Analysis: Scotland – striking the attacking balance

There is no question Scotland have emerged as one of the preeminent attacking forces in the world in recent seasons but can the great entertainers win ugly?

There is no question Scotland have emerged as one of the preeminent attacking forces in the world in recent seasons but can the great entertainers win ugly?

That would appear to be the challenge for Gregor Townsend as his side look to build on what was a strong Six Nations campaign and a successful summer tour.

This November has been more of a mixed bag: some promise in a big win over Fiji but defeats to Wales and South Africa on Saturday – a rare loss at BT Murrayfield.

A clash with Argentina awaits in the final Test of the Autumn Internationals, and while the attack-oriented Pumas should give Scotland the chance to play their expansive game, the bigger question is how the Scots will cope in a tight match.

The last three years have seen Scotland take a real step forward in attack, with the Six Nations offering the perfect example of how they have improved.

From Italy’s arrival in the competition in 2000 through to 2015, the Scots never cracked double figures in terms of tries over the course of a single edition.

That changed in 2016, Vern Cotter’s final Championship in charge, with Scotland running in 11 and they followed that up with 14 last year and 11 again this.

What is striking in 2018 is that in the six matches that Scotland have won, they have scored at least 25 points in every game.

With the exception of a high-scoring loss to the USA with a more experimental side in June, the defeats have come when Scotland’s attack has let them down.

In the Six Nations they were stymied by Wales and Ireland, with the former doing the same to start November’s action.

Their attack was more successful on Saturday, with Huw Jones providing some highlight-reel moments in a 26-20 loss to South Africa.

But in such a close game, Scotland were made to pay for some of their daring play, with one attack from their own 22 leading to a turnover and try for Handré Pollard.

Despite that, Townsend insists the team will not change their approach on attack.

He said after the loss: “If people like Huw Jones, Stuart Hogg and the wingers are getting the ball, a lot of that is to do with the 10. We definitely got things right, were able to score points. We just didn’t keep it going right to the end of the match.

“We have to play to our strengths. And our strengths against South Africa were players like Huw Jones, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg. If we play conservatively, they’re not going to get on the ball.”

Jones has been a key figure for the Scots since making his debut in 2016, but perhaps key to Scotland’s resurgence have been the twin playmaking talents of Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell.

Two-time Player of the Championship Hogg made an early return from injury this November and it was his break that set up Hamish Watson’s clever lineout try on Saturday.

Russell is in some ways the more interesting case though, as he flourishes following a summer move to Racing 92 in France.

In a club that has thrived in recent seasons thanks to a powerful pack and a pragmatic game plan, it was a bold move from the fly-half.

His style has clearly won over the French side, with Racing coach Laurent Labit saying: “He’s not a stereotypical player, he’s a player of instinct who must be allowed a lot of freedom.”

Russell’s magical pass to Jones that led to a Sean Maitland try against England in March was nominated for World Rugby’s Try of the Year.

And it should perhaps come as no surprise that with a coach like Townsend who was renowned for his ability to create something out of nothing, Russell is given the freedom he needs.

The 26-year-old will even get to try something a little different this weekend as he shifts to inside centre in a partnership with newcomer Adam Hastings. That dual-playmaker tactic has worked well with Russell and Peter Horne. If Hastings and Russell gel, Townsend will have another approach up his sleeve.

The bigger dilemma is, can Scotland discover how to plot their way through tight matches and keep the scoreboard ticking over?

In both of the losses to Wales, as well as the defeat to Ireland, Scotland were held to ten points or fewer, unable to find a way through.

While the most recent loss in Cardiff occurred without Russell, Hogg or Greig Laidlaw, Scotland’s issues stemmed from their inability to turn pressure into points.

In the second half of that game Scotland had 70 percent possession and 80 percent territory but failed to score a point.

Up against the very best defences, the value of a powerful ball-carrier can never be understated.

The Scottish back row can call on the likes of Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Ryan Wilson, all of whom punch above their weight. It is perhaps for that reason that Josh Strauss returns this week at No.8 against Los Pumas.

Add in the likes of Matt Fagerson, Magnus Bradbury and Luke Crosbie coming through, as well as Scarlets’ versatile forward Blade Thomson, and the options are clearly there.

However, in terms of an out-and-out power-carrier, they do not have an equivalent to Billy Vunipola, CJ Stander or Louis Picamoles as it stands.

Of course the same could be said of world champions New Zealand, so clearly different approaches can have the same effect.

The challenge for Townsend is to find an approach that functions when teams are able to stifle Plan A.

Argentina on Saturday represents Scotland’s last match before the 2019 Championship, where they will look to improve on a third-place finish last spring.

The strong recent home form, the Springbok loss notwithstanding, will be tested as Ireland and Wales, ranked second and third in the world, head to BT Murrayfield along with Italy in round one.

Add in trips to Twickenham and Paris and it will certainly be a challenging campaign for Townsend and his side.

With all their attacking weapons they will be a threat in every game. If they can show they can win in more defensive affairs, then the chances of a first title in 20 years may even become reality.   Scotland’s try-scoring record in the Six Nations 2000 – 9 tries 2001 – 8 tries 2002 – 6 tries 2003 – 7 tries 2004 – 4 tries 2005 – 8 tries 2006 – 5 tries 2007 – 7 tries 2008 – 3 tries 2009 – 4 tries 2010 – 3 tries 2011 – 6 tries 2012 – 4 tries 2013 – 7 tries 2014 – 4 tries 2015 – 6 tries 2016 – 11 tries 2017 – 14 tries 2018 – 11 tries