FIFTEEN months have passed since Gregor Townsend was first announced as Scotland coach. Six months since he actually took over from Vern Cotter and named his squad for the summer tour. Four and a half since he was in charge of the national side in a Test match for the first time.
He has long since become accustomed to the demands of the job and to the ways in which it differs from coaching at club level, and by the same token the Scottish rugby public are now completely familiar with seeing him in the role. Even so, tomorrow’s match against Samoa is a significant milestone in the 44-year-old’s career: the first time that Scotland have played at Murrayfield with him at the helm, and thus the first chance for the home support to witness at first hand the ambitious style he wants his team to display.
Although Townsend last played at the national stadium in the 2003 Six Nations, he has by no means been a stranger to it since, having been Scotland’s assistant coach under Andy Robinson besides visiting regularly while in charge of Glasgow Warriors. Even so, the Samoa game represents a homecoming of sorts; one which Townsend has anticipated eagerly for some time.
“Really looking forward to it,” he said yesterday after announcing his squad for the game. “As a head coach it’s all about the players and helping them perform and be confident in what they’re going to do. To help them in a stadium that is 65,000-plus is even better, for the players and for us to enjoy the atmosphere.
“I haven’t thought much about my time as a player at the stadium, but I remember standing up for the anthem, beginnings of games – but really I’m not sure I’ll be thinking about that on Saturday. It will be more about any patterns in the game, any help that the team need with messages, or what I’m going to say to them at half-time.
“I think my last game at Murrayfield was Italy before the World Cup. I was probably thinking I’d have another game back here the following season, but that didn’t happen. I did want to go into coaching, but I never thought I’d be standing here today in charge of a team about to play at BT Murrayfield.”
Townsend played in the 15-15 draw back in 1995 against Western Samoa, as they were known then, and in the 38-10 win five years later. But of his three encounters with this week’s opponents, all at Murrayfield, the one he remembers best is the 1999 World Cup quarter-final play-off. Scotland won the match 35-20, but not before the Pacific Islanders had put up a pretty formidable fight.
“I do remember one just out in the corner there,” Townsend said when asked his memories of that match. “Brian Lima, whose nickname was The Chiropractor, got me – and I did get my back aligned that day. We had a three-on-one, and normally with a three-on-one the defender is just going to sit off and you can pick him off, because he’s got decisions to make.
“He didn’t do that. He came in and, well, it meant I had to pass the ball – I certainly got hit hard. That’s something the Samoans do really well. They tackle very hard, they run very hard. They’ve got a power and speed about their game. If you give them quick ball, if you aren’t accurate, they will cause you damage.”
That much was true back in 1999, and it is just as true today. The extraordinary physicality of the Samoans puts extra demands not only on the bodily resilience of their opponents, but on their mental toughness too.
“You have to be accurate,” Townsend added. “We have to realise that there are times when we’re going to be knocked back or they’re going to make a line break, because they’ve got that ability to do that. So we have to stick to what we know is working for us and make sure that all this preparation we’ve done, when the players have trained really well, is transferred into an accurate game.”
Such accuracy and unswerving perseverance were not always in evidence the last time the two nations met, at Newcastle’s St James’ Park in the decisive pool game of the last World Cup. Scotland got there in the end, winning 36-33 to go through to the quarter-finals, but only after captain Greig Laidlaw had pulled them back into shape after a dishevelled first half and more.
The scrum-half is out injured just now, of course, but has been with the squad this week, continuing to play a leader’s role. “He’s been really good at speaking to individuals, just being there. Players have had a lot of meetings themselves as well as us having coach-led meetings, and to have someone who’s obviously a key leader for this team, for this squad and has been their captain for the last couple of seasons is great. I can’t tell you how many individual meetings he’s had, but I’m sure Ali Price will be picking his brains as well.
“The players have referred to that [2015 match] and obviously Greig was there. And that’s where we’ve certainly been aware that at things like re-starts – which they were excellent at that day – and running from their own 22, which took the team by surprise, we’ve got to be alert for anything on Saturday.”
The Samoans, for their part, will have to be alert for anything too. A coach as innovative as Townsend will not let this landmark game go by without trying something a bit special.