THERE are always calls for players and supporters alike to “keep the faith” in demoralising defeats such as Scotland suffered last Saturday. But, as they bid to put that loss to Wales behind them and prepare to welcome France to Murrayfield, the national team have no need of faith. Not, at least, of the blind variety.
The fact is, the game plan devised by Gregor Townsend has already been shown to make sense. It is not a leap in the dark, but a carefully calculated assessment of what is required for Scotland to take on and get the better of the world’s leading teams. So there is no need for anyone to mutter the mantra “In Toony we trust” to themselves while keeping their fingers crossed just in case.
And although the head coach is convinced that his high-tempo style is the one most likely to bear fruit against the toughest opponents, he knows very well that it is not guaranteed to produce a victory in every game, particularly when the players apply it badly. By the same token, when they apply it well, as they did just three months ago against Australia, the results can be spectacular.
Yes, Eddie Jones had a point when he said, at the launch of this year’s Six Nations Championship, that Scotland have often looked awesome in autumn only to slump in the spring. That much is a matter of record. But that victory over the Wallabies was not just another positive outcome in just another friendly: it was a record for the fixture, and showcased a new, ruthless side to Townsend’s team. And if that game plan can work against the Australians, it can work against anyone in world record, including, dare we say, Jones’ England. Provided, that is, it is properly applied.
Hamish Watson, for one, while accepting supporters’ right to be critical, remains certain that the game plan is the correct one. “It’s expected to get a bit of a backlash after a loss like that,” the Edinburgh openside said yesterday. “I don’t think many people were expecting it and the fans are probably quite right to be a bit hacked off after a game like that, but no-one’s hurting more than the players, so we need to put it right as well.
“We’ve got to approach it [the France match] in the same way we approached the Wales game. Our preparation was good, and after one game you don’t chuck your game plan out the window. That game plan’s been working for us for 18 months now, so we’ve got to stick to what we’re good at and just execute a bit better.
“The harsh words were said after the game and on the Monday, and we’ve moved on from that now so that we’re solely focusing on France. We’ve definitely got the right sort of game plan to take on the best teams in the world, but it was just executed poorly by the players.
“With the game plan we’ve got we can’t make as many errors as we did, especially away from home. We made a lot of errors in attack and didn’t build the phases in defence. There were too many holes and they cut through us a bit too easily, so it was a combination of the two, I think.
“We need to be a lot more clinical. There were far too many errors in that game. We lost a lot of ball first phase, I think we got over eight phases once in the game, so that’s something that’s not really acceptable for us and it’s something we need to work on. If we can build the phases, we’ve seen how teams struggle when we go to multi-phase.”
That emphasis on being clinical is just one indication that the plan put into practice by Townsend is not merely some idealistic commitment to playing running rugby for the sake of it: some things that some players did in Cardiff were naive, but again, that does not mean the plan was wrong. Another indication came when Watson was asked to assess Ireland’s last-gasp win in Paris, and to say whether he would settle on Sunday for a victory achieved, like theirs was, without a single try.
“I think in this competition you would, yeah,” he said. “Obviously we want to score tries and play a good brand of rugby, but it’s also a winning sport, isn’t it? So you’ve got to take the win. Anyone who can grind out that sort of victory by staying in the game, managing to get a late opportunity to win the game, and then taking it – fair play to Ireland.
“We’ve got to get the set piece right and build from there. We need to go out and be positive, and obviously it’s a must-win game for us if we want to have anything to do with this championship. But it’s a must win for France as well, so it’s going to be a tough game. Apart from a last-minute drop goal at the weekend they could have easily won that game, and Ireland are looking pretty good, so I think they’re still definitely a massive threat to win the competition. So we’re approaching it as we’d normally approach playing France: they’re a very good team.”
…and in the BT Premiership