The clever tactics Scotland used to unpick England
Four wins in six meetings, with a further comeback victory snatched away at the death by George Ford, is a record that reflects Scotland’s undeniable superiority over England since 2018.
Put simply, they have been more skilful, more streetwise and mentally and physically tougher than their Calcutta Cup rivals. The familiar themes of those losses may hurt England, but due credit must go to Gregor Townsend and his team – regardless of their opponents’ failings.
While Warren Gatland has been something of a bogeyman for them in the past, Scotland now host Wales and have a very real chance to land a top-two finish in the Six Nations for the first time ever.
This is how they triumphed at Twickenham.
Dangling Russell as bait – again
Rewind a year to Murrayfield and the Ben White try that put Scotland in front. The bounce-back move worked in part because England were so eager to round the ruck and pressurise Finn Russell:
This weekend, the hosts were eager to ruffle Scotland’s fly-half as well. Early on, the strategy bore fruit. Here, Jack van Poortvliet hoists a box-kick. Ben Curry, Jamie George and Max Malins are the chasers:
They run Russell into a blind alley and Malins intercepts a rushed offload:
Minutes later, White feeds Sione Tuipulotu with Russell arcing around the first-receiver. Watch Owen Farrell:
He closes the space and encourages a skewed kick:
However, such aggression would work against England on Scotland’s first try.
Here, we should recognise the patience shown by the visitors in the kicking battle. They kicked 42 times to England’s 37 across the 80 minutes, and achieved some big wins from aerial exchanges. As we will come to, Scotland abandoned their policy of returning fire late in the match, and were rewarded.
Stuart Hogg’s clearance here is the sixth kick in a long rally:
While the full-back achieves decent distance, Ollie Hassell-Collins has a tempting opportunity to tilt the lance. Scotland’s chase is equal to the task.
Huw Jones cuts down Hassell-Collins with the help of Hogg before the latter burrows over the ball with White. England cannot clear the jackallers and Paul Williams whistles for a penalty:
That sets up a lineout on the 22 and Scotland go about probing England’s midfield again. Jamie Ritchie is the man to watch. He spins out of the lineout and over the back…
…where he is found by George Turner’s long throw. The blindside flanker fizzes a pass behind Tuipulotu to Russell, who just treads water long enough to tempt Farrell out of the line. Joe Marchant does not follow his captain, leaving a huge gap for Jones to carve into:
The break puts England into crisis mode and compromises their back-field coverage. A few phases later, Tuipulotu spots that England do not have a sweeper, with Malins close to the ruck, and slides through a grubber for Jones to score:
While the game-breaking moments do not come from Russell directly, other playmakers capitalise on the effect that he has on defences.
A sneaky nudge
This next sequence begins with a far better piece of defence from Farrell. Scotland attempt to run a wrap play as Russell circles around his centres, with Tuipulotu on the ball and Jones cutting a hard angle:
Instead of biting in, Farrell drifts and nails Russell in a strong tackle, dislodging the ball:
As Van Poortvliet clears, though, note the positions of Farrell and Turner:
The pair are even closer together as Kyle Steyn feeds Duhan van der Merwe in the back-field:
Turner works hard over the last five metres of his retreat to edge in front of Farrell and leans in lightly. It is not enough to be classed as an obvious obstruction – Farrell should perhaps have made more of the coming-together – but certainly makes the first tackle more difficult and allows Van der Merwe to build up steam towards the gap between Farrell and Marchant:
The rest of the run is magnificent:
This slow-motion close-up shows the way in which Van der Merwe transfers the ball across his body to fend away Alex Dombrandt to make the most of his pace and power:
🎞️ THAT try but in slow-mo 😍#GuinnessSixNations | #ENGvSCO pic.twitter.com/AO5VxSCpXC
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 4, 2023
When running from the back-field, players often aim at the shoulders of retreating colleagues. Turner’s actions are not insignificant. Indeed, they provide further evidence of Scotland’s street-smarts and cohesion.
Defensive steel: part one
That Scotland hauled themselves back into the game from 20-12 down was testament to their character and conviction. Townsend should be applauded for some bold selection calls as well.
White, another try-scorer, has been in fine form for London Irish at scrum-half. The decision to back a Glasgow Warriors pairing of Tuipulotu and Jones, keeping defensive lynchpin Chris Harris on the bench until Scotland needed to protect a lead in the final five minutes, paid off.
Steve Tandy has earned a glowing reputation as a defence coach and inspired another seminal performance. Luke Crosbie and Matt Fagerson amassed 46 tackles between them according to Opta, missing just one. There was plenty of breakdown disruption as well.
