by Lewis Stuart
THERE is plenty to be pleased about for Gregor Townsend as he looks back at his first Six Nations campaign, which brought three wins and a particularly impressive showing against England, but the Scotland head coach is not the type of character to rest on his laurels – and the patchiness of his team’s performance in their final match against Italy on Saturday brought into sharp focus just how much scope for improvement there still is.
Spirit and determination ultimately saw his team home in Rome but the nature of the performance left a lot to be desired, and Townsend admitted afterwards that he was seething with what was happening on the pitch for large chunks of the match.
“I either get angry or excited, those are my two emotions in a game. It was mostly anger today,” he said after the game. “We weren’t happy with how we started the game. We seemed to be a little off the pace and weren’t accurate in attack and that gave Italy chances to run at us – they were very good.
“We did see a reaction in the second half. We had to come back from another seven points after Italy scored early, but there was a togetherness and the communication I heard through Mike [Blair the assistant coach on the touchline], who passes on messages, was excellent. There was calmness.”
“When we had chances, whether off lineout drives or moving the ball, we looked better. We looked as though we would get penalties and line breaks and we scored a couple of crucial tries.”
When asked about his thoughts on the tournament as a whole, Townsend made it clear he has mixed emotions.
“I’m somewhat satisfied,” was his cautious appraisal. “There will always be things to improve. The England game was a great performance and a great win, because of what it meant for the country, but having watched it a few times I know we could have been better – and that was probably our best performance.”
“We demand a lot of our players. We know they can deliver and it is about doing that over 80 minutes and also away from home against different opposition. That’s the challenge we have.”
“This is a brilliant championship. The standard of rugby has gone up over the last few years. It is very hard to win away from home – remember Italy had a try disallowed and could have been two points behind England after 55 minutes, they were in that game as well.
“Three wins is a big achievement. But we’re not pleased with how we played against Wales, with not taking chances against Ireland or with our first half performance in Italy.
“Nothing’s ever perfect and we understand there will be times when we don’t play as well and we have to find a way to get better, find a way to win. That’s what we did.”
Townsend feels it has been an enjoyable first year as Scotland head coach with plenty of encouragement but also plenty of evidence of where the team can and need to improve.
“I’ve loved it; I loved the summer experience, playing away in new places, the atmosphere at Murrayfield in our home games,” he said. “When we got the bus to the game [in Rome] we stopped at traffic lights and were right in the middle of the Doddie Gump march, where there looked to be 10,000 supporters. It’s a brilliant environment to be in.
“We feel very privileged to be in the roles we are in as coaches, but we know a lot of work has to go in over the next 12 months to have a better championship and then over 18 months to have a good World Cup.”
In a strange sort of way, he could also take some satisfaction from the fact that the team had found a different way to win, one that was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “Toony” way with the forwards, and in particular the maul, crucial to getting the result.
In the right direction
While there had been signs of panic in Cardiff when things started to go wrong, there were none in Rome. The players stayed calm, adjusted their game-plan to take advantage of things that were working and in the end got their rewards.
It was an emotional maturity that impressed Greig Laidlaw, the scrum half who switched to fly-half and then landed the winning 79th minute penalty.
“We might not have come back from that a couple of years back,” he reasoned. “To be able to do that now is pleasing – to understand that when we are behind we can still back our skillset and still cause teams problems.”
“That is part of the evolution. It has been pushed through the leadership group. Everybody took a couple of deep breaths and listened to the leaders. The plan was there, we stuck to it and we pulled ourselves out of a hole.
“The fowards drove us back into the game. We had a plan about their [Italy’s] defending and were going to use the drive. We got a grip of it and really sucked the life out of them near the end.
“You could see the Italian forwards were gasping for air and we were pushing them back through the drive. That is what probably turned the game for us.”
It may have been far removed from the swashbuckling style Townsend is associated with but it is all the more satisfying for proving that this team do have a Plan B when they need it.