The last few seasons have seen a number of false dawns for this Scotland side. Despite a really energetic and talented squad, “This may well be Scotland’s year” is now something we seem to say and hear on an annual basis; we should probably be wary, then, of suggesting that their recent performance against the All Blacks could prove a real turning point for them.
And yet. And yet. The first twenty minutes of that match against the All Blacks saw some seriously impressive rugby from Scotland: they were a team who were totally assured on and off the ball, with trust in their skill as individuals and in their systems as a team. If anything, it was their failure to capitalize on that period of dominance that ultimately cost them – despite their territorial supremacy, the score only stood at 3-0 at the close of the first quarter.
So what did Scotland do right in that early period against New Zealand? What can Wales, who face the Kiwis next weekend, learn from that passage of play? In this piece I’m going to take a quick look at two examples of tactical excellence, with the hope of showing just how intelligent Scotland were, in both attack and defence.
Manipulating the Opposition Defence
New Zealand are a team whose defensive system relies on fast, coordinated linespeed and physicality; to this end, they leave many defensive breakdowns uncontested, hoping to maximise the number of guys that are on their feet and ready to fly off that line. In short, blitz defences of this type rely on players working in unison and in numbers.
On Saturday, though, Scotland denied New Zealand those luxuries by deliberately isolating bulkier, less agile defenders with man-of-the-match Stuart Hogg, and may well have reaped greater rewards for their initiative.
Those familiar with how Scotland played under Vern Cotter are used to seeing Hogg as a a devastating strike runner in wider channels. This superb score against Ireland in last year’s Six Nations, for example, is typical of how he has played:
Indeed, this was a role he reprised in the second half against the All Blacks. In the 77th minute, he popped up out wide to make a try for Huw Jones, deftly nudging the ball through to the charging Tommy Seymour for what could have been a pivotal score:
For much of the match on Saturday, though, Hogg was playing noticeably more narrowly than this. It seems as though Gregor Townsend has encouraged him to really get involved in building – rather than just finishing – attacks, and, while this has so far allowed him to excel as a second or even first receiver, it has also meant that he can target slower inside defenders to devastating effect.
In just the fourth minute, Hogg made a scintillating break that, had it not been for Cornell du Preez’s fumble, may well have resulted in a scoring opportunity for Scotland:
I want to break down this move to show not only how Hogg exploits space so effectively, but also how his teammates create that room for him in the first place. This pre-planned, two-phase move was designed to drag as many All Blacks towards the far touchline as possible, before playing back immediately and present Hogg with a mismatch on the blindside. It worked to perfection.
Scotland play off the top of the lineout, and, as Finn Russell takes the pass from Ali Price, we can see that the out-half has two midfield passing options:
Hamish Watson is offering himself on a short line (the red arrow), but Russell understands that the wider the next ruck is set, the more space there will be on the blindside; Alex Dunbar (yellow), therefore, looks like a better option. He is also poised to carry into the Kiwi fly-half Beauden Barrett, against whom any collision is likely to be won.
But look at the positioning of Hogg here. On a first-phase play like this, we might normally expect to see him somewhere nearer the blue circle, ready to engage the outside defenders and probe for space near the touchline. On this occasion, however, he is stationary in the middle of the field, already ready to bounce back to the near touchline should an opportunity arise.
As Dunbar takes contact, we can see such an opportunity unfolding:
Anticipating the next breakdown, and seeing Russell and the Scottish forwards peel around the corner for the next phase (white), the All Blacks defenders are busting their collective gut to fold around the corner with them (yellow). Meanwhile, though, Hogg and Lee Jones are ready to pull back to the blindside (green).
Above, we can see All Blacks captain Kieran Read notice this. He consequently orders his forwards to resource this near side, setting himself inside lock Luke Romano and tighthead prop Nepo Laulala.
