Tuesday 16 January 2018

Townsend up against history and statistics

Scotland's attack coach may well have the toughest job in rugby, writes Mike Averis

The outline of Murrayfield in the background and the figure of Gregor Townsend in the foreground are equally recognisable to anyone who has been within a sniff of Scottish rugby in the past two decades, but the reason for the tennis racquet in a recent picture is less obvious.

"It's to improve the players' hand-eye co-ordination, but I have more fun than they do," says Scotland's attack coach. "Certainly my tennis has improved. When I first started doing it I was missing the players."

Townsend, capped 82 times by Scotland, says it is an idea he picked up playing Super 12 rugby in South Africa and he was using it last week as he prepared the Scotland backline for today's trip to Twickenham.

The whole of Scotland hopes it makes a difference because in exactly 100 years of coming south to Twickenham, Scotland have won only four times in 44 attempts, the last 28 years ago, and the bookies are laying heavy odds -- and not without good cause -- that win number five is at least another two years off.

England are flying -- three wins from three in this Six Nations and 11 tries in the bag -- while Scotland are struggling after three defeats. They have not scored a try at home in eight internationals and arrive at Twickenham with the alarming statistic that their backs have managed only four tries in 14 Tests.

Consider that England's swallow-diving wing Chris Ashton has scored nine times in 10 appearances while Scotland's wings and centres have managed only 16 in 106 Tests between them and you get some idea of what being Scotland's attack coach means, especially when they have selected two half-backs but cannot remember whether they have played together before.

"I don't think they have," says Townsend, before reconsidering and saying it is possible that Ruaridh Jackson, making only his second start for Scotland, and Rory Lawson played together when Scotland won the Nations Cup three years ago in Romania.

"Ruaridh, having his first start against Ireland was a little nervous at the start, but he got settled into it and you find that a lot with those players capable of playing at that level. You also have to remember that Ruaridh came on against the All Blacks before Christmas and got a line break with his first touch."

On Wednesday, when Andy Robinson announced five changes -- one positional -- from the team that went down to Ireland, but that Jackson was not one of them, some nodded sagely and said the Scotland coach had as much of an eye on the World Cup in New Zealand in six months as on Twickenham. Not so, says Townsend.

"Our focus is just this weekend. Obviously we have not had the results we wanted this season, but we have players who are playing well and there is nothing ahead of this weekend. That's what we are looking at. We want our players going to Twickenham relishing the prospect of taking on a very good side in a fantastic stadium."

Unfortunately for Townsend and Scotland, there is one further problem. Just when they are looking to play a more ambitious game, their previously watertight defence has started to let them down. France scored four in Paris, Wales two at Murrayfield and Ireland three before Scotland began to fight back last time out. Unfortunately for Jackson, close video examination showed that the new outhalf missed four tackles and he has been doing extra work with the defence coach ever since.

"We have not had a complete performance so far," Townsend says, "but we're building towards that. We know that if we tighten up defensively and if we nail those opportunities in attack we'll get a different scoreline. But we need that game to come out. If we play the way we have been playing, we are not going to have any chance at Twickenham. We're all aware of that. We are playing a very good side at a stadium where we have not won for 28 years. We need all of our players to be playing close to their best."


England v Scotland,

RTE 2, BBC 1, 3.0

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