In Round 1 of the Six Nations, the official match penalty count finished as Wales 4 – 16 Scotland. That remarkable differential of -12 against the Scots is the worst they have suffered in at least their last 150 Test matches (the next highest being -9 on two occasions).

This is a key issue as Scotland’s win percentage across this period, dating back to 2010, is significantly worse when the penalty count is comprehensively lost, compared to when it is relatively even, or comprehensively won:

  • Penalty differential -4 or worse: 29% win rate
  • Penalty differential between -3 and +3: 45% win rate
  • Penalty differential +4 or better: 82% win rate

Of course, these are not independent variables and often the team that is winning on the scoreboard also dominates the penalty count due to the pressure the opposition are being put under. That certainly wasn’t the case at the start of Scotland’s disastrous streak of offences last Saturday though, at which point they were leading 13 – 0!

Between the 21st and 79th minutes the infringement flow (including penalties where advantage was over as well as free kicks) was Wales 0 – 17 Scotland. For the full 80 minutes the total infringement count was Wales 6 – 19 Scotland.

Here’s a look at Scotland’s first half offences and what actions they might identify in the post match analysis to reduce the risk of a repeat performance against France.

1. Penalty 9th minute – Zander Fagerson – two movements on the ground

Law 14 Tackle
7.c Tackled players must immediately – ensure they do not lie on, over or near the ball to prevent opposition players from gaining possession of it.

The ball carrier is the one penalised but often they are moving about on the ground or holding on to the ball to buy time for a clear out from their teammates that hasn’t come in quickly enough.

Scotland’s focus here is likely to be on ensuring less separation between the carrier and the cleaner, particularly so close to the opposition try line.

2. Penalty 14th minute – Kyle Rowe – high tackle

Law 9 Foul Play
13. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders.

This was a classic example of what is frequently described as a ‘seatbelt’ tackle, reaching over the opposition player’s shoulder but making contact with the neck area. They often arise as a result of trying to tackle a player who has already made a partial break.

The Scottish kick that led to this incident missed touch and then had one player coming up on the chase by themselves. Preventing these kind of positions might be easier to work on than suppressing the instinct to grab the shoulder of the player running past.

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3. Penalty 26th minute – Pierre Schoeman – holding on in the tackle

Law 14 Tackle
The same as Infringement 1

Pierre Schoeman’s successful bust up the middle put him in a risky position as it stretched him away from his support and Tommy Reffell was in like a flash to jackal. The picture the referee ended up with was of the Welsh 7 in a strong position over the ball, although the replays revealed there was a lot more going on:

  • Even before the tackle, Richie Gray could have created a 4 v 3 by passing out the back to Sione Tuipulotu instead of on to Schoeman.
  • Reffell didn’t show a clear release of Schoeman before attempting to go for the ball.
  • Scott Cummings’ line took him to the side of the tackle situation and not a strong position to clear out.
  • Reffell missed the ball at first, putting both hands on the ground and not supporting his own bodyweight before dislodging it towards the Welsh line with his elbow.
  • Richie Gray was a fraction behind the play and unable to clear Reffell from a strong jackal position.
  • The Welsh flanker risked conceding a free-kick for having his head and shoulders lower than his hips during a ruck.
  • Still on the ground, Schoeman scooped the ball back with his hands.
  • Reffell had a second and then a third attempt to get both hands on the ball but was unable to lift it due to the hand of Schoeman. That was the picture the referee saw as he came across the pitch and the bodies around the ruck cleared away.

So there were at least four potential penalty offences and one potential free kick in approximately four seconds of game time.

The decision was pretty much a 50/50 call. There’s not much Scotland can do other than hope the ref sees a picture that benefits them. The controllables are about making the right decision around moving the ball when it’s on (and where possible avoiding heading into the teeth of a defence where the strongest jackallers are lurking) and also, again, the supporting players being in the right position to protect the ball or clean out effectively.

4. Penalty 34th minute – Scott Cummings – offside at ruck

Law 15 Ruck
4. Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the hindmost point of any ruck participant. If that point is on or behind the goal line, the offside line for that team is the goal line.

Up to this point the infringement count was relatively even at Wales 6 – 4 Scotland but the dark blues were about to concede the first of 10 penalty offences and 1 free kick in the space of 18 minutes of game time. Largely down to the territory conceded to Wales, the Scots would spend almost the entirety of this period (bar Duhan van der Merwe’s run in for his second try) pinned in their own half.