Meanwhile, Dunbar powers through Barrett, and Watson and Fagerson get rid of the lurking Sam Cane emphatically. Scotland’s ball is quick…
… and quick enough, that, as Price distributes to Hogg, we can see that New Zealand have twigged on to Scotland’s intentions too late. So eager were they to fold around to the openside, that five defenders have now been left covering a single seven metre channel close to the ruck on the blind:
The presence of Russell, Huw Jones, and others has been enough to pull the All Blacks across and, with Jonny Gray and John Barclay now hitting short lines (blue) to fix the inside defenders, Hogg is in a prime position to arc around behind and target those on the outside.
As he takes the pass, it becomes clear that Scotland have been able to isolate Laulala and Romano, who, as an 18st prop and a 6’7″ lock respectively, are exactly what Hogg has been hoping for:
Romano has his hips pointing towards the near touchline, clearly worried about the wide threats of Lee Jones, du Preez, and McInally. Hogg encourages this by keeping the ball in two hands, ready to release these teammates should Romano step in. With the lock continuing to jockey outwards (yellow), though, Hogg sees that he is is no longer in a position to make a convincing tackle. As a result, the Glasgow man backs his ability to beat the covering Laulala for pace, aiming for the widening gap between the two All Blacks (red).
Predictably, the Chiefs prop is beaten all-ends-up, as Hogg burns through the gap with ease:
Had du Preez not spilled the ball, this would have been a really promising position for Scotland. But while it really is searing pace from Hogg (and perfect timing of the pass), Townsend will have been delighted by how effectively the All Blacks’s defence was manoeuvred by his team as a whole. It’s beautifully simple rugby, but very cleverly plotted, and even cleverer in the execution.
In the 14th minute, we get another glimpse of this, as Hogg one again appears in midfield to cause mischief. As Ben Toolis carries twenty metres in from the touchline, Price once again clears the ball quickly:
The speed of the ball has meant that Russell is already outside the three defenders closest to the ruck (numbered in red), and things are looking very promising for Scotland:
As we can see, a chasm has opened up between Ryan Crotty and Read. Hogg has noticed this gap already, and is hoping that du Preez’s short line (blue) will fix the Kiwi captain and allow him to target that space (red). Russell now needs to run straight, fixing Sonny-Bill Williams (yellow), before distributing to his full-back and forcing Crotty to make a very difficult defensive decision.
But Read, perhaps recalling Hogg’s turn of pace some ten minutes previously, flies out of the line to try and stop the Scotland man in his tracks:
Crotty, on the other hand, has rocked back on his heels, nervous about the double-threat of the double-Jones axis outside him. Jockeying backwards, he is aiming to buy his inside men time to cover across (yellow) and bolster defensive numbers. This leaves Read isolated and, world-class player though he is, the nimbler, faster Hogg sees that he can comfortably skip around the Kiwi No. 8 (red).
We can see all these elements combine below, and ultimately things could have been far worse for New Zealand had it not been for the diligent cover defence of Williams:
This is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a poor defensive Read. Crucially, though, it is a mistake forced by Scotland’s tactical inventiveness. It’s Hogg’s pace in midfield that allows him to exploit these errors and, once more, this example shows just how integral the Glasgow full-back is to Townsend’s attacking strategy.
Breakdown Nous: Knowing When to Compete
Just as New Zealand like to maximise the number of players on their feet in defence, defending against them also requires immense tactical discipline. With Aaron Smith delivering ball to his out-half with lightning-fast consistency, and a plethora of rangy, skillful loose forwards, the All Blacks will invariably punish any team that over-commits at the breakdown.
Trying to slow down their ruck ball, then, comes at a risk, but it is a tightrope that John Barclay was exemplary in walking throughout the first quarter on Saturday, as he showed the restraint to compete only when he could affect a positive outcome.
