Townsend: From BT Murrayfield to Japan
Ahead of the 2018 Autumn Tests, Gregor Townsend shared his thoughts for the 2018/19 season and looked ahead to the Rugby World Cup.
“I believe everyone in this squad can play in the World Cup and there’s a few outside of it as well,” he said. “We’re entering a period of less than twelve months before our first game and we have some big challenges ahead. I think the squad chosen for the summer tour had Japan in mind, and this selection does too.”
Townsend took on the position of Scotland Head Coach in the summer of 2017 after five seasons at the helm of Glasgow Warriors. Of the 14 matches he’s presided over, Scotland have enjoyed nine wins, including some big scalps like England and Australia. So how does Townsend feel about the performance of his squad during his first 18 months in charge?
“There has been development and there have been some very good performances. It’s not been smooth sailing the whole way. We’ve had some games where we’ve not played to our potential and that’s down to us as coaches and players to work on and make sure that we have more consistency with our performances. Our last game of the Summer Tour was excellent, so we have a lot to build on from that game out in Argentina. We’re bringing back some players who missed that tour and I’m sure they’ll be very keen to be involved in a squad that had such a good win against a very good side.”
For the Autumn Tests, Townsend named three uncapped players in a 40-man Scotland squad – Scarlets back-row Blade Thomson, Exeter Chiefs lock Sam Skinner and Glasgow Warriors centre Sam Johnson.
Skinner was first involved in the then Scottish Exiles (now Scottish Qualified) programme as a teenager, while at Taunton Titans, before he joined the Chiefs in the 2014/15 season. Thomson arrived in west Wales from Super Rugby, having represented New Zealand U20 and the Maori All Blacks, and has been a stand-out performer for the Llanelli side in his debut Guinness PRO14 season.
Both players qualify for Scotland through family connections. Johnson is eligible for Scotland on residency grounds, having joined Glasgow Warriors in the summer of 2015. The Australian-born centre has been a popular figure at the Scotstoun club, making 40 appearances since his arrival and voted last year’s Players’ Player of the Season by his peers. Despite Thomson and Johnson being ruled out of the Autumn Tests through injury, Townsend says that all three players were quality additions to the squad.
“They are excellent players – that’s first and foremost the reason we brought them in. Blade Thomson has just come over to play in the northern hemisphere this season. Sam Skinner is a player we’ve known about for a while and it’s great that he’d committed to Scotland. Sam Johnson’s a player I know really well. He’s got better and better. The rugby they are playing now and can play at international level can help us be a better team.”
The squad also welcomes the return of several seasoned campaigners who missed the summer tour either through injury or a summer of scheduled rest, which sees the likes of Alex Dunbar, Jonny Gray, Huw Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson all back in the squad.
The selection also marked the return of centre Matt Scott and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos, who last featured in a Scotland shirt in the side’s 2017 wins over Australia in Sydney in June and Edinburgh last November, respectively.
Townsend acknowledges that the Scotland squad is growing in strength and depth, saying “We’re always going to have injuries, whether it’s 10% or 20% of the players available, but there is competition in a number of positions – more positions than in the past. Take the stand-offs, for example. Adam Hastings has played very well this year, he grabbed his opportunity against the teams this summer. Finn Russell obviously has been our 10 for the last few years and is playing really well for Racing.
“A few weeks ago we had two Scottish 10s starting for English clubs in the same weekend, Duncan Weir and James Lang, so it shows a really good state of play for Scottish players and we’re excited to work with them all.”
Townsend says he is looking forward to the Autumn Tests, and remembers last year’s November games as being outstanding occasions.
“A big reason for that was the crowds – we had sell-out crowds,” he said. “The New Zealand game transcended a rugby game with the reception the crowd and the players gave Doddie Weir and his family. The games against New Zealand and Australia also stood out as some of our best-ever performances so they were great occasions. It would be nice if we can create something similar this year.”
Ahead of the Autumn Tests, Townsend pointed out that the 2018 opponents, Fiji, South Africa and Argentina, are all teams that are in the top ten in world rugby. He said that the three teams have been improving quickly over the last few years and months. Ahead of the Fiji match, he said “Their last game against us was in Suva and they beat us and they deserved that win,” he said. “I believe they’re one of the most improved teams
over the last four or five years. I could see them going to the knock-out stages and beyond in the Rugby World Cup if things click for them, because of the individual talent they have and where these players are performing at top clubs in Europe now on a regular basis.
“You ally that with an excellent coaching team and you’ve got a very dangerous side.”
He said that the improvement Argentina and South Africa have shown in recent months has also been notable, making both teams a serious challenge for Scotland.
By the end of November, Scotland had enjoyed a 54-17 win over Fiji, experienced a narrow 20-26 loss to South Africa, and finished the month with a 14-9 victory against Argentina. These games have all been stepping stones on the road to Rugby World Cup 2019.
“We want to get out a performance that shows what we’re capable of, and make sure what we’re working on in training gets translated to the games,” said Townsend. “The base of our game I don’t believe will change, because we know that when we get it right we can perform well and can take on any team in world rugby.”
“We want to get out a performance that shows what we’re capable of, and make sure what we’re working on in training gets translated to the games" Gregor Townsend