IF players need to hold their nerve after poor performances, so too do head coaches. Gregor Townsend could have responded to the loss to the USA by going for a safety-first selection against Argentina on Sunday, but instead he kept faith with some of those whose inexperience had been exposed in Houston. And the confidence the head coach showed in them rubbed off on those players, who ensured that Scotland’s three-Test summer tour ended on a glorious high by beating the Pumas 44-15 in Resistencia.
Yes, Townsend went with his strongest pack, which was always the plan. But he also went with George Horne and Adam Hastings at half-back, and that raw combination repaid him by controlling the game against the Pumas.
“There was always a balance between putting out a team who could win and giving everyone an opportunity to play,” Townsend said. “Most guys got two. Yes, we could have taken Finn Russell and a number of other people who were fit, but now we have Adam Hastings who’s been involved in three games.
“That’s what we were wanting out of it and with a win that’s obviously much sweeter and much more satisfying. We talked about enjoying that intimidating atmosphere, and certainly it changed when we managed to put points on the board.”
If the 30-29 defeat by the USA was the low point, perhaps the six-try drubbing of Argentina would not have happened without it. Throw in the 48-10 win over Canada, and the statistics for the tour look impressive indeed: played three, won two, lost one, points for 121, points against 55. All the more impressive given those players such as Russell who were missing, albeit some of them were injured or recovering from surgery: Greig Laidlaw, Huw Jones, Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar, Willem Nel, Hamish Watson, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray and more.
“We took players here that we believed could be part of the World Cup squad,” Townsend continued. “Some of them might have to fight really hard and have a great season, because they’re up against guys who are probably pencilled in to the World Cup squad if they play as well as they have in the last few years. Everyone knew this was an opportunity, the first opportunity in the next 12 months, to say, ‘pick me’.
“It was always going to be a learning tour and we were hoping to win all three games. We knew this one would be definitely the toughest, and we were in positions to win against USA, so that’s the disappointing aspect.
“But you learn a lot when you lose. You see the characters in your group, see the technical and tactical changes that the players have to take on board and sometimes you don’t see them for a few months. To see them the following week is a big boost.
“We don’t see them now till the end of October, so it’s great to have that footage, those memories, for the players coming back into the squad as well. They’ll be thinking, ‘I want to be part of this. That’s a young guy who has grabbed his opportunity.’ It builds it up nicely for next season.”
Hastings bounces back
Hastings, whose rawness had been exposed when up against Aj MacGinty in Texas, was just one man who proved how quickly he could recover from an upset. George Horne, his partner at half-back, was a livewire. Blair Kinghorn on the wing now looks an established international after just five caps. And the pack, led from the front by captain Stuart McInally, were on top of their opponents from the start.
Asked if the performance had been as good as he had seen since becoming head coach, Townsend did not hesitate to reply in the affirmative. “Yes it was. Sydney [last summer] was very close. On Saturday we had a younger team, players that have not had experience of Six Nations rugby, who have not had much experience of professional rugby,” Townsend added. “So to go out there against a full-strength Argentina team who were going to be coming out fighting and do what they did – the confidence and the execution – was great to see.
“They felt as comfortable playing the way we know they can play in north-eastern Argentina as they would have done at Murrayfield. That was one of the goals for this tour, that we put a performance in, hopefully three, that showed we can play to our potential away from home. We certainly did that on Saturday.”
Bearing in mind that around half the first-choice Scotland team were missing from the tour, this victory was all the more remarkable, and deserves to be remembered as one of the great Scottish performances of recent times. Summer tours are sometimes written off as meaningless end-of-season excursions, and sometimes that is indeed all they are. Not this one.
The future is bright…
The growth in the squad from the 48-10 win over Canada then the 30-29 loss to the USA to Saturday night’s triumph has been extraordinary. The players and coaches responsible will now take a short, well-merited break for summer, but for them and for the Scotland support, next season can surely not come quickly enough.
“It was just great fun,” was how George Horne summed it up. “It’s the second time I’ve had the honour of pulling on the jersey and it was a really enjoyable game.
“We spoke a lot about last week and bouncing back from what was a really disappointing performance from us. I think you got that, especially in that first 20 minutes. We fronted up physically when they had the ball, we had a lot of good defensive sets and that put the marker down for what would happen in attack.
“When we got the ball, we expressed ourselves. We weren’t shy even when the conditions got a bit poor and we scored some cracking tries.
“We just go out to play. We want to throw the first punch and we’ve done that the last couple of weeks. Against Argentina, we backed it up and in the first 20 minutes we kind of ran away with it.”
At 23, the younger of the Horne brothers knows well that he is far from the finished article. It was notable that, having talked with such pleasure about the game, he insisted that both he and Hastings knew they had a long way to go, as well as thanking head coach Gregor Townsend for keeping faith with them.
“We’re still young and have a lot to learn, but it was a chance we wanted to take. The fact that Gregor put a bit of faith in us to bounce back from last week was good.
“The whole team played well and that helps the nine and 10. The forwards were outstanding. I was glad to get the opportunity and it was good we managed to play well for the team.”