There’s no question that Scott Cummings had his foot – or at least part of his foot – over the offside line and had the misfortune to be on the same side of the ruck as the ref. He might feel aggrieved that, for example, 30 seconds earlier Adam Beard was in a similar position – but on the side of the breakdown being monitored by the Assistant Referee – or that the final tackle of the game that helped deny van der Merwe his hat-trick try was made by a player who also had a boot over the offside line at a ruck.

Ultimately, though it’s down to the Scottish players themselves to avoid these situations. An extra 12 inches further back would have made no difference to Cummings’ failed chargedown and that extra step could possibly have prevented six minutes of Welsh pressure at the end of the first half.

5. Free kick 36th minute – George Turner – not engaging in the scrum

Law 19 Scrum
12.a All players must be in position and ready to push forward.

The referee’s tolerance had already been sorely tested by all of the first few scrums being pretty shambolic so when George Turner stood up on the set call this time, Ben O’Keeffe opted to go to a free kick rather than a reset.

The overhead view makes it pretty clear that the odd alignment of Wales’ tighthead dragged his hooker’s bind down into the space where Turner’s head was supposed to go. The ref couldn’t see from that perspective though. If it had been the first or second instance of an issue with the scrum he might have been willing to reset but after all the previous shenanigans the most obvious player was always going to be picked out as the culprit.

6. Penalty 37th minute – Zander Fagerson – collapsing scrum

Law 19 Scrum
37.d Dangerous play in a scrum includes – intentionally collapsing a scrum.

After Wales opted to take the free kick from the previous infringement as another scrum, the Scottish tighthead / Welsh loosehead side of the setpiece went down immediately on engagement. Again, with patience at breaking point the referee was looking for the most obvious offence to punish and Zander Fagerson’s bind slipping onto his opponents arm was right in Ben O’Keeffe’s eyeline.

In the first half in particular, Scotland got drawn into the scrums being very messy. It will be a different challenge from the French who will be far more keen to have the ball in and a pushing contest going on but an experienced first choice Scottish front row will surely feel they could have managed these situations better against their Welsh counterparts.

7. Penalty 39th minute – Duhan van der Merwe – holding on in the tackle

Law 14 Tackle
The same as Infringement 1

Scotland’s problems started when, having opted to carry out of their 22 into space, the ball came loose from a ruck, leaving Duhan van der Merwe to pick it up with only Ben White on his shoulder.

The Scots will be annoyed that van der Merwe was tackled by prop Leon Brown from an offside position. They would also point to the three attempts it took Reffell to get his hands on the ball – crucially all on the far side from the ref’s position.

Yet again though, Scotland’s breakdown work wasn’t up to scratch. Letting the ball go loose meant a lack of control in the subsequent possession. Taking the ball on with just the scrum half in support and Reffell sniffing around was asking for trouble.

France don’t tend to play a dominant jackaller in the back row but can call upon outstanding work over the ball from their hookers and from Jonathan Danty in the centres. Scotland will need to be aware of where these players are and measure the benefit of a couple of extra passes to avoid giving these danger men a clear run at the ball on the ground. They could also target these players to tie them in at the tackle area so they never even make it into a position to try and go for the steal.

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8. Penalty 40th minute – Sam Skinner – off feet at a tackle

Law 14 Tackle
8.a Other players must – remain on their feet

This was the first of four penalties conceded by replacement lock Sam Skinner and definitely the one he will feel he was unluckiest with.

The referee explained to Skinner that what he saw was the Scottish player charging in from distance and going off his feet to prevent any contest for the ball. He specifically stated that he didn’t see any Welshman there, however it’s clear from the replays that Aaron Wainwright was there to be cleared out but stepped to the side just as Skinner arrived.

It’s hard to see any work on here for Scotland. With effective clean outs needing to be a focus to prevent a repeat of the three breakdown penalties that came up earlier in the half it would be churlish to criticise Skinner for doing exactly that but losing out due to the referee not seeing the full picture.

9. Penalty 46th minute – George Turner – off feet at tackle

Law 14 Tackle
8.a Other players must – remain on their feet.

Like Tommy Reffell in the first half, George Turner was perfectly positioned to attack the ball. Like Reffell he ended up with his head just inches off the turf and both hands – illegally – on the ground. Unlike Reffell he ended up being penalised!

This was yet another breakdown where there were multiple penalty offences taking place. Unfortunately for Turner it was his infringement that was picked up as the first player to get something wrong.

The risk/reward in these situations is the huge value in turning over possession set against the heavy cost of giving the opposition easy access to the 22. With Rory Darge likely to be back in the side for Round 2, Scotland will still be aggressive in looking for jackal opportunities – they just need to be selective about picking the right moments and make sure they a showing a good picture to the officials.