Here, close to the hour mark, England gather impetus after Farrell flips an inside pass to Malins. Van Poortvliet snipes…
…and offloads to Ollie Chessum, who is dragged down by Crosbie, Ritchie and WP Nel:
Stuart Hogg is also in the frame as Chessum is taken down:
Two phases later, Farrell runs underneath the ruck to link up with Marcus Smith on the near side. Nel looks exposed. Note the position of Hogg:
He follows the ball to give Scotland more cover, popping up on the right of Nel. His presence may just dissuade Smith from cutting in towards the vulnerable Nel. Smith hitch-kicks, attempting to take on Tuipulotu’s outside shoulder, and is bundled into touch:
The moment summed up Scotland’s defensive desire as they overcrowded England.
A change in back-field policy
Scotland appeared to change tack in the final quarter, making a concerted effort to move the ball from deep and stretch England from touchline to touchline. Brad Mooar, the former New Zealand assistant, has joined the set-up as a consultant and was next to Townsend in the stands on Saturday. According to Townsend, Mooar has been given a brief to “oversee the bigger picture of attack with the backs and with counter-attack”. Was this a sign of his immediate impact?
Here, in the midst of another kicking exchange, which begins when Fagerson causes Sinckler to spill in contact, Hassell-Collins goes long:
Steyn catches and feeds Russell, who fires a pass across the 22 to Van der Merwe. England may have been hoping for Scotland to kick at this point:
Instead, Russell spots an under-staffed defensive line and sweeps play towards the near flank as Tuipulotu, Jamie Ritchie, Stuart Hogg and Steyn overload the England defence. Does this pass look familiar?
It is reminiscent of the one that sent Jones tearing up the middle of Murrayfield in 2018:
Five years on, a similar pass sparks a counter that should have been finished by Scotland:
Their intent to attack from deep would be rewarded later. When Ben Youngs does not give Freddie Steward a chance to challenge in the air, Russell and Blair Kinghorn open up the pitch with two long passes. At the top of the screen, you can see Tuipulotu, Jones and Van der Merwe retreating to make themselves available. This off-the-ball work is crucial to any counter-attack.
Tuipulotu calls for the ball straightaway:
Scotland know, even from their own 22, to keep the ball in hand. There is a great deal going on in this screengrab. Van der Merwe appears to be gesticulating at the ball-carrier, which you can see in the clip above as well.
He appears to be telling Tuipulotu that there is space in front of him. England have their their entire front row and another forward – Dan Cole, Jamie George, Nick Isiekwe and Mako Vunipola – drifting across in an attempt to connect with three backs in Farrell, Marchant and Malins. They are extremely vulnerable, and have to sit off.
George Horne, meanwhile, has anticipated a wide attack and is running a typically opportunistic support line. Scotland do not seem interested in kicking the ball:
All of this is suggests that Scotland are on the same page and confident that they can hurt England in these situations. Two rucks later, 11 England players are bunched within the white circle and the hosts concede a penalty for offside:
And these two phases, directed by Russell with the help of Horne, inject the speed they need to pick off the defence. Jack Dempsey arcs around in a punchy carry before Russell outflanks the defence with a zippy cut-out pass Steyn. All the while, Horne is servicing his half-back partner before running directly up-field in case he can hunt a second touch:
Scotland go from right to left and back again and Van der Merwe’s finish, laid on by four more slick passes – from Russell, Fraser Brown, Richie Gray and Fagerson – caps a beautiful move. Defences far more settled and certain than that of England would have been struggled to contain its accuracy and energy:
Peter Horne, the brother of George, is also with Scotland as a skills coach. He would have been delighted with the interplay on show, especially from the forwards.
Defensive steel: part two
Scotland have stood up to England in the set-piece exchanges over recent years. They did so again on Saturday, applying pressure at the scrum and at restarts. At the lineout, they stole two throws. Their disruption there may have encouraged England to simplify their plans and go to the front. Fittingly, Scotland then repelled a close-range maul to help them seal the deal.
The Gray brothers are opposite Chessum here…
…and lead a counter-shove that deprives England of any momentum:
Jamie Ritchie was perhaps fortunate to be awarded the decisive penalty, with both Richie Gray and Jack Dempsey unable to roll away from the tackle and impeding England clearers. But Williams rules otherwise. In any case, some exhaustive defensive effort over the preceding 80 minutes had earned that 50-50 decision. Test matches are decided on fine margins, yet Scotland have ended up on the right side of those fine margins consistently against England. Now to consolidate.
Scotland have made a frustrating habit of failing to capitalise on promising starts. Indeed, they have not backed up a first-round win since the 1996 Five Nations. This year, as a wounded Wales head to Murrayfield, they seem in a strong position to change that habit.
Match images courtesy of ITV Sport