THE World Cup countdown clock has ticked one step closer to D-Day – 22nd September 2019 – when Scotland take on Ireland in their tournament opener in Yokohama City. Gregor Townsend now has just one Six Nations and four summer friendly matches left to finish assessing his options and fine-tune his battle-plan. So, while he doesn’t have to prepare his team for another game until Italy provide the opposition at Murrayfield on 2nd February, there is absolutely no time for the national coach team to relax.
“It’s back to watching a lot of rugby – watching our players and making sure they’re hearing from us in terms of what we believe will help them get into the Scotland team come the end of January/start of February,” said Townsend when asked what he was going to do during the next 14 weeks. “[Also] planning and learning as a coaching group on what we’ve experienced these past five weeks – not just in the games, but what we did at training, and what could we have done better to put a better performance out on the field.”
Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw was at pains to stress at both Friday’s pre-match and Saturday’s post-match press conferences that Scotland are “in a good place right now”, pointing out that the team were walloped in Wales at the start of the last Six Nations and were competitive when they went to Cardiff at the start of this Autumn series.
Also in this Autumn series, Scotland put Fiji to the sword in pretty emphatic style having lost to the Pacific Islanders during the summer of 2017; came up only six points short against South Africa; and on Saturday found a way to win despite being second best in almost every facet apart from goal-kicking against Argentina.
The last of these results is perhaps the most significant in the sense that Scotland have not always had the knack of coming out on top in games they have no right to win; but, in terms of performance, that game has perhaps left Townsend with more questions unanswered than he had at the start of the day.
Speaking afterwards, the coach did not rule out the possibility of starting Adam Hastings and Finn Russell at 10 and 12 again, but was there enough in that performance to indicate that it is really worth revisiting this combination as a starting option between now and next September?
Surely it is no bad thing to have two class acts competing for the same No 10 jersey. There is no need to crowbar them both into the starting XV.
Options at 12
Peter Horne showed as a replacement against Wales and as a starter against Fiji and South Africa just how effective an operator he can be in that ‘second five-eighth’ style inside-centre role.
Meanwhile, Alex Dunbar provides a more muscular option in the 12 slot and with any luck will have had another couple of months injury free to really recapture his best form by the time the Six Nations comes along, plus Matt Scott and Sam Johnson – who missed this series with concussion and knee ligament damage respectively – could also come into the mix.
And we shouldn’t forget about poor Duncan Taylor. The Saracens man is racing to be fit in time for the World Cup after damaging his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments at the start of September, and if he manages to do that and recapture something close to the form which made him one of the team’s outstanding players during the 2016 Six Nations then he will be a key man in Japan.
Russell on song is world class and absolutely crucial to Scotland’s prospects, so messing him around at this stage is a bold move – especially with so many other options in that position – but Townsend has never shied away from backing his instincts.
But the really big question is whether Scotland’s undoubtedly competitive pack can take the next step towards developing the hard-edged physicality in all areas of the game (not just at set-piece) required to really impose their game plan on the best teams out there.
Scotland might have held their own in scrum and line-out maul during all four of this Autumn’s matches, but away from that they struggled to set the tone with fast, front-foot ball against Wales, South Africa and Argentina.
Imposing the game-plan
“I don’t see any reason why we’re not at that level,” said Townsend, when asked if his pack has enough oomph to impose Scotland’s game on the likes of England, Ireland and Wales during the Six Nations.
“If you saw the South Africa game, there was so much that we did well up-front – the set-piece defence whether at scrum or line-out maul, our own maul, the defence around the South African carrying. You’re not going to get a bigger pack playing us than South Africa.”
However, Townsend did then concede that there is another level Scotland need to get to.
“We didn’t impose our game enough against South Africa. We were very competitive up-front, but we didn’t play enough of the rugby. We know we put them under pressure and that was a learning for us,” he acknowledged. “That was a very good marker for us so that when we play teams that have huge packs like Italy, England or France, we are able to say: ‘We need a South Africa performance, plus our own game getting imposed on the opposition’.”
Townsend then pointed out that Scotland were missing a number of back-row players, including David Denton, Magnus Bradbury, Matt Fagerson, John Barclay and the still to be capped Blade Thomson – all of whom should add ballast when they return to the fold.
Six Nations focus
So now, all eyes turn to the Six Nations, and Scotland are going to have to go some just to stand still after finishing third last year with two home wins over England and France plus a victory in Italy.
While Townsend’s boys came out of this Autumn with a 50 percent winning record (having beaten the teams they are higher than in the world rankings and lost to the teams they are lower than), their leading Six Nations rivals can take far more satisfaction and encouragement from the last month.
Ireland hammered Italy in week one [54-7], battled to a fairly comfortable win over Argentina in week two [28-17], felled the mighty All Blacks in week three [16-9] and completed a clean sweep when their second string routed the USA on Saturday [57-14].
England, meanwhile, edged past South Africa [12-11], lost to the All Blacks by only a point [15-16], made hard work of it against Japan before eventually stretching clear [35-15] and then scalped Australia [37-18].
Wales picked up that win over Scotland [21-10], defeated Australia [9-6], hammered Tonga [74-24] and then completed their first November clean sweep against South Africa [20-11].
Scotland will, however, fancy their chances against Italy, who continue to struggle having managed just one win this month, over Georgia [28-7], whilst not really getting close to Ireland, Australia [7-26] or New Zealand [3-66]. And France showed that they remain as enigmatic as ever by losing to Fiji [14-21] on Saturday after pushing South Africa close [26-29] and winning fairly comfortably against Argentina [28-13].