Tuesday 18 December 2018

Townsend's men bring continuity

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Ian McGeechan

It has been nearly 20 years since Scotland last won the Six Nations - or Five Nations as it was back then, before the arrival of Italy in 2000.

The 1999 tournament win was achieved on the back of very dynamic team rugby which produced a series of outstanding tries - 16 in all, eight more than England managed in second place.

Interestingly, it was a certain Gregor Townsend who orchestrated the on-field performances with an attitude and intent that brought the best out of all those around him, an approach that was exemplified by five tries in Paris in the final game.

Scotland have always been at their best with this high-pace game where, once the ball is in play, the number on your back becomes irrelevant. It is all about runners and their support. So, here Scotland are again, with a talented group of players who are being challenged to play by Gregor and being encouraged to show the attitude that was so prevalent when he was at his best as a player.

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The first game, against Wales at the Principality Stadium next Saturday, is vital. Whoever wins will feel they have a really good chance to go on and challenge for the Championship. The losers are likely to be playing for third or fourth place.

I would like to think that Wales will shut the roof if the weather is not great. Of course, it would suit Scotland if conditions were dry as they will look to play with real pace, as they did in the autumn. But Warren Gatland experimented with two playmakers in the autumn, so presumably Wales will want to keep the conditions as dry as possible. More and more, the Welsh players are being challenged to pass (they delivered the most passes from the autumn Tests) and play through three playmakers.

Scotland are in a good place, though. They do not need to be worrying about the weather. The manner in which they took the game to the All Blacks, and then took apart Australia, at Murrayfield in the autumn, was a joy to behold.

Naturally, expectations have risen as a result. But that is no bad thing. The atmosphere during those two games was electric (who can forget that emotional opening against New Zealand, when Doddie Weir and his two sons carried the ball out on to the Murrayfield pitch?), which augurs well for the two home games against France and England.

Scotland have a really solid group of players. When you look through the squad that Gregor has selected, there is genuine depth and quality. Whether it is Stuart Hogg at full-back, Sean Maitland, Tommy Seymour, Lee Jones and Byron McGuigan on the wings, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Huw Jones in the centres, Finn Russell and Ruaridh Jackson at 10, Ali Price backing up Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half, the backs have flair and imagination in abundance. Just as importantly, they have the attitude to attack.

In the forwards, the cupboard is well stocked, too. The back-row, with the likes of John Barclay, Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson, Luke Hamilton and David Denton all vying for spots, have pace and power. You have the Gray brothers, Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist in the second-row. Those boys have now mixed it with both the All Blacks and Australia and not been found wanting.

The front-row is where things get a little trickier. WP Nel is still out, as is his replacement, Zander Fagerson, who played so well in the autumn. So, tighthead is a concern. On the other side of the scrum, Darryl Marfo is missing. If the game slows down and it becomes more of a set-piece battle, how will Scotland manage that? Ireland, France and England have big, organised packs. Gregor will want to avoid a stop-start game, when frustration can result in poor decision-making.

Mind you, Scotland were making replacements on the morning of the Australia match and they did all right. A lot will be asked of Simon Berghan and Jamie Bhatti again.

In most areas, though, Scotland have more strength in depth than they have had for a while. More importantly, they have players capable of beating the first defender, as well as support which reacts quickly, in numbers, to any half-break.

Vern Cotter deserves an awful lot of credit for getting Scotland back on an even keel. He really re-introduced an understanding of what it meant to play for Scotland. And Gregor has come in and continued the upwards trajectory. He was the architect of some of Scotland's best wins as a player. And now he has been the architect of some of their best performances as a coach.

Gregor is a great thinker. Sometimes, as a player, he was too far ahead of his team-mates. But he appears to be very good at communicating his ideas to his players as a coach. And the good thing is that Scotland now have real continuity in terms of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Dave Rennie has continued Gregor's good work at the Warriors, while Richard Cockerill has turned Edinburgh into real scrappers. It is so important that those two clubs can hold their own in Europe and in the Pro14.

Of course, there was a lot of optimism this time last year and Scotland were then brought crashing back down to earth at Twickenham. I do not think that result will affect the players. In fact, they will have learnt a huge amount from that defeat.

Russell, in particular. He still takes risks but it is about choosing when to take those risks. It is not about speculative passes, forcing it off the back foot. When you do take risks, it is about having three or four players who are capable of supporting you. That is what Scotland have in their locker now, backed by an energy and fitness to keep delivering.

Yes, they have three away games this year, including a tough trip to Dublin. But I do not think this is a year when anyone is going to go unbeaten. So much will depend on that first game in Cardiff. If Scotland get it right, it is game on.



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