Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

This matchup looked to be a really interesting game on paper, with Scotland playing really well so far, taking a lot of people by surprise, but sitting second-bottom of the table (although they do have a game in hand on the other teams around them). Ireland, meanwhile, sat a couple of places above them, but had yet to really hit their full potential so far. It was perhaps not surprising that the game itself was closely fought as a result, with tactical play in key situations winning battles around the field.

Scotland’s early play was really impressive, as they stood firm in defence and prevented Ireland breaking through them too easily. Ireland had some really good early attacking play, but just couldn’t get the reward, which was a credit to the Scottish players working together and leaving no gaps open, which is where we know Ireland thrive. This was the same for both teams, with a strong defence proving to be something both teams needed, and had. The game was often end-to-end, but with little end product, and both sides had to look for small gains here and there, rather than making a charging run through each other’s defensive lines.

Scotland had to be patient when they did have good attacking moments. We mentioned how they looked to find gaps, and it was telling that they scored their first try when Finn Russell did get through one. Some good footballing skills by captain and full-back Stuart Hogg on the wing set the ball up for fly-half Russell to score under the posts with relatively little opposition. The lack of attacking opportunities made the first half physically tough for both sides.

After half-time, Russell continued causing problems for Ireland, as we know he does, and he was involved in a lot of Scotland’s good attacking play, constantly linking up different areas of the team. A dispute between him and head coach Gregor Townsend led to him missing last year’s tournament, but his ability to create opportunities in this game showed the influence he has on them, and why they carry more of a threat with him on the pitch.

Scotland continued to push in the second half, and Ireland kept pushing back on their own try line, so, again, there was plenty of desire from both sides, but not much end product. Scotland’s back row was particularly key in these moments, with the combined power of Jamie Ritchie, Hamith Watson and Matt Fagerson helping Scotland to make small gains, and this led to their third try of the game through substitute utility back Huw Jones, who found a small gap to run over and score. Whilst this game did not end in a win for Scotland, they will still be happy with elements of the performance, and know that there are things they can build on going forward.

Ireland, meanwhile, were clearly looking to test Scotland’s backs as often as possible. In the early stages, they looked to play high balls over the main Scottish line, looking for the space behind. The aim of this was to get their quick players behind the Scotland defence, as well as putting pressure on key players like Hogg to catch and clear the ball with little decision-making time. This tactic did work for them, as it got Ireland their first try of the game, when Scotland dropped the ball in their try area from a kick, allowing centre Robbie Henshaw to run in and score a very easy try, and a cheap one from Scotland’s point of view. We know how Henshaw likes to find these gaps and get behind defences, leading attacks for his team, so it came as no surprise that he was the one scoring the try here.

What was clear was that Scotland were dominant when the ball was on the ground, and this was why Ireland had to resort to kicking high balls overhead, looking to give them the advantage. The fact they got a try from this reflected how Ireland had adapted to the situation, finding a new way to attack and win ground. Ireland did well to keep Scotland under pressure in this way, as was clearly their game plan.

When it came to their defending, they looked to force Scotland into touch when they could, and charged balls down as well, and, again, it was these little moments that allowed Ireland to play the game they wanted to, taking more time away from Scotland when the home side had possession. We mentioned how Scotland didn’t have many opportunities, but the ones that they did have, aside from Russell’s try, couldn’t be taken, because Ireland were dictating the game and forcing them to play where they weren’t comfortable, again highlighting how the Irish had a clear plan for how to take the game to their opponents.

The second half wasn’t too different from the first, in terms of Ireland’s tactics. When they attacked, they all attacked, getting numbers into each drive, and this made it noticeably more difficult for Scotland’s defence to hold them back. Ireland’s second try came from one of these, with the excellent Tadgh Beirne emerging with the ball at the bottom of a pile of bodies. Therefore, Ireland had control and were making Scotland think about what to try next to keep them out.

Another way that Ireland looked to keep control of the game was through forcing Scotland to play in small areas of the pitch, keeping the game tightly contested. When the game was being played in these areas, Ireland had the advantage, but, as soon as there was open space, Scotland had the advantage, as evidenced by Huw Jones’ try in the corner. Therefore, forcing Scotland to continually push into the Irish defence to make little gains actually played into Ireland’s hands, as they could absorb the pressure and then win the ball back when they could.

Overall, Ireland will be relieved to have got the win, especially since Scotland’s third try brought the game to 24-24 with only a few minutes to go, but will know that there is still plenty for them to work on. This game gave us another indication of how they are growing under Andy Farrell’s leadership, but is their progress fast enough? That is the main question that many are asking.

MAN OF THE MATCH:

There were many good performances in this game. For Ireland, Robbie Henshaw was always on the front foot, pushing forward when there was an opportunity to, whilst winger Keith Earls showed his experience to dominate his wing and stop Scotland breaking through there. However, Scotland flanker Hamish Watson, despite being on the losing side, was simply outstanding all match. He was involved in all of Scotland’s attacking advances, looking to force a gap in the Irish defence, and was also involved in all of Scotland’s good defensive play, making tackles and helping stop Ireland finding spaces in between the home side’s players. He does this in every single game, often going unnoticed, but this was a game which suited his abilities, and it showed throughout.

NEXT UP:

Scotland’s next game sees them host struggling Italy at Murrayfield next Saturday in the early kick-off, but this at the moment will not be their last game of the tournament. Meanwhile, Ireland are back at home, hosting England at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin in the middle game on the same day.

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