GREGOR Townsend’s aim of getting his squad to play the fastest-tempo rugby in the world promises to produce some exciting encounters over the next couple of years, and today’s first outing at home for the new approach has been eagerly anticipated. Of course, the head coach and his players know that speed alone will not see off Samoa this afternoon. They need accuracy and aggression as well as acceleration, and if they come up with all three they should manage a morale-boosting win before the tougher challenges that await at BT Murrayfield over the coming fortnight.
Scotland have huge confidence in their fitness, which in turn allows them to believe that they can implement the style demanded by Townsend. But before they can make that fitness tell in the closing stages, they will have to withstand a bruising barrage from the Samoans, who showed the last time the two teams met that they too are capable of playing an ambitious running game.
Much has changed since that nerve-shredding day in Newcastle in 2015, when Vern Cotter’s Scots eventually won 36-33 to go through to the Rugby World Cup quarter-final. Cotter has gone, for one, while only six of the team who started at St James’ Park retain their places today, with notable casualties including some of the most experienced members of the side such as Alasdair Dickinson and Ross Ford.
Samoa, for their part, are not the force they were: second seeds in the pool then, having been eighth in the global rankings when the draw was made, they are now down in 16th and are facing a play-off just to get into the 2019 tournament. With their governing body having been declared bankrupt this week, they do not have their troubles to seek either on or off the pitch.
Having said that, they will still be as determined as ever to give a good account of themselves, and will try early on to unsettle those members of the home team who are inexperienced at this level such as Darryl Marfo. The key for the Edinburgh loosehead and the rest of the pack, according to forwards coach Dan McFarland, will be to use their resources intelligently. They do not need to win every ball, nor do they need to come off the pitch at the end having ground their opponents’ faces into the dirt; but they do need to secure quality possession for the backs to exploit.
“The pack have to deliver ball, that’s important, but it doesn’t become the pre-eminent thing,” McFarland explained. “Domination at set-piece is something that certain teams will go after. We will look to be on the front foot at set-piece time, but our priority is about cleanness and quality of ball, and then making use of the set-piece to cause trouble when we can.
“We want to play at pace, and for the forwards that means being accurate but pushing the tempo. We’re a fit team, and there are players who will run fast for a long time. We want to take advantage of that.
“It’s an attractive brand of rugby, the kind that people want to watch. I also think that it suits the Scottish legacy. The legacy that I grew up watching in the Six Nations was about high tempo and being able to run the opposition off their feet.”
According to Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill, Marfo has been playing to the full extent of his powers in recent weeks, and if he continues at that level he will acquit himself well. The concern if he fails to do that is that his back-up, Jamie Bhatti, is altogether less experienced – although McFarland, as you would expect, insisted he had full confidence in both those men and in the other front-row forwards such as hooker Stuart McInally and tighthead prop WP Nel.
“Darryl is first-choice loosehead and well deserved. Darryl and Stuart played in a great game against Leinster earlier in the season, which I watched eagerly, because I was fully aware of what Leinster have in the scrum.
“Leinster had Lions playing that day” – Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong were at loose- and tighthead prop respectively – “but [Marfo and McInally] did a really good job. WP is playing really well and trained really well over the last two weeks. Jamie, it’s well documented that he’s relatively new to professional rugby in the front row. He is a tough man. He does not lie down; he learns fast.”
McFarland is not the first coach to have referred to that Leinster-Edinburgh league match in such a positive way, with Townsend and Cockerill also having mentioned it as an example of how well their forwards can play. It should be remembered, however, that Leinster won the game 21-13 and did not concede a point in the second half, so trying to take too much inspiration from that match could be counter-productive. It should also be remembered that the Glasgow pack – which includes George Turner and Zander Fagerson, on the bench today along with Bhatti – have been decidedly second best in their two Champions Cup outings to date against Exeter and Leinster.
Something that can definitely prove inspiring, however, is the Warriors’ ability to finish games strongly, with the best example of that being their late win at altitude in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs. That recent record must make it is pretty straightforward for the Glasgow players to comply with the Townsend regime’s demand for supreme fitness.
“Yeah, it does actually,” No 8 Ryan Wilson said. “When you come here the intensity of training goes up, and I think the Glasgow boys have found it pretty good. We train at a high tempo at Glasgow and then roll into here. We’ve been going well in training.
“Samoa are big men and we’ll look to run them round the park. We know that the last 