As a Scotland Rugby fan, I have waited a long time for us to beat England in the way we did in the 2018 Six Nations Championship. Having not scored a try against England at Murrayfield since 2004, we managed to score three before half-time. This was down to a combination of factors including the speed of play, the way the team trains, and the way players think. Although it may seem hard to believe, Scotland's organised chaos is all done by design and comes from the mind of Gregor Townsend.
In this article, I want to combine my love of Rugby with design by discussing how the structure and shape of the Scotland Rugby team's attack lead to their second try against England in the 2018 Six Nations Championship. I will also explore how Head Coach Gregor Townsend’s training methods allow the players to work in unexpected ways.
I am not a sports analyst, or a rugby coach. But, I am a designer who appreciates smart, fast and accurate Rugby, which is exactly the way that Scotland played in order to achieve this famous win.
It has been extremely pleasing to see the way that Scotland’s playing style has evolved over the past two years. It is down to Gregor Townsend’s tactics and the way he has trained his players to become high quality decision makers and communicators, which allows them to play with speed and freedom. This freedom, combined with accuracy of passing and defence is what allows Scotland to play their exciting brand of Rugby. But, it is also the design of how the players organise themselves in attack that really troubles defences.
The wide-to-wide attacking set up has traditionally been used by Southern Hemisphere rugby teams, but has since been adopted by Scotland. This style of play purposefully integrates forwards into the backline so that the team has enough players to take up the full width of the pitch. It is then down to the team’s communicators (such as Finn Russell) to decide where the team attack.
This is exactly how Scotland set themselves up just after the 30 minute mark of the match. The diagram below illustrates how the team spread themselves out in order to spread the English defence. It was the design of this setup, combined with the pinpoint accuracy of Finn Russell’s pass that created the space for Huw Jones to run at. The next thing you know, Scotland have gone from their own 22, to their opponents’.
In the next phase of play Scotland set themselves up in a very similar way in order to use the whole of the pitch and stretch the defence. Again, the design of this line up allowed Scotland to attack the gaps in defence through hooker Stuart McInally. As the English defence became more narrow, the Scottish players ensured they stayed out wide. It was this tactic which allowed Finn Russell to pass the ball into space for Sean Maitland to score in the corner.
The video below shows how the Scotland team continued with their shape, even after the break away effort from Huw Jones.
Design for the unexpected
The Scottish attack is one thing that has caught the eye in past couple of seasons, but it is how the players have been trained to deal with unexpected situations that has allowed them to win. One case in point is the match against Australia in Sydney in 2017, where Scotland scored two tries by capitalising on Wallaby errors.
In an interview with Six Nations Captain John Barclay stated that “Training under Gregor is different, it is stressful. It is a different dynamic of constantly-changing scenarios and different drills.” It is the way that Townsend has designed the drills which allows the players to react to increasingly unpredictable situations, and trains them to react in the style they know best.
It has to be noted that this style of play has not always come off for Scotland in the past (34-7 loss to Wales anyone?), but this in part was more down to the accuracy of passing, defence and intensity in attack. The loss to Wales in particular demonstrates what happens when one or more of Scotland’s key tenets of structure, speed and accuracy are missing. Sean Maitland’s try (in the Calcutta Cup victory) was made because of the perfect mix of all these elements, but watching it at full speed, you wouldn’t know this was all part of the plan.
The mercurial decision maker
One particular player that deserves special mention in Scotland’s Calcutta Cup win is Finn Russell. Throughout the match he made smart decisions. It was his world-beating pass that allowed Huw Jones to run at space, and seconds later another to Sean Maitland for the try. Russell is the player who makes key decisions about where the team attacks, he has to anticipate the space and make the tricky passes.
When asked about where he gets the confidence to make risky passes, Russell responds "they're not risky. I know what's happening". This again is all down to the way Townsend has engineered this team to feel the freedom to be creative with the ball, but with the accuracy to actually pull off high-risk, but high-reward attacking moves. Finn Russell is a player in Townsend’s mould, so it is no surprise that he represents this Scotland team’s attacking flair and creativity.
Although this Calcutta Cup win will stick in the mind of many Scotland Rugby fans (including me) for a good while, there is still much work to do. Their away record is still highly questionable, and our pack are at times out-muscled, but the team's current form has made Murrayfield a fortress again. I think Gregor Townsend is a fascinating tactician and I’m excited to see where his designs for this Scotland team take them.
Published by: Stephan Metcalfe in Blog Article