GREGOR TOWNSEND cut a desperately forlorn figure as he sat behind the top table at Saturday’s post-match press conference, deep underneath the stands of the Principality Stadium, and tried to rationalise what had just happened.
It is little wonder. His team had been on the receiving of a mauling so painful and embarrassing that any thoughts previously expressed about Scotland challenging for Six Nations glory this year now look like nothing more than a bad joke, and the prospect of another dreaded must-win trip to Rome at the end of the championship to avoid the wooden spoon is already casting a gloomy shadow over the national squad.
We know all about disappointment in Scottish rugby, but this one really stung. After the excitement of the autumn, when New Zealand were pushed to the edge and Australia were completely overrun, hopes had escalated to fever pitch that the time had arrived for the championship’s northern-most participants to finally join the private party at the top of the Six Nations table. So, what happened?
The thoughts of assistant coach Mike Blair on the Monday before the Wales match are pertinent here.
“The teams in the autumn all sat off a little bit in defence, allowed you to play a little bit more. We’d expect most of the teams in the Six Nations to be coming up and putting a lot more line speed on us, a lot more pressure on us. So, from that point of view, that’ll be slightly different. There is more pressure that comes with Six Nations games: whether that’s a media thing, a crowd thing or expectations you put on yourself, there are definitely different dynamics you have to deal with in the autumn compared with the Six Nations,” he said.
Scotland knew what was coming. But in the white-hot heat of a tournament opener against a team with an awful lot to prove – away from home in one of the most hostile rugby atmospheres in world rugby – the difference between knowing what is going to happen, and being willing and capable of doing something about it, was shown to be two entirely different things.
That charming rugby philosophy which Townsend has set himself up as the champion of – high tempo, high skill levels, high risk – unravelled against a Wales team which targeted Scotland’s greatest strength and made it their biggest weakness.
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Shockingly, there was no obvious plan B once it became painfully apparent that the Harlem Globetrotters approach to winning this match wasn’t going to work. By the time the leadership and clear thinking of Greig Laidlaw, Peter Horne, Ryan Wilson and Grant Gilchrist had come off the bench, it was far too late.
Townsend gave a frustrated sigh when asked if he needed to find a way of reigning in the more excessive attacking tendencies of his key live-wire performers without losing the vitality which has got Scotland this far without a powerhouse pack.
“I think that … look … there’s a part of the game that maybe we went too wide at times, but ultimately that was one element. Other elements were that we lost ball at contact, made defensive errors, didn’t win the ball at the line-out. So, you can’t say: Look we’re running from our own line, that’s why we lost today,” he argued.
“There are times when we have to go forward and narrow a defence, give our forwards easier targets, but that’s the way we play. Today wasn’t really a true representation of how we play in attack and how accurate we can be and how good these players can be.”
“I think a lot of our errors weren’t down to Wales rushing up and defending any differently than New Zealand did, or Australia, who are excellent defensive teams. We probably found as many gaps in the defence as we would have in the first 20 minutes of those games in November, it’s just that we weren’t accurate enough in our passing, our decision making, to really hit home that advantage.”
Townsend is right to point out that Scotland started pretty well, but they then found themselves chasing the game after giving away two quick tries. Despite this, at 14-0 at half-time the Scots were still in it. The killer moment was the two penalties conceded by captain John Barclay right at the start of the second half which meant that Scotland now needed three scores to get back in it.
“That was really disappointing, because I felt there was real determination from the players to go out in the second half and show who we were. But to be caught in our 22 playing phases that weren’t really on and then to come away three points further down was disappointing for everyone. You want to show some sort of response at the beginning of the second half. Whether it’s through actions, whether it’s through three points, or seven points, the momentum kept on with Wales and from that they got more and more confident,” conceded Townsend.
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“We’ve seen the players execute under pressure at training, execute in games previous, so just that little bit of accuracy that’s out at this level will mean you have to defend for a number of phases, or your momentum is stalled and it got stalled too often today.”
The problem with the argument that this was a bad day at the office is that if Scotland want to be taken seriously then an off day should not result in as hopelessly a one-sided match as this, or a defeat against Fiji, or in losing by 40 points at Twickenham.
“We don’t have a great away record, there’s no getting away from that. We have to get better, we have to realise that teams will have moments when they’re doing well, when the crowd’s behind them and when they maybe score a try, so we’ve got to handle that, we’ve got to be better,” acknowledged Townsend.
“Today wasn’t the answer obviously. We’ve got to find solutions when we go to Dublin and Rome [at the end of the championship], two very tough places to win, but our focus over the next two games is playing at home and making sure that we put in a performance that makes our supporters proud. And if that gets us two wins then brilliant, but we’ve got to make sure we perform.”