SCOTLAND have traditionally felt most comfortable when going into games or whole tournaments as underdogs. There is always something especially satisfying when you confound expectations, and some of the most celebrated wins in the history of the national team are those achieved against the greatest odds.
For Gregor Townsend, however, part of the team’s evolution has to be the ability to deal with the burden of being expected to do well. After competing with distinction in the autumn, when a narrow loss to New Zealand was followed by a record victory over Australia, Scotland will be favourites to win some games in the Six Nations Championship – and will be expected to entertain in all of them.
Speaking, like Townsend, at yesterday’s launch of the tournament, England boss Eddie Jones suggested that Scotland were about to find that playing with panache is a lot harder when you are expected to win. Townsend himself, however, is confident that his players are mature enough to stick to their expansive game plan whatever the circumstances.
“We have high expectations of our playing group, and we have to because we’re playing the best teams in the world,” he said. “We took on the No 1 team and the No 3 team in the world in our last two games. England and Ireland are now the second- and third-ranked teams in the world, so we want to create a belief within our group that we can win those games.
“I believe – and I’ve had evidence of this at Glasgow – that if you have high expectations of players you’re saying to them: ‘I believe in you. You’ve got to work hard to achieve it, but this is what I believe we can do’.
“You need to have the tangible results of that, so players need to see what they’re doing in training, their own abilities, their cohesion as a group can lead to some very good moments that can lead to some victories. Fortunately, we’ve got that and obviously it’s not just been the last three games, it’s been a process of a few agonising defeats to Australia a couple of times in the last few years that have created that resolve and that belief in our players that we can beat the best teams in the world.”
That belief, Townsend went on to explain, is rooted in a lot more than just the desire to play non-stop attacking rugby. He is confident that his players, while suited to a high-tempo, adventurous game plan, are versatile enough to adapt to altered circumstances. And he implied that talk about that game plan had led to an underestimation of his team’s ability to defend.
“You have to play the game that’s in front of you. We have a belief in how we play that brings the traditional strengths and current strengths of our players, and we’ve got individuals that we want to see on the ball more. But if the game is dictated by other reasons and it’s not working, whether the weather means you have to play something differently, or any other circumstance, you’ve got to be able to adapt and find a way to win.
“Certainly we’re working around taking the game to the opposition and a lot of questions we’ll get will be about our attack. Attack is 50 per cent of the game.
“People forget maybe how well we defended in the autumn. New Zealand didn’t score a point until the 38th minute and it was three points – no tries in the first half. Knowing how potent their attack, is we created problems with our defence, and our defence created tries against Australia, so the defence has to drive a lot of what we do, a lot of our attack and a lot of stopping the opposition playing.
“But it will be difficult against Wales. They’ve got one of the best defences in the world. A lot of people have focused on how they’re evolving their attack, but they’re an excellent defensive team, so we’ve got to find different ways that might break them down and make sure we score the points when we’ve got the ball.”
Lest anyone get the impression that Townsend’s emphasis on attack is merely a legacy of his own playing days, the coaches insisted on two separate elements that lie behind it. One is his conviction that those “traditional strengths” he mentioned includes a predisposition to a quick, dynamic game. And the other is his belief that the most successful teams on the planet are – not coincidentally – those who attack most dynamically.
“I grew up watching Scottish teams that created quick ball. They wouldn’t have talked about it that way at that time – ‘creating quick ball’ – it was about being ruthless around the ruck area and making sure that ball comes out quickly. But there was a pace about the way Scotland played, a pace in the defence as well, so they went after teams and got turnovers.
“And that showed that we were hard workers and we had players who were dynamic, and we still have that today. We have players who have really good ability to move the ball into space, whether they are front-five or back-line players. So we want to see that come out.
“I also believe, the way the game is just now, that attacking teams have had certain boosts or advantages over the last few years with the tweak in the laws. I remember watching the World Cup final just two and a half years ago and to me the two best attacking teams who move the ball most were competing in the final, which showed that you can have success moving the target, creating quick ball, challenging the opposition defence.”