Rugby Statistics: Ireland must be zealous in protecting ruck ball

The concession of vital turnovers and penalties proved so costly to England’s hopes

Scotland’s Sean Maitland is tackled by England’s George Ford.  The Scots  like to play a high-tempo game, quick throws and tap penalties and on turnover ball, look to exploit any space out wide.Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

Scotland’s Sean Maitland is tackled by England’s George Ford. The Scots like to play a high-tempo game, quick throws and tap penalties and on turnover ball, look to exploit any space out wide.Photograph: Craig Watson/Inpho

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To paraphrase John Cleese’s character in the film Clockwise, “it’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”.

It seems a reasonable analogy to describe Irish rugby’s historical relationship with the irregular pursuit of a Grand Slam, where the two successes, 1948 and 2009, seem a relatively modest return when opportunity and outcome are weighed against one another.

Despite three victories and a home game to come against a Scotland side yet to prove their mettle on their travels, there is still an urge to peer into the shadows to see what lurks there, for fear of ambush on the road to London. Ireland’s journey has been a little bumpy for comfort at times but there appears a quiet confidence and resolution within the squad and management.

Delving beneath the headlines of Scotland’s excellent 25-13 victory over England at Murrayfield last time unearths an interesting narrative when it comes to the penalty count, the most striking aspect of which was that the Scots won (England conceded) six of a match tally of 13 penalties inside their own 22, a hugely relevant statistic in deciding the outcome.

It represents a massive momentum switch. England conceded two kickable penalties which Greig Laidlaw landed (numbers 1+10 in the graphic) – Stuart Hogg missed with a long range effort from a third attempt – but the fact the Eddie Jones’ side effectively negated and nullified their own attacking gambits through indiscipline and poor protection of ruck ball was a hugely significant failing.

It would be churlish though not to acknowledge how sharp the Scots were in exposing their opponents’ occasional sloppiness at the breakdown. Ireland have been forewarned to be zealous in protecting ruck ball.

England were awarded five of the first seven penalties in the match by referee Nigel Owens for a return of six points through the boot of Owen Farrell (numbers 2+3 in the graphic). The Scots did not concede a single penalty over the 80-minutes in their 22 – nor did England for that matter – but of the five penalties they were awarded in the opening 40-minutes, four were in their 22. At that point they led, 22-6, thanks to three long range tries.

So England had position and possession but not accuracy, composure or patience. Scotland captain, the outstanding John Barclay, latched onto the ball twice at rucks to force penalty turnovers, fellow flanker Hamish Watson once and England fullback Mike Brown was penalised for taking out a player beyond the ball.

The 11th and 13th Scottish penalties were down to Barclay again getting over the ball at the breakdown and hooker Stuart McInally, another brilliant performer on the day, forcing England to transgress for a final time in the shadow of the Scottish posts.

Release valve

England’s indiscipline supplied a pressure release valve, Joe Launchbury twice penalised, for not releasing at a ruck and taking the jumper in the air, Farrell for not retreating following a Garryowen, replacement Sam Underhill offering up a double whammy of yellow card and a three-pointer for a ‘no arms’ tackle and Courtney Lawes kicking a ball out of a ruck; all of the soft variety.    

So what else was evident?

Scotland committed more than two defenders to a ruck in terms of the initial tackle or contact on less than a handful of (four) occasions over the 80-minutes but they were astute in recognising a chance for the third player arriving to counter-ruck or latch onto the ball in forcing penalties and turnovers.

They like to play a high-tempo game, quick throws and tap penalties, no prevarication at lineouts in general and on turnover ball, look to exploit any space out wide. In defence they thrive on under-resourced opposition rucks.

Man of the match Scotland outhalf Finn Russell, quite apart from his impressive distribution skills, regularly employed several grubber kicks to try and discommode the English defensive line speed, something he’s likely to employ again on Saturday. He had the freedom of Murrayfield that day as England barely laid a hand on him, a state of grace he won’t anticipate on Saturday.

England tweaked their defensive set-up in the second half and as a result the Scots became narrower in orientation and employed more of a kicking game especially after Ali Price’s arrival at scrumhalf as they could afford that latitude based on the scoreboard.

Are there further lessons for Ireland?

Yes. Maintain their low penalty count in the tournament. When England were precise and direct they made significant metres; the Scots are themselves vulnerable in the wider channels and when Ireland are in the green zone, score. Don’t cough up penalties or turnovers.

Ireland have dominated possession and territory for the greater part of three matches in the tournament to date and if they squeeze once again – in the absence of significant defensive mental lapses – the Grand Slam roadshow will continue.     

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