More generally, Barclay was everywhere in this period. Whether he was working with Watson to hold up and strip the ball from a rampaging Romano…
… or leading his side’s ferocious linespeed to force Barrett into a mistake at a crucial time in the match…
… he was simply phenomenal. But it was the breakdown nous to go with his power and intensity that impressed this onlooker, and he demonstrated all of this in the 9th minute of the game.
We join the play as Laulala carries into Watson, and is chopped low to the ground:
Above, we can see Barclay sniffing around the breakdown, considering whether or not to compete. But Read prevents any possibility of a clean jackal by flopping over the top of his tighthead (for which should have been penalised). In addition, Sam Whitelock and Kane Hames are in close attendance, ready to clean Barclay out should he loiter with too much intent.
So, not wanting to be pinned down in a breakdown that he can’t win, Barclay spins away from the tackle area (notwithstanding a small rummage):
This rummage, however, is key: despite being only momentary, we can see above that it forces Hames and Whitelock to commit to the breakdown, slowing down Kiwi ball while leaving Barclay free to fan out into the defensive line. The arithmetic of this situation is clear: two fewer attackers for the All Blacks, and one more defender for Scotland.
Just two phases later, Barclay is presented with a similar decision, as Hames is felled near the halfway line:
Once more, the Scotland captain steps towards the breakdown, weighing up his options. Seeing that Whitelock is already in a strong, supportive position over the ball, though, he once again decides not to contest.
The benefits of his decision can immediately be seen. As the ball is recycled, Barclay is set and ready to fly off his line, which he does with exceptional aggression:
This is far from rash or careless: the Scotland captain rushes up safe in the knowledge that the two All Black forwards near Barrett (numbered in black) are covered by the two defenders outside him (numbered in white), and, standing statically in front of their out-half, do not really offer any options aside from a simple one-out carry.
As Barclay blitzes, then, Russell goes with him…
… and, because of the pressure he now finds himself under, scrumhalf Aaron Smith aims a loopy, wide pass over Russell’s head:
Had this been intercepted, it would almost certainly have resulted in a try for Scotland, and proves the value of staying on your feet when involvement in a ruck would be fruitless.
As he shows just a few minutes later, however, Barclay is not afraid of doing just that when the opportunity arises.
New Zealand play off the the top of the lineout and, as Barrett takes the pass from Smith, it becomes clear that flanker Vaea Fifita is his side’s designated carrier, with Cane in support to resource the ensuing breakdown:
Fifita starts on an angle straight towards the waiting defence (the white line), but, after he takes the pass, actually cuts across Cane by swerving back towards the far touchline (red). As he clatters into Watson and the openside drags him to ground, though, we can see that this move has wrong-footed Cane, who is now separated from his teammate:
This separation is worsened by some clever play by Fagerson, who, as Cane tries to support his man, subtly checks in front of the Chiefs openside:
As this occurs, Barclay arrives on the scene. Seeing that Fifita is isolated, the Scottish captain knows that a jackal is very much on the cards, and so adopts an incredibly strong position over the ball:
Above, we can see that Fagerson has bought his captain enough time to win what coaches call the “shoulder battle” with Cane, having got on the ball and beneath his opponent. Now, you could argue that Barclay is not supporting his body weight here and should be penalised as a result, but, as soon as the original impact from Cane has been absorbed, he jogs his feet forwards to adopt a far more stable position, convincing referee Matthew Carley that he is on his feet and legal. Barclay wins an eminently kickable penalty for his side.
Below, we can see all of these elements combine to make what is an exceptional piece of defensive play:
Russell missed the resultant penalty, and this sadly exemplified why the All Blacks were eventually able to claw the game back to win: despite being dominant in this early period, many of the opportunities that Scotland worked so hard to create (including most of the ones that I have discussed) were ultimately not converted.
Nevertheless, that first quarter will remain a useful blueprint for sides in nullifying the All Blacks’s considerable threat. The challenge, however, will be sustaining that performance over eighty minutes and, most importantly of all, converting those precious chances when in the ascendancy.