Round 2 of the 2019 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday afternoon with Scotland’s second consecutive home match, this time at home to defending champions Ireland. The Scots came into this off the back of a win over Italy and started the better team, but 2 tries in quick succession gave Ireland a lead. Scotland pulled one back through Sam Johnson for a 10-12 halftime score, but the home team could not push on in the second half and Keith Earls finished off a Joey Carbery break to guarantee victory, 13-22 being the final score.
I have real sympathy for Scottish rugby fans as cheering for them is a roller coaster. Scotland created a number of chances against the Irish despite them defending well, but with the exception on Johnson’s try from a Finn Russell interception they were unable to cross the line.
One chance went begging when a Huw Jones pass went behind Tommy Seymour, causing him to check his run and give Jacob Stockdale time to get over and cover just short of the line. I’ve watched the chance a number of times and to me it is a matter of Seymour not holding his depth well enough, which is a poor error for an international winger of his experience.
Perhaps even worse was a decision to take a tap and go penalty 5m out with the Irish defensive line set, only to be turned over pretty much instantly. I understand that the penalty out wide was not necessarily a gimme for Greig Laidlaw and the lineout was clearly not functioning perfectly (it finished 7/10, likely hampered by the constantly changing cast of locks and back rowers due to injuries), but there must have been better options at that penalty than what they did.
While these were chances lost inside the Irish 22, there were also a number of attacks ended far too early by players trying to do too much as they chased the game rather than take the tackle and set up a ruck, while they were also let down at times by handling errors or silly penalties – while incredibly soft, Jonny Gray taking Sean O’Brien beyond the breakdown as Scotland had a chance to break down the right was unnecessary and stupid from a player that is one of the team’s leaders.
Scotland’s attack has come a long way in recent years and is looking good, but they need to start finishing more chances if they want to win regularly.
After last weekend’s loss to England and with the Scots pressuring behind the gain line, losing Johnny Sexton after just a quarter of the match is the last thing Ireland will have wanted. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has not looked at his best so far in this tournament and took a couple of hits early on that appeared to leave him struggling, but he did well to set up Jacob Stockdale for his try. Joey Carbery has been his international understudy for a few seasons now and has been playing very well of late for Munster, but he has had limited playing time against Tier 1 international teams.
This lack of experience appeared to show in the first half especially with Sam Johnson’s try, where his attempted pass to Rory Best was far too telegraphed and laid out on a platter for Russell to intercept. However he grew into the game in the second half and showed some of his Munster form for Earls’ try, recovering to take a poor bouncing pass from O’Brien, breaking through the tackles of Allan Dell and Rob Harley (who appeared to knock each other off the player), turn on the gas and run a line to draw in the winger, before throwing a wide pass to the now-available Keith Earls to score the third and final try.
With a week off either side of a trip to Italy, it will be interesting to see who gets given the number 10 shirt for the next match (assuming Sexton is fit). I would usually argue for picking Sexton for consistency and because 3 weeks without a match could see him off the pace against France in Round 4, but I think that with the World Cup just around the corner Carbery needs to have more time playing from the start to get used to controlling the game against fresh opposition at international level rather than coming on against a tired opponent.
Bish, bash, bosh
Last week, England pressured the Irish behind the gain line when defending and kept their defence on the back foot when attacking. Scotland tried to do similar this week but were unable to pull it off. The reason as far as I could see: the personnel.
Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi especially played such a big part in England’s highly physical approach last week, but the Scottish team did not have the players to pull it off. The back line especially does not have a crash ball runner like Tuilagi, instead focusing on a ball-playing centre pairing in Johnson and Jones with Peter Horne on the bench. In the forwards, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson are strong runners, but neither of them would be expected to have the impact of a Billy Vunipola (Strauss managed just 44 metres off 17 carries), while Wilson was replaced at halftime for the more defensive Rob Harley.
What impact does this lack of ball carriers have? It makes it harder to attack especially once they reach the opponents 22 as they do not have the players to punch it up down the middle and draw in the defence, making it harder for them to create the space to finish out wide.
Taking his chance
One player who has really impressed me over the first 2 rounds of the tournament has been Jamie Ritchie. Someone who probably wouldn’t have been starting were it not for Hamish Watson’s injury, Ritchie has really taken his chance so far. In this match, his 13 metres from 5 carries was bested by only Josh Strauss on the Scottish stats sheet, while in defence he completed 24/25 tackles and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown.
While the incredible raft of injuries in the back row is certainly hurting Scotland right now, when they get everyone back from injury Gregor Townsend will be spoiled for choice!