Finn Russell is the key for Scotland

Matthew Hughes Roar Rookie

By Matthew Hughes, Matthew Hughes is a Roar Rookie

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    This year’s Calcutta Cup game has got me excited. England are focused, but are they vulnerable?

    Scotland are dangerous, but do they have the mentality to beat the second-best team in the world?

    They didn’t show Wales enough respect by not putting points on the board when they had the chance. By half-time in the next game, they showed they were learning and kicked themselves to a masterful second-half performance that closed out a dangerous French side.

    England are a different prospect. Reigning champions with a spiky head-coach and well-drilled units that possess leaders across the field.

    England should win. But Scotland are at home, they have Greg Laidlaw and they have Stuart Hogg. The way I see it, the result of this weekend’s game will come down to four different areas.

    No. 1: The lineout
    Scotland’s game plan against Wales wasn’t as naïve as some commentators have suggested. Yes, they did tend to go from side to side when Stuart Hogg wasn’t on the ball, but they also kicked intelligently and pinned Wales back into their own 22 for the first half.

    They had 60% territory and 54% possession in their favour, but they failed to convert, and the lineout was one of the causes.

    They lost three lineouts, leaving them with a 79% completion rate on their own throw. What the stats don’t show you is that they lost these lineouts in Welsh territory, robbing their backs of attacking ball.

    Couple that with Finn Russell’s alarming tendency to butcher penalty kicks to touch and that’s field position and possession they can’t afford to squander against a team like England.

    If you’re curious, Scotland’s lineout success rate went up to 89% against France.

    However, I see England, with Maro Itoje, Joe Launchberry, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw and the ever-dependable Dylan Hartley exploiting the set-piece come Saturday.

    Advantage England.

    No. 2: Attacking the inside/outside channel
    The Scottish attacking backline is literally two-pronged. Finn Russell will attack the line or wrap around. If he attacks the line, he looks for Huw Jones or Peter Horne to hit the defending inside shoulder at pace.

    If he wraps he’s looking to layer the attack and create space between the defensive 13 and wing. In this space, usually travelling at some speed, is Stuart Hogg who Russell will look to float passes to.

    The effectiveness of this strategy is reflected in the stats for Jones and Hogg.

    Huw Jones attacking the inside shoulder of the defensive line has recorded 21 and 50 metres made in his first two games. However, for those metres, he has registered two players beaten against a resilient Welsh defence and an impressive four players beaten against France.

    In comparison, Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw, rated as one of the best centres in the north, registered 20 metres and no defenders beaten against France.

    Significantly, Jones is consistently getting across the gain-line in parts of the field he has no right to. In turn, he is sucking in bodies and reducing the defending side’s capability of neutralising the wrap around.

    Scotland's Stuart Hogg

    (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

    The consequence of this can be seen in Hogg’s stats. Against Wales he made 79 metres and beat three defenders. Against France, he made an impressive 123 metres while only beating two defenders.

    The reason for this is the inside threat of Jones creates space in the channel outside the defensive 13. Hogg is free to charge down that channel knowing the defending wing needs to keep the width to halt an overlap leading to a try.

    With Hogg’s pace, by the time the 15 has come across to stop Hogg the attacking line is behind the defensive line. At no point has Hogg needed to beat a defender as his pace and Russell’s distribution has done the damage.

    Luckily for England, they have one of the best defenders of the 13 channel in Jonathon Joseph. Tellingly when Ben Te’o occupied this space Italy scored twice floating passes into that channel. Against Wales with Joseph on the field, England were tight.

    Despite this I highly rate Hogg and Jones to make metres and beat defenders. The question is whether they will take the points once the ground has been made?

    Advantage Scotland.

    No. 3: The magic ten minutes
    New Zealand destroys teams in ten minutes. It’s a beautifully brutal thing.

    In the November international against Wales, the men in red were only trailing by one-point going into the 55th minute. By the 65th minute, they were buried 26-11.

    Scotland were 3-3 in the 44th minute. Ten minutes later they were trailing 15-3. Not quite buried, but certainly on the floor.

    When analysing New Zealand and why they are so good, Eddie Jones has repeatedly stressed intensity.

    When they need to, the world champions can up their work rate; they’re off the deck quicker, they gang tackle, they don’t chase but swarm the opposition and once they are behind the gain-line through turnovers or line-breaks, they ruthlessly execute with unadulterated pace.

    England isn’t there yet but they are fitter than they used to be. They have athletic forwards and wings that possess pace in abundance. In turn, they are starting to put together short periods of high intensity that are winning them games.

    Against Australia, 18th November 2017. 72nd minute. England lead 13-6. Final score: 30-6.

    Against Wales, 10th February 2018. Third minute: 0-0. 21st minute: 12-0.

    Not quite as impressive, I know, but I’m not trying to claim England are as good as New Zealand yet.

    What is true is that England are departmentalising game time and are looking for short periods where they can ramp up the intensity and see if the opposition cracks. Eddie Jones and his finishers were phase one of this tactic but that made the timing of the blitz predictable.

    Owen Farrell England Rugby Union Test 2016

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    In response, they are trying to develop a system that can be initiated at will, like New Zealand.

    The question is, if England blitz, will Scotland be able to regroup and come back at them? Last year they crumbled. But again, going back to the November NZ-Scots game suggests they may have the mental fortitude to ride out the storm and bounce back.

    Advantage England (just).

    No. 4: Greg Laidlaw – Finn Russell
    Poor Finn Russell. I’ve never wanted a player to succeed more. For Glasgow he’s electric, but on the international stage he’s shown himself to be vulnerable to the pressure and will often rush things.

    He needs to learn patience.

    Luckily for Scotland, they have Greg Laidlaw. Solid as a rock and a perfect foil to a temperamental but potentially brilliant fly-half.
    Gregor Townsend this week might have been tempted to favour a conservative Ali Price-Greg Laidlaw partnership but I’m glad he avoided such a move.

    Without Russell’s distribution the potency of Hogg and Jones is dulled, and without those two attacking weapons, Scotland won’t score enough points to beat England.

    However, Eddie Jones is ruthless when he senses weakness and he will have Maro Itoje et al chirping in Russell’s ear between plays and smashing down his channel the rest of the time.

    But what fly-half isn’t used to lunkhead forwards barrelling down their channel thinking to intimidate them? If you’re playing modern-day international rugby, then you’re unquestionably tough and brave.

    Instead it’ll be the situation that tests Russell’s mental fortitude, not the physicality of knuckle-dragging forwards.

    Advantage: even.

    Gut says England. Head suspects Scotland. Heart says ‘please don’t rain!’

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    The Crowd Says (7)

    • February 24th 2018 @ 6:25am
      Malo said | February 24th 2018 @ 6:25am | ! Report

      I’m aus/Scottish but think England’s pack is way too strong but that’s if they turn up. Scotland will be pumped up. It’s time to grab the bull by its horns. It’s war. CMON SCOTLAND

      • February 24th 2018 @ 7:45am
        Matthew Hughes said | February 24th 2018 @ 7:45am | ! Report

        Yeah, I’m an English supporter but I really like this Scottish side. To think a couple years ago they couldn’t buy a try and now they’re running them in for fun. Great to watch!

    • February 24th 2018 @ 8:03am
      Neil Back said | February 24th 2018 @ 8:03am | ! Report

      Don’t know if it’s relevant but interestingly, Eddie has been praising Finn Russell as ‘world class’ all week. Very different messaging to the one he fed Patchell with last game. Eddie rarely says stuff without motive.

      Given a lot of the media criticised Russell’s casual performance against the Welsh as one where he appeared to believe his own press, I just wonder whether he’d like Russell to go into a game against England with the same mindset.

      Personally, I like the look of Huw Jones. Strong and runs some great lines. Joseph will need to be at his best defensively, but also needs to be asking more questions in attack of his own than he has lately.

      • February 24th 2018 @ 9:46am
        Matthew Hughes said | February 24th 2018 @ 9:46am | ! Report

        Joseph’s defence has got better as his potency in attack has dimmed. I think opposition defences have wised up to him. He looks for that same 13-wing space that Hogg exploits. He would stand up the opposite 13 by dipping to go inside and then back his pace to make the break on the outside. Defences know not to bite now, instead they stand off and shepherd him to the wing closing the space.

        Saying that, he’s still a wonderful opportunist who has a habit of scoring when England need him.

        As for Jones, I think you might be right. Bury Russell in praise and then see if he can stand up to the hype. Scotland need to be cautious and patient. If they go too hard too fast they might get sucker punched, like the interception try conceded against Wales. Build any sort of lead and put the pressure on England.

        Like I say, I’m excited about this one!

    • Roar Guru

      February 24th 2018 @ 12:29pm
      Mantis said | February 24th 2018 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

      England will run away with it in the last 10 minutes, but will be a tight game until then. I think this will be the game of the 6 nations if it can stay dry, and hopefully will be high scoring

    • Roar Guru

      February 24th 2018 @ 12:55pm
      The Neutral View From Sweden said | February 24th 2018 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

      Thanks MH

      A very fair and well-written column, packed with smart observations and stats.

      Finn Russell reminds me a lot of Carlos Spencer. He has that swagger and mad-man genius that makes him very loved but also makes the blood boil even among his own team fans. And he mixes outstanding performances with shockers that cost a lot of points.

      The magic ten minutes is an awesome observation. The AB’s are the masters, but as you say, England is not far behind them.

      I am a huge fan of Huw Jones. He is also a good example how English fans are much more relaxed about “English” players representing other nations. We rarely hear English fans complain about that there are more “English” players playing for other Test teams in the 6N, than from any other nation (some Roarers like to believe that it is only Kiwis and Saffas that plays for other countries).

      If Wales and Scotland win today, the last two rounds of the 6N are gonna be bonkers, if they don’t, we are one step closer to an epic Grand Slam finale on St Patricks Day. For a neutral fan, it is a win-win whatever happens.

    • February 25th 2018 @ 7:34am
      Nope said | February 25th 2018 @ 7:34am | ! Report

      Lol. Poms got dusted. 2 losses from their past 4 6N games. Should’ve been 3.

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