2024 Women’s Six Nations: Ireland 15-12 Scotland – Talking points

Scotland came up frustratingly short in their final Six Nations match against Ireland, losing out on a place in WXV1 by being pipped by the determined team in green. It was a disappointing end to what has been a very good, if not spectacular, tournament from Scotland. Here are the talking points.

Kicking strategy fails to create enough pressure

This season we have seen Ireland kick a lot and kick long, looking to feed off territorial pressure. Scotland selected box-kicker Caity Mattinson over Mairi McDonald (who had a strong game against Italy) so it was clear Scotland were also prepared to kick.

This kicking strategy didn’t seem to work as well as you’d hope and although Scotland kicked more, it was Ireland who managed to gain territory and exert pressure from counter-attacks and use it to grow into the game.

Strangely, most of the kicking fell to Helen Nelson rather than Lisa Thomson or even Meryl Smith. Some of that may have been partly because Mattinson went off early with an injury but perhaps mixing things up here could have helped.

Too many times, Ireland’s pacy backs, especially Beibhinn Parsons, were able to run a kick back for gains.  Although the Scotland line would be well set, territory and momentum were with Ireland. Often Scotland were kicking under pressure, allowing Ireland territorial gains, a pressure they themselves rarely exerted. This contrasted with Dannah O’Brien who showed much more variety, with high, hanging kicks and chips when the rain was heavy, and her shorter, space-identifying kick through earlier in the half, that gave Ireland the territory and possession for their first try. 

Either there needed to be a bit more variety to the kicking or a consistently better kick chase – ideally both – but it was a little too predictable and Ireland were able to nullify it.

Attack still stutters

As we have seen throughout the tournament, the attack did not seem to fully function as cleanly as it did during WXV2, at least in the red zone.

Scotland were down from 94 points in 2023 to 54 this year and down from 15 tries to 8, a significant drop. There was a real lack of line breaks throughout and no try bonus points. 

Scotland definitely have the attacking players to deliver – as we saw against Wales and throughout 2023, and in this game they started so confidently with an early driving maul try.

One thing that seemed to work really well during WXV2 was bringing Meryl Smith on at 10 to change things up. Having her as a second playmaker from 15 should be a bonus, but she didn’t seem to come into the game enough, a noticeable exception being the lovely soft pass for Thomson’s try which showed what she can do.

Helen Nelson is proficient at 12 and has played 15 for Loughborough – so are there options to switch Nelson and Smith around at set plays to give the defence extra things to think about, or find more ways to get Smith into the game?  

The failure to score points here can partly be explained by crediting some excellent Irish defending. Much more frustrating is Scotland missing out on the bonus point versus Italy when they had so many chances to score tries, particularly in the opening quarter. That would have been enough to see Scotland finish third, as their points difference was superior to Ireland’s.

Perhaps it’s a development phase with the attack and the coaches are bedding in structures for down the road, but it feels like there are more risks to be taken utilising the creativity and skillsets of Smith and Emma Orr, and it would be worth the occasional gamble.

In this match, Scotland had 78% possession in the final ten minutes, but lost that period 3-0. There was talk after that Scotland should have kicked the penalty awarded in the 75th minute.

In hindsight, they probably should have.

However, it was not the highest percentage kick and was understandable that Scotland took the option that could have given them a try to make it harder for Ireland to find a way back or, if Ireland made a mistake in defence, could give them a better position for the kick.

Defence remains a solid foundation

This was another game where Scotland could take pride from their defence. Ireland have a lot of dangerous attacking players, as they showed in patches against Italy and throughout their Wales game. Scotland had a clear and successful tactic to somewhat neutralise Ireland’s best attacking forward, Sam Monaghan.

Scotland did well to hold out under extreme pressure at the end of the first half but you do wonder if that effort may also have cost them, both in terms of it being draining but also giving a sense of them being on the back foot.

The returning Emma Wassell, along with Alex Stewart, Evie Gallagher and Emma Orr stood out here – and credit to Stewart, she finished joint overall tackler in the W6N in her debut season, despite not playing a full 80 in the last three games.

While “points scored” was down this year, so was “points conceded” – down from 178 points and 28 tries conceded in 2023 to 104 and 15 this time round. Successful teams, especially those building towards a tournament, often start and base themselves on defence and set piece, so hopefully it means this year’s WXV2 and next year’s W6N will see that continue with the attack improving whilst maintaining and refining this base.  

Disappointment but not disaster

In 2022, a late Irish score consigned Scotland to a fifth straight defeat, part of a spell without wins that continued into the Rugby World Cup. On the other hand this defeat was only Scotland’s third in their last 11 games.

It was disappointing to see because they have become so good at fighting through tight games. It has to be acknowledged that not only have Ireland improved a lot, they fought incredibly hard through this game to make things as difficult as possible for Scotland, and their half-backs executed a smart strategy to put them in good positions.

Overall, this has been a good year for Scotland – two away wins this year (compared with a single away win in total across the 16 previous years) coupled with a very good showing against France. It was a shame that it often seemed to be the same issues that showed up in each game – the line out not completely firing, inaccuracy in attack. But these do seem to be fixable problems.

It would have been good to see sustained improvement through the tournament, but it’s probably also worth noting that Scotland often choose ambitious and complicated line-out moves despite not consistently fielding a settled group of hookers and locks week on week. This may have added to the rustiness.

Had they qualified for WXV1 they would have had the opportunity to test themselves against probably Australia and Canada, immediately above them in the rankings, and have had that additional experience of playing top teams going into next year’s World Cup.

The path to the World Cup is clear and smooth

World Cup qualification seems assured (bar a late change to qualifying criteria) but no-one wants to officially confirm it.

The four semi-finalists from last time out (NZ, Eng, Fra, Can) have already qualified and will almost certainly be in WXV1.  They will take part alongside the now-qualified Ireland and the next-highest finisher in Pacific 4, who (in the same manner as Ireland) will also qualify for the World Cup at the same time – that means all of WXV1 will have qualified.

The winners of the Asian and African regional tournaments this year (likely South Africa and Japan) will also double-qualify for both the World Cup and WXV2.

There will be two further qualifiers – the Pacific champions, who go into WXV3, and the South American champions, who have not qualified for WXV at all. That leaves six further World Cup qualifying places for next year’s tournament and with 8 teams from WXV1 and 2 already qualified (as set out above), the four remaining WXV2 teams not yet in will also go through.

Although there has not, to my knowledge, been any mention of whether the draw will be seeded by world ranking, that seems a likely assumption, so the main thing for Scotland will be a successful WXV2 with the aim of keeping their top 8 ranking.

A second WXV2 trophy would of course be nice too, to make this calendar year an overall success and to give them momentum going into next year’s Six Nations and beyond.

The post 2024 Women’s Six Nations: Ireland 15-12 Scotland – Talking points appeared first on Scottish Rugby Blog.

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