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Can you believe it? We are now more than halfway through this year’s Six Nations. Where has the time gone? Same place as my hair I suppose.
So what did we learn? Amongst other things, that is is very difficult to win away from home, unless you are in Rome. To quote Tom English of the BBC,
Last season, Ireland lost in Scotland who lost in England who lost in Ireland who lost in Wales who lost in Scotland who lost in France.
This season, Scotland lost in Wales who lost in England who lost in Scotland.
Scotland have turned around their fortunes and rekindled a Calcutta rivalry that was becoming barely a fixture; Wales battled and nearly stole a match which Ireland utterly dominated; and France recorded their first win in nearly a year. We called the Irish and French wins fairly accurately, but Scotland pulled off an unlikely upset and beat England by their biggest margin since 1986.
So what does this mean? Well, our model works by looking at historical scoring patterns in matches (both generally and specifically in head to heads), the current rankings and location to work out an expected score for both sides. More accurately speaking, this means each predicted score is actually a metric to describe the relative historical strength of the two teams, based on their performances over previous years. However, we think it is more fun to think of them as predictions. At the very least, it certainly serves to provoke the trolls lurking on Twitter.
Scotland v England at Murrayfield is the lowest scoring fixture in the Six Nations with, before this weekend, just 259 points scored and England winning by, on average, 18 points to 11. There are usually just 1.8 tries per game, with most of them coming from the visitors, Scotland’s last try before Saturday came in 2004. However, this match bucked the trend rather spectacularly with Scotland outscoring England 3 tries to 1 and winning comfortably to the delight of the Murrayfield crowd.
So how did Scotland play? Do they now have a chance at the title? Are they now world beaters again? Did the Welsh match even happen?
The answers are: High risk – high reward. No, not really. No more so than before. And yes, unfortunately so.
Scotland played in the same fashion they did against both Wales and France, the only difference was that this time they were less error prone, with Finn Russell dictating and pulling off some miraculous plays that went to exactly to plan. As we wrote about here and here, and as Simon Gleave of Gracenote Sports pointed out here, Scotland are a good rugby side, but usually highly error prone. Games can therefore get away from them if their opponents take those opportunities and build an early lead. Scotland have an attack to be feared by anyone, but if they offer up cheap points, they will lose games that they should win.
Against England however, they tightened up miraculously, conceding just seven penalties, only one of which was kickable, to England’s 13. They stopped England scoring in the fashion they have become accustomed to (England currently average 28 points per game away from home) and built a healthy lead that was never relinquished.
That isn’t to say however, that they offered no opportunities. One that particularly sticks in the mind is Finn Russell’s lofted miss pass to Huw Jones deep inside his own 22, picking him out with pinpoint accuracy between England’s Jonathon Joseph and Johnny May. Jones ran onto a perfectly weighted pass and ran deep into England’s 22. Scotland scored through Maitland in the opposite corner shortly thereafter. An incredibly skillful try that came from nothing, something that Murrayfield has been bereft of in recent years.
This glorious, swooping pass is Finn Russell in microcosm. The execution is sumptuous, to float the ball over Joseph, carrying just enough to arrow into Jones' grasp. But the courage to trust his skills – on his own 22, having been castigated all Six Nations – is more remarkable. pic.twitter.com/7E4qUHeZoS
— Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93) February 25, 2018
Russell deserves enormous credit for his ability to pull off such a move, under not only the pressure of the match, but also of the press in the past few weeks. He has been attacked for his performances against the Welsh and French, and to play with such abandon shows either huge courage, or reckless indifference. Possibly a little of both. Either way, when it comes off, Scotland move forward effortlessly and score points. But when it doesn’t, they get a result like they did against Wales.
Scotland are clearly good enough to beat nearly all teams on their day, and indeed, on most days. However, if they want to compete for the title in future years they, and Russell particularly, will need to play more consistently, with a little more intelligence and stop chucking passes that, whilst wondrous to watch when successful, are extremely intercept-able when not.
This isn’t to and shouldn’t detract from Scotland. They were wonderful and played an inspired game. It’s merely that their game plan needs a little finessing in order to churn out more consistent results. They have the materials to challenge for the title, now they just need to apply them properly.
England played unusually, and it’s hard to know whether it was through Scotland playing well, or England playing badly. Again probably, it was a little of both. However, this has been coming. It’s not that England have played badly, you don’t get to second in the world by doing that, it’s just they have been inconsistent and have usually got away with it. On Saturday they didn’t. Rather spectacularly. England were slow out the blocks and Scotland quickly built an unassailable lead. As Russ Petty (worth a follow) pointed out, only twice has a team come back from a 16 point deficit at half time.
Tier 1 v Tier 1 – 212 tests with a side up by 16 points at HT.
Only 2 comebacks – SA against IRE, home 2016 (16 points down), FRA against WAL, away 1996 (17 points down).
— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) February 24, 2018
Perhaps it was the emotion of the day that overcome them. Or maybe that was was what was missing. Martin Johnson said in the pre-match commentary that it was drilled into him upon joining the squad: “You don’t want to lose this game in Murrayfield. It’s a horrible feeling. I hope England don’t think it [beating Scotland] has become routine.” Perhaps he was referencing comments Ben Te’o made pre-match that he was unaware of the rivalry, significance and history of the game. Either way, England didn’t really show up to this match, and allowed Scotland to play the rugby that has brought them such impressive results in the past couple of years.
England should not be too concerned by the result, although it will hurt and their title chances are now slim (down from around 60% to 12%). Everyone loses eventually. The All Blacks lost twice last year. If England can keep their heads, not let the press get to them, they can continue to build as a team and churn out the same results they have been doing. It will also be interesting to see how they respond to a result such as this mid-tournament. England haven’t been exposed like this for some time and this result may serve as a signal to others that they can be beaten. What England need to do is win their next games against France and Ireland to silence their doubters, put this result down as a one-off and forget about it.
Regarding England’s title chances, as we mentioned above, they are now slim. England failed to get even a losing bonus point from Murrayfield, which could have crucial implications going forward. Ireland are five points ahead with two games to play.
Essentially, England need a bonus point win over France, and hope Ireland don’t get a bonus point win against Scotland, or indeed lose to Scotland. Should Ireland lose to Scotland, and England beat France, England’s title chances will rise to around 70% again. To cover some of the other more likely situations (BP = bonus point win)