10. Penalty 47th minute – Zander Fagerson – not rolling away at tackle

Law 14 Tackle
5. Tacklers must - Immediately move away from the tackled player and from the ball or get up.

In attempting to make a dominant hit and disrupt the Welsh attack, Zander Fagerson ended up on the wrong side of a tackle. The biggest problem he had was the sheer speed at which Jamie Ritchie followed in behind him to try and jackal. Without that attempt, the ref would almost certainly have been more tolerant of Fagerson rolling to one side.

Infringements 9 and 10 arrived back to back and allowed Wales to move from midfield to five metres from the Scottish tryline without actually testing the dark blues’ defence in any way. These sequences of offences were a feature of the second half with the first three Welsh tries all following on from multiple penalties that put them into the Scottish 22.

Scotland will know they cannot afford to hand territorial dominance to France or the other Six Nations’ sides in their remaining fixtures. If one penalty has been conceded the level of discipline has to increase in the following phases. There also has to be a bit more trust in their defensive work which had pretty comfortably contained Wales in normal phase play prior to this.

11. Penalty (advantage over) + yellow card 48th minute – George Turner – collapsing maul

Law 16 Maul
11.a Players must not – intentionally collapse a maul or jump on top of it.

It’s difficult for players to be clear headed and rational in the heat of battle. George Turner’s decision to hit low on a Welsh maul when the fight for the line was already pretty much over needed a bit more thought behind it.

Even if he had come in a bit higher there might have been a chance that he would have avoided punishment. Realistically there was no way of stopping Wales scoring without illegal actions and risking conceding a penalty try. Even with the Welsh still managing to rumble over, the ref was clear that a double punishment was in order for a cynical offence just metres from the tryline.

Every instinct in a player is built up to get them to fight for every scrap of territory, every possible possession. In these situations though the risk of not only conceding a score but also taking the additional cost of 10 minutes shorthanded has to be uppermost in their minds. The sin bin period that followed was extremely costly not only on the scoreboard but also in terms of the momentum of the match. That’s not something Scotland can afford to repeat in the championship.

12. Penalty 50th minute – Sam Skinner – high tackle

Law 9 Foul Play
13. A player must not tackle an opponent early, late or dangerously. Dangerous tackling includes, but is not limited to, tackling or attempting to tackle an opponent above the line of the shoulders.

This was the second time Scotland were caught out and committed a seatbelt tackle. Like Kyle Rowe in the first half it came down to positioning with Sam Skinner up in front of the rest of his defensive line after the previous ruck. When he was easily picked off by an inside pass that allowed Rio Dyer to speed past him, the instinctive reaction was an over the shoulder grab.

As a general point, with the Head Contact Process in place, players need to focus on not making a tackle if the only option is to go high. There was also a defender – Jamie Ritchie – in behind to make the front on tackle so this wasn’t a situation where Skinner had to grab Dyer or he was away.

13. Penalty 51st minute – Ewan Ashman – standing up in scrum

Law 19 Scrum
19. Players may push provided they do so straight and parallel to the ground.

With the ball comfortably won and at the back of the scrum, Scotland opted to drive forward looking for a penalty to win themselves an attacking position, rather than just a safe clearance.

On the tighthead side, Keiron Assiratti was driving in and up but equally the Scottish front row were doing similar. With Ewan Ashman the first man to pop out he was an easy target for the referee to ping.

Sometimes even a side that likes to be bold as often as Scotland do have to play the percentages. They had won almost all the kicking duels to this point – simply taking the ball out of the setpiece, going long and forcing the Welsh back into another of these contests would have been a relatively low risk option.

With neither side dominant at the scrum to this point it was always likely to be a bit of a lottery which way the ref would go and given where they were on the field the opposition had the most to gain from a penalty.

The risk and reward has to be weighed up – and always in the context of the game situation. Sometimes, it’s just some breathing space that is required, not a direct route to the next big attack.

14. Penalty 52nd minute – Sam Skinner – contact in the air at lineout

Law 18 Lineout
29.e Once the lineout has commenced, any player in the lineout may – grasp and bring an opponent in possession of the ball to ground, provided that the player is not in the air.

Sam Skinner very nearly managed to steal the ball, just inches away from tipping it back towards a potential clearing kick. Not waiting until he was down on the ground to play his opponent was very costly though. He may have felt under additional pressure to come up with a big play following Scotland being dismantled by a short range maul on Wales’ first try.

That maul defence has to improve against France otherwise players are going to feel they need to take these kinds of chances to avoid facing them. Jumpers also need to accept that when they are several feet up in the air with no-one around them there’s almost no way any grabbing onto opponents is going to be missed by the officials!

15. Penalty 59th minute – Jamie Ritchie – off feet at tackle

Law 14 Tackle
8.a Other players must – remain on their feet.

A frustrating afternoon for Jamie Ritchie continued. He actually had three or four decent attempts at poaching the ball and on another day might have collected a few turnovers or penalties. On this occasion he will have been particularly frustrated as he was the only one of three players actually entering the tackle area appropriately.

Aaron Wainwright came from the Scottish side off the tackle. Zander Fagerson was closer to legal but still at nearly a 90 degree angle. Only Ritchie was coming through – and attempting to attack the ball – from the direction of his own goal line.

Wainwright also took the opportunity to grab onto Ritchie as the Welshman himself went off his feet, dragging the Scottish flanker onto the Welsh side of the ball. Ben O’Keeffe awarded the penalty against Ritchie and also issued a final warning that the next transgression would lead to a yellow card.

Finn Russell wasn’t happy after the match that his side were still attacking the ball after being instructed not to – did that note reach the players prior to this point? Other than not competing at all, objectively it’s hard to see what Scotland could have done differently here. The outcome should really have been a penalty against the attacking side but these breakdown situations are replete with offences in law and each time there’s only going to be one (if any) that is picked out for a sanction

16. Penalty (advantage over) + yellow card 60th minute – Sione Tuipulotu – offside at ruck

Law 15 Ruck
4. Each team has an offside line that runs parallel to the goal line through the hindmost point of any ruck participant.

Unless Mr O’Keeffe has eyes in the back of his head this was another Assistant Referee call, this time on the opposite side from the Sam Skinner lineout pen. Given the offences going unpunished in the actual breakdowns, Sione Tuipulotu might feel vexed that a foot slightly over the line when the ball didn’t even make it anywhere near his defensive channel was pinged, not just once but twice.

Equally though, that little bit of pushing beyond the edge of what it was possible to get away provided no gain for the team in terms of their goal line defence. Line speed and commitment to get up and make the tackle when the opposition are attacking from short range is admirable but when you’re on a warning squeaky clean is the only way to go.

17. Penalty 60th minute – Sione Tuipulotu – offside at ruck

Law 15 Ruck
The same as Infringement 16.

The second of Tuipulotu’s offsides in the same phase of play and the one that gave the mark for the tap penalty from which Wales scored after just two carries.

18. Penalty 67th minute – Sam Skinner – tackling while on the ground

Law 13 Players on the ground in open play
3.c A player on the ground in the field of play, without the ball is out of the game and must – not tackle or attempt to tackle an opponent.

Referees often talk about materiality when making decisions. If an infringement has very little or no impact on the match, then they may well not blow the whistle. In this way they are able to keep what is a very complex game flowing.

For his fourth penalty in 28 minutes, Sam Skinner (unquestionably on his knees) didn’t touch Tomos Williams until after the scrum half had already passed the ball so it’s hard to see that it had any effect at all on the play.

Scotland’s coaches will no doubt focus on the fact though that Skinner was right in front of the ref and, again, committed an infringement that didn’t even help his side’s defence in any way. If you’re off your feet you’re out of the game will need to be a bit of a mantra for the next few weeks.

19. Penalty 74th minute – George Horne – holding on at tackle

Law 14 Tackle
7.c Tackled players must immediately – ensure they do not lie on, over or near the ball to prevent opposition players from gaining possession of it.

That man Tommy Reffell yet again. This time round, the flanker ended Scotland’s first decent period of possession since Duhan van der Merwe’s try at the beginning of the second half.

The issue here was a loose kick from Scotland which bounced around and led to George Horne catching the ball with no-one on the Scottish side to provide immediate support.

Unstructured or off the cuff plays can be a nightmare for defences to deal with but they present their own challenges for attacking sides who need to make sure the right players are in the right positions to retain the ball. Scotland will need to get the appropriate balance between order and chaos when they take on France.


The biggest damage to Scotland’s cause came from not backing down but doubling down and infringing repeatedly in a short period of time. They also twice in the space of 12 minutes copped a yellow card and ten minutes shorthanded on top of conceding a try anyway.

While they are unlikely to ever again face the apocalyptic scenario of 17 infringements in a row while the opposition give away absolutely nothing, there’s still a need for better decisions to be made, particularly in the kind of midfield positions that allow easy access the Scottish 22.

Completely avoiding penalties is an impossible task but beating the opposition’s numbers in this area is always likely to make winning a little easier. Scotland’s coaches will expect better going forward in the tournament, with extra focus on reacting positively as soon as one penalty has been given away. There’s also a need to make the opposition work for their territorial gains and points rather than making it all too easy, as it was for much of the Welsh comeback last Saturday.