IN the professional era, with the analyst king and week-long training camps the norm, we tend to assume that every possible eventuality is thoroughly examined and thought through long before we get to game day.
Sometimes, however, a coach wakes up on the morning of the match with a feeling in his gut, and decides just to go for it.
That seems to have been the case this week, with Gregor Townsend’s decision to move man-of-the-match Greig Laidlaw from scrum-half to stand-off for the final 16 minutes of Scotland’s victory over France a last-minute brainwave.
“He’s a very good ten. He jogged through a few plays in the car park this morning as preparation. I’m sure that was enough prep for him,” chuckled Townsend, when asked how confident he was about making the switch in a game which was finely balanced at 26-26 when the call was made.
“We wanted to get Ali Price on [at scrum-half] and we needed to keep going at the French, but wanted to keep Greig – who was playing well, leading well, kicking well – on the field.”
“I think people probably don’t pick up a lot of what Greig does outside of his passing and kicking. There’s managing the team – coming in at points when we’ve conceded tries to help John Barclay – and you could tell that Greig and Ryan Wilson had a big influence today by how the team responded to errors.”
Laidlaw’s move to stand-off also meant that Finn Russell could be taken out of the firing line with just under quarter of the game to go, after another disappointing performance. Coming hot on the heels of a sub-standard showing against Wales last weekend, there is now a concern that the precocious playmaker has lost his mojo at the worst possible moment.
“Finn made a few errors and I’m sure he’ll be working hard to make sure that he does things like kicking penalties to touch better. He will be under even more pressure against England [in scotland’s next match], who have a very good defence. He did some very good things today in attack, but we know he can play much better,” conceded Townsend.
There was, however, more plus points than negatives to take out of yesterday’s action – with Simon Berghan and Huw Jones being highlighted for particular praise.
“That was Simon’s best game for Scotland by a long way,” stated Townsend. “Given the pressure France put on us, we got better in the scrum as the game went on. Plus, he carried the ball, and made some important tackles, including one when he tracked back 30 yards. He’s a great physical rugby player. Applying himself to a game like that shows what he’s capable of. He should take confidence.”
“Huw played his best game for a while,” the coach continued. “He was really strong in the contact area and a that was a brilliant finish for his try. We know the strengths of our team. Stuart Hogg had a really good game, too – we want him and Huw on the ball as much as possible.”
The message was clear. Scotland had got a monkey off their back but the collective performance still fell short of the standards the team have set themselves.
“That was okay today – finding a way to win was good – but we know we must keep improving. We’re not at the level we played in November. There’s still a lot of work to do,” concluded Townsend.