 2 point return per visit from England during the Calcutta Cup match could have made the Calcutta Cup fixture very different.
These defensive figures make it clear why Scotland were well beaten by both Wales and Ireland but also why they initially fell so far behind in their wins against France and Italy. For Scotland to truly challenge, the team has to stop the opposition getting into the Scottish 22 so much as Barclay, Watson and McInally cannot be relied upon all the time to get them out of trouble.
Attack AND defence needs to improve
Scotland won three matches at the 2018 Six Nations Championship to finish third but these statistics are not those of a team doing as well as that. Scotland’s attack got the defence out of trouble against both France and Italy, scoring 36 and 29 points respectively. England’s failure to convert chances against Scotland as well as a big Scotland lead, in part due to the try which followed THAT Finn Russell pass gave the Scots victory in the Calcutta Cup.
As I have said before, Scotland are a very good team but there are still too many errors. In the case of this competition, pass interceptions leading to tries, too many offloads which hand the opposition easy possession and kicks out on the full to put pressure back on the defence.
For Scotland to progress from here, fewer opportunities must be given to the opposition to cross the Scottish 22 and Scotland’s attack must create more chances, perhaps without some of the extreme riskiness of one or two of their plays now. The Scottish team are fantastic to watch going forward but too many of their attacks break down before the opposition 22, sometimes too easily handing tries and matches to Scotland’s opponents. Having gone 10 and 12 points behind against France and Italy, Scotland could easily have finished fifth this season. The 22 entries data ranked them in precisely that position and next year’s schedule is arguably tougher than this year’s was.