Wednesday 23 October 2019

Time right for confident Scots to deliver on their 'world-class' potential

Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. Photo: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire.
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. Photo: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire.
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Gregor Townsend's mission to have Scotland playing the fastest brand of rugby in the world is still very much a work in progress. That much we can say for certain.

We also know Townsend has the explosive fire-power at his disposal and on their day, his back-line have the ability to rip most defences to shreds.

The age-old problem with Scotland however, is that 'day' has been hit and miss far too often.

Playing in Japan, where the ground is firmer and the weather is drier should, in theory at least, suit their expansive style of play with the maverick Finn Russell pulling the strings from out-half. The weather gods are not currently playing ball, however.

Scotland's second-half performance at Twickenham in this year's Six Nations was a snapshot of what they are about and how Townsend wants them to play.

Trailing 31-0, they fought back in stunning fashion, but were unable to seal the deal, which in many ways typified their erratic nature.

In Stuart Hogg, Scotland have one of the best full-backs in the tournament, while Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour certainly add pace and power out wide, but getting the electric trio enough ball remains an issue.

Invariably, there will be question marks about Scotland up front, especially without Richie Gray, yet they have added some serious quality in Hamish Watson, who is a ferocious back-row operator.

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Add the fit-again John Barclay to that list and suddenly Townsend (below) will believe that he is moulding a pack good enough to provide that front-foot ball, starting against Ireland on Sunday.

Back-to-back facile pre-season wins over Georgia has meant that it is difficult to get a firm grip on where Scotland actually stand ahead of this weekend's clash.

They bounced back well to beat France after being handed a shellacking the previous week in Nice, but then again, if we are unsure what state Scotland are in, then we certainly do not know what kind of French team will rock up in Japan.

For all of that, they are very dangerous opponents for Ireland, especially first up. That familiarity aspect will work both ways, but Townsend would love nothing to get one over on Joe Schmidt, who he admires hugely.

Like Ireland, who toured Japan in the summer of 2017, Scotland did the same thing the previous year.

In front of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Tokyo, the Brave Blossoms almost pulled off a huge upset before Greig Laidlaw came to the rescue from the bench.

It was, nevertheless, a huge scare that served as a warning of how dangerous the hosts will be and also how tricky the conditions will be over the coming weeks. Barclay remembers the close call well.

"I think it was the first rugby game that the Emperor had ever been at," the flanker said.

"We knew it was huge. We were losing with 20 minutes to go. It was a bit of an eye-opener with the heat and the speed they play at. You really felt you were up against it.

"Everyone is saying it is a game we could slip up in but if you are serious and want to talk up your chances, you have to beat everyone in the pool stages.

"You're not going to get a bigger test than Japan because culturally it is the polar opposite to what we are used to.

"I love it. I grew up in the Middle East in Hong Kong so I was a bit more prepared for it.

"The heat was tricky, certainly in training. I found that really tough. But culturally, it is miles away from what we are used to."

Torrential

The forecast torrential rain arrived on cue yesterday with the temperature in the early 20s. Similar conditions are expected on Sunday.

How that impacts Townsend's thinking will be interesting because the slower conditions will naturally work against the former out-half's desire to play that aforementioned high-tempo game.

According to Barclay, Scotland feel that Ireland are coming into the World Cup "under the radar", but they are very aware of the threat they pose, despite their own mixed year.

"We were pretty disappointed with the Six Nations, we showed glimpses of what we could do," Barclay maintained.

"We did a lot of good stuff. When we are in multi-phase rugby, we are OK but we conceded quite a few soft tries.

"We have shown we can score tries and that was always Scotland's Achilles heel - the ability to produce something from nothing, but we have that now with guys like Finn and Hoggy.

"There is a lot of talent. This definitely has a feel that there is world-class talent in there. I haven't played in too many Scotland squads like that."

There is no doubt that confidence is high within the Scotland squad. They are talking a good game and they have the quality to back that up.

The time to deliver is fast approaching.

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