Townsend eager for Scotland resumption
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has spent the last six months learning and reflecting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He has only been able to get out on the training pitch a couple of times recently – coaching the Melrose under-18s - but now the autumn schedule has been confirmed his focus is on Scotland and there is that palpable sense of Townsend excitement.
“I can’t wait,” he said in an interview with scottishrugby.org. “From a coaching point of view, we just want to get back working with our players. From a sports fans’ perspective, it will be great to see international rugby back, the Scotland team back playing and also we’ve got a tournament to finish in the Six Nations with that game remaining against Wales, but we’ve also got the new tournament, the Autumn Nations Cup to play in, so we are looking forward to both of them.”
First up, however, at BT Murrayfield on Friday 23 October are Georgia.
Scotland faced them twice last season in preparation for the
Rugby World Cup and won both matches.
Townsend recalled: “They were both very competitive fixtures. We really focussed on delivering one of our best performances out in Tbilisi (Scotland, the first Tier 1 nation to play there, won 44-10). We knew how tough that challenge would be.
“The following week at BT Murrayfield – I think it was a six-day turnaround – it was a challenge for us (Scotland won 36-9). They are a tough team to break down. Their setpiece is obviously outstanding and the more experience they have been getting, playing international games, playing in the World Cup, the better we’ve seen them become.
“So, we know that [next month’s match at BT Murrayfield] will be a tough game. It’s always a tough game your first game of the season, as well as you are putting a plan in place and players are playing with each other for the first time in a long while.
“Just to get that preparation game in before we play a tournament game is very important because you can do so much in training but you are going to miss the game scenarios with full contact where players have to make decisions on the field, so doing that with new team-mates back in a Scotland jersey will be of real benefit.”
Eight days later, Scotland will play Wales in their remaining match from the 2020 Guinness Six Nations Championship, in different circumstances from that which they would have faced back in March.
“Our memories of being in Wales last time were of being on the team bus on the way to the stadium for our team run the day before the game and we unfortunately got the call that the game was going to be suspended or postponed, which was the right call but at the time we were very disappointed because we had built up momentum during the tournament,” Townsend recounted.
“We’d had a really good week of training and the players could not wait to play in that stadium and play again for their country, so we have to recreate that same atmosphere, environment, same motivation, because it’s an important game.
“It’s not going to be played in a stadium with 75,000 supporters like we normally do against Wales but we have to adapt to whatever circumstances are ahead of us and take on a very good side, very proud side in Wales and finish the GUINNESS Six Nations with the best performance we can give and see where that leaves us in the table.”
Then attention will turn to the Autumn Nations Cup, a concept Townsend relishes.
“We are all looking forward to it because it’s a tournament. November Tests are always really enjoyable. We get to play in our home venue. We get to play some excellent teams and you learn a lot during that period. But with this Autumn Nations Cup, you are actually playing for a trophy. Each game has something at stake. You want to finish the pool as high up as possible. Hopefully then play off with someone from the other pool to see if you’re playing for the trophy at the end of it.
“We have some tough opponents but some variety of opposition, which will test us. Italy with their ability to move the ball now and their ambition, playing away from home (for us) is a challenge and they’ve obviously always had a very good set-piece.”
That venue for the match against Italy on Saturday 14 November has still to be confirmed, but it will be played on Italian soil.
Townsend continues the countdown: “Then you move on to France (Sunday 22 November) who have combined a really strong defence and kicking game with their natural flair. They had won the first three games of the Six Nations (earlier this year), so they are a quality side.
That (France) was our last game and the team played really well (winning 28-17 back in March). I thought the players managed the game very well. We started with some excellent intent in attack and defence and with the nature of the red card and also the rain in the second half, we probably did not play as much rugby as we set out to do but it was the right thing and we stayed ahead of a very good French team.
“They (France) showed their talent in that game. I thought they played some really good rugby close to the ruck. Anton Dupont was outstanding. They have some great individuals, so they’ll be fired up.
“They were in very good form earlier this season. I suppose every team will now be in the same position of re-finding the form they were in or learning from their experiences earlier this year and how that can be transferred into better performances when they get together again.
“Then we play Fiji who have a new coaching staff (led by Townsend’s predecessor as Scotland coach, Vern Cotter) so maybe they’ll play with more structure, but obviously their natural strength is moving the ball around, opening up and they have some of the best individual players and attacking players in world rugby.
“They actually always bring a physical challenge. So, when we think about Fiji we probably think about off-loading and brilliant tries. But the physicality is the first thing they impose. They are big men.
“They are unpredictable in that they will do things you don’t normally see teams do. They do have much more structure and set-piece ability than ever before, through the coaching but also through the fact that a lot of their players are playing at top clubs in Europe.
“If the game is loose, if there are a lot of transitions, a lot of turnovers or loose kicks, then they are probably the best team at the world in exploiting that.
“We have to make sure that we don’t give them those opportunities and any opportunities they do create we have to be solid in defence and execute our game plan when we have the ball.
“So, three really good challenges for us, two at BT Murrayfield, which will be great and then we’ll see where we are. We know we have a lot to build on from the Six Nations but a lot to improve on and some challenges ahead of us.”
As ever, Townsend will embrace those challenges.