The Wally Ratings

Guinness Six Nations 2021 Round 4 :: Scotland 24 Ireland 27

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Ireland currently sit second in the Guinness Six Nations table behind Grand Slam chasing Wales.

It’s something of an artificial standing given that France and Scotland have a game to be rescheduled but Andy Farrell will grab it with both hands. Does it matter that the four points that propelled Ireland into this spot came at the end of a scruffy, poorly managed game where Ireland coughed up a fourteen point lead to a Scotland side buckled with second-half injuries to Gray, Cummings and Russell?

Not one little bit.

A fat W on the road is a fat W on the road no matter what way you slice it up and Andy Farrell is not at the point where style points count for a whole lot. He needed a win here and he got one. Now it’s still conceivable that Ireland could finish as low as fifth depending on how Super Saturday and that rescheduled France/Scotland game goes but that’s a problem for Future Ireland. Now Ireland is in that happy position of picking work-ons out of a scruffy win as opposed to picking up the pieces after a scruffy loss.

After the difficult 12 months that Ireland have put down, I think they’ll take that. Tomorrow’s problems – England, basically – can wait.

***

The concern for Ireland has been – and will continue to be – how our attack fares against the very best sides. Sticking seven tries on Italy is fine. I mean, everyone is doing it, so the value of the attacking efficiency we produced in that game can be disregarded.

With that in mind, the work we produced in the first few minutes of the game was probably our most coherent attacking sequence of the game.

It started from a lineout launch inside the Scottish 10m line and ended with a penalty won deep inside the Scottish 22. Look at the principles of play after the pre-planned two-phase strike – the 3-2*-1 shape is there, the pass through the midfield pod is there, the involvement of the wide forward with Lowe is there, the short ball offload is there.

This is good stuff. I mean it’s not earth-shattering attacking rugby but it’s pretty nicely executed and that inside ball to Sexton is no fluke either. Sexton ran a deep support line in anticipation of receiving that short ball offload from Lowe so this was all in line with what we planned.

That’s a nicely put together strike off the lineout followed by some good in-structure play. If hitting off your own lineout is good, hitting off the opposition’s lineout is even better. The only question is whether you can disrupt their set-piece enough to create those scenarios.

It turns out that you can.

Let’s be very clear here – Ireland destroyed the Scottish lineout. Scotland had eight lineouts, they lost six of them and the two they retained were scrappy at best. Ireland’s use of Furlong as a front lifter on some defensive throws – basically supercharging the lift on James Ryan as a front jumper – was hugely effective, as was that nightmare middle line of Ryan, Beirne and Henderson going after the middle space when Scotland tried to feint out at the front.

Ireland’s first try came directly from this pressure followed up by two good kicks.

Henshaw’s two involvements here were really good. His try could be described as a bit lucky, for sure. I mean, the ball bounced three times in the in-goal area – how often do you see that – but he earned that bit of luck with his work on the Sexton contestable vs Hogg. The forward pressure after the Henderson steal set the table too – Henderson and Herring got over the gain line and then Stander and Healy did the same. That creates the space for Sexton to launch a smart kicking play and Ireland reaped the rewards.

Scotland’s lineout problems would slice them off at the knees for the entire game.

So when Ireland went 14 points up after an excellent 20-minute spell on either side of halftime, that should have been it, right? Scotland had shown some decent stuff on kick transition – some of our tactical exits were sloppy and overcooked but we’d mostly escaped any issue through the excellent chasing of Earls and Keenan’s solidity on the return – but they had mainly preyed on Irish errors.

Their first try drew a lot of heat on James Lowe but Garry Ringrose’s execution of his kick here left a lot to be desired.

James Lowe took a lot of heat for his work in the backfield but, to be fair, I think he’s hedging his bets that, whatever happens between Russell and Herring as they chase the bounce, the ball is getting kicked. Lowe’s error was in making this read and then not stopping the ball once it came at him before losing his balance. When you make that read in place of busting your ass to get to where the ball is slowing down, you’re going to be in the hot seat if it doesn’t work out.

Even with this try concession, Ireland’s 24-10 lead with 25 minutes to play should have been an insurmountable obstacle. A Rob Herring breakdown steal gave us a short-range lineout opportunity that we converted really well. Pay particular attention to Connors carry followed up by the cleanout by Ryan, Furlong and Ringrose to set the table for Beirne’s power finish.

A penalty on 54 minutes created by some decent attacking sequences gave Sexton a shot at goal that he duly converted and it once again highlighted the impact that Tadhg Furlong has in our attacking shape. When he’s in space off #10 – or anywhere, really – he draws multiple defenders who often end up on the wrong side of him after the collision. It’s not really surprising to me that what attacking cohesion we had regressed when he was off the field. He only carried the ball seven times but when you combine him with the ever-present brutality of the likes of CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw, Furlong’s value in Ireland’s ball carrying rotation becomes even clearer.

With a 14 point lead, you’ve got to nail the fundamentals of game management. For me, that’s kicking well and leveraging pressure back onto the opposition. They have to chase the game, essentially, so make them do it from deep in their own half. You don’t need to overplay your phases because all the pressure is on the opponent.

This bit of play a few minutes after establishing that lead was a good example of overplaying.

Gibson-Park likes to break around the collision point to create – or attack – the spacing of the fringe defenders and then popping short ball passes to looped runners. It’s his main selling point as a scrumhalf, in my opinion, as he’s not the best tactical kicker or mid-range passer but in this particular instance, I felt the break wasn’t really on and it brought Scotland’s ruck defence into the game.

This is the kind of thing that elicits flame emojis and “BALLEEEERRR” responses when it works but in this instance, it’s like birthday candles on a sausage – nice looking, certainly eye-catching but inappropriate.

Scotland kicked this penalty dead, luckily enough, but we turned over the scrum with an early engagement. Scotland launched off the quick tap from the freekick and produced this on the next phase.

Hogg surging down the 13 channel with options outside him is in every team’s AVOID THIS pile and this is a good example of why. Hogg’s acceleration sets the table for the runners outside of him because Ringrose is always under pressure to make the stop. The pressure falls onto Lowe, who has one play to make and that’s to nail the tackle on Jones while backing Ringrose to make a stop on Hogg. Lowe sits on Hogg’s line a little too long – he doesn’t want to get beaten on his inside shoulder – so when he has to shoot across to Jones, he’s already giving up a side angle.

Why is this important? Just imagine that someone is in front of you at a 45-degree angle and they are moving forward at pace. You like that angle because any forward movement you make has a good chance of stopping their momentum because you can access the front of their body. If that same person is on a flatter angle so that you can only see their side, it is infinitely more difficult for you to arrest their momentum. This is why angle management is so important for edge defenders. In this instance, Lowe needed to back Ringrose to take Hogg on his inside shoulder to give himself another step and a better angle on Jones. He didn’t and, as a result, Jones bursts right past him.

After this concession, we learned our lesson and started to kick deeper through Sexton. This forced Scotland back into their half of the field and a promising attacking sequence in the Scottish 22-50m area was spoiled by a passing error from Lowe, who’s confidence looked to be at rock bottom at that stage, to be fair to him.

We got a little narrow off the resulting scrum, which saw Scotland surge into our half of the field. Henshaw did well to put Van Der Merwe out after Earls slowed his progress. Earls lost this collision, for sure, but I wouldn’t expect Earls to win this one on one with Van Der Merwe. All Earls needed to do was prevent Van Der Merwe from going past him clean, squeeze his space and that action set the table for Henshaw to put him out.

Kelleher coughed up a crooked throw from the resulting lineout and Scotland broke deep into our 22 off the carry from Van Der Merwe, who exacted a bit of revenge on Henshaw with a powerful inside route. That earned Scotland a penalty that they would eventually score from – despite some inspirational Will Connors and Keith Earls defence – to tie the game up before Ali Price coughed up a penalty on the restart that gave Ireland the win with a few minutes left to play.

What did we learn? That Ireland’s pack with Tadhg Furlong in it wins collisions, even against an improved Scottish pack. We’ve learned that collision superiority combined with near-total domination at the lineout can set the table for try-scoring scenarios.  By the same token, we’ve also learned that despite both of those factors, we are still struggling to create the kind of effective attacking sequences despite some stellar individual performances.

England will be a very different type of challenge and I feel that the role volatility with some of our certain starters in the outside backs will continue to be a factor until they magically become the players our scheme needs them to be or until Andy Farrell can find players to take over those roles.

Whatever about anything else, England will expose this role issue if given half a chance.

Notable Players

This was a really strong performance by the pack.

I thought the half-back pairing was a little janky in this one. Johnny Sexton did a better job managing the game than I initially gave him credit for on my first watch and his goal kicking – which has been outstanding all tournament – was the difference between a win and a loss here.

I’m not sure that his link with Jamison Gibson-Park works fully at this higher level, though. At least on what I’ve seen so far.

I thought that Gibson-Park’s box kicking was pretty average here although, to be fair, the interpretations around the kicking game have changed considerably over the last month or so. You can’t station offside blockers next to a ruck anymore (no team is doing it consistently in the last month since the focus on being offside at the kick has come into play) so it puts pressure on the length and height you can get consistently from the box kick, given how much easier it’s gotten to charge down.

I think the effective range of Gibson-Park’s passing means that his best work is done in the flow space around a loosely defended breakdown where his footwork, acceleration and short ball work is dangerous. When we don’t have that kind of space, I think he looks less effective and it can tie Sexton to that first receiver position a little more than we’d like in our current attacking structure.

Garry Ringrose didn’t have a good game here, in my opinion. He seems to be in a role where we are expecting him to produce the kind of output that he is only theoretically capable of producing at test level. I have no doubt that Ringrose is an excellent player because he regularly shows this for Leinster at the top end of European competition but his role here as Ireland’s hinge player in the outside channels isn’t really producing the kind of pictures we want to see. There’s no doubting his work rate – he was a regular offensive ruck presence here – but it’s his work offensively that interests me.

As ever, it’s not really as simple as “he’s not passing”, “he’s not kicking” or “he’s not carrying”. It’s a mixture of when he goes for these options. Here are two examples where he doesn’t back his pass off his right side to have a crack at a fraying Scottish edge.

I think we want Ringrose to be the guy taking the pass in this instance, rather than being the man expected to make the pass because as this Six Nation’s goes on I’m noticing more and more of these moments where there is a sub-optimal offensive decision being made. These phases in isolation are just that – isolated phases – but I think it’s becoming quite clear that what works for Ringrose at Leinster outside Henshaw is not translating up to test level against quality opposition.

Tadhg Beirne had another great performance in what has been a breakout test season for him. He fell just short of a five-star performance for me based on how early he went off, relatively speaking, but I thought his lineout work, ball carrying, offensive skill set and breakdown work on both sides of the ball was its usual high quality.

As for Robbie Henshaw, this was as good as I’ve seen him in a number of years. When he’s fit and firing, he’s arguably our best outside back, such is the completeness of his game. His defensive work, ball carrying, breakdown work rate and short passing was outstanding here and his output on the kick chase was characteristically athletic and decisive. It’s not a case, for me, of what the midfield pairing for Ireland should be. It is a question of who plays with Robbie Henshaw. ★★★★★

When Iain Henderson is on top of his game, he’s comfortably one of the best second rows in Europe. He was an absolute monster at the set-piece, worked his arse off on both sides of the breakdown and imposed himself physically on-ball and in the tackle on Scotland for the full 80 minutes before winning the penalty that sealed the game. Class. ★★★★★

On the evidence of this game, Will Connors is fast becoming a must-have component of the Irish matchday squad. His defensive work is of the highest quality.

He also was hugely effective on offensive breakdowns and carried effectively in the wide channels and deep in the Scottish 22. Connors is a weird hybrid of a non-jumping, non-scrummaging 4/6D lock who loads up on his defensive output and support forward work at the breakdown. Quality performance. ★★★★★

They keep doubting Keith Earls. Who is “they”? Well, that would be everyone who looked at Keith Earls getting a one year contract, then went to Wikipedia to check his age, saw it was north of 30 and thought “this guy must be washed up, why is he getting a central contract”?

Does he look washed up turning an average box kick into a breakdown penalty and three points for Ireland?

This looks like a pretty standard bit of play, right? No. This kick is around 5m too far away from the ideal chase point so if Earls can’t get a stop on Duhan Van Der Merwe, the obvious play for the Scottish winger is attack back down the same wing, which is around 15m of lateral space being guarded by Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan while Jamie Ritchie hovers outside him.

If Earls misses this tackle, Scotland have a massive transition opportunity with one of their most dangerous power runners taking on big forwards in the outside channels. Earls makes the first tackle, prevents Van Der Merwe from getting the ball away and Beirne is right there to steal the ball at the breakdown. Three points.

Off the restart after the penalty, Earls was back at it again with a breakdown steal.

In a game that has become debased by the misreading and promotion of meaningless stats that mean nothing out of context, the value of a player with Keith Earls experience has never been more misunderstood by the casual viewer. To the people who only view a winger as playing well when they score a highlight reel try in the corner, Earls calm defensive excellence doesn’t really factor.

Look at his patience in this sequence. What are we looking at – Earls stays recessed from the primary defensive line to cover the live possibility of either Hogg or Russell kicking diagonally into the space behind him. Even when the play moves across the field he doesn’t panic. He’s walking! He doesn’t need to shoot up or across because he’s exactly where he needs to be, making reads in the exact spot he needs to be in to cover all offensive options.

He’s not shooting up out of the line because he’s in position. He can walk to cover the space because he’s where he needs to be. When the time comes to step into the line, he jockeys both Watson and Van Der Merwe before putting his body on the line against the bigger, heavier winger to help the tackle to be made before getting up, pressurising the ruck to slow Scotland’s release of the ball.

The ball didn’t find it’s way to him during our offensive stretches so Earls had to earn his five-stars doing all the qualities that people only miss about wingers when the wingers don’t have them. This was a masterclass in backfield management and defensive quality from minute one to eighty.

Who’s the Man? It’s still Keith Earls. ★★★★★

The Wally Ratings: Scotland (A)

The Wally Ratings explainer page is here.  

Players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.

NamesRating
Cian Healy★★★
Rob Herring★★★★
Tadhg Furlong★★★★
Iain Henderson★★★★★
James Ryan★★★★
Tadhg Beirne★★★★
Will Connors★★★★★
CJ Stander★★★★
Jamison Gibson-Park★★★
Johnny Sexton★★★
James Lowe
Robbie Henshaw★★★★★
Gary Ringrose★★
Keith Earls★★★★★
Hugo Keenan★★★
Ronan Kelleher★★★
Dave Kilcoyne★★★
Andrew Porter★★★
Ryan Baird★★★
Jack Conan★★
Conor Murray DNP
Billy BurnsDNP
Jordan Larmour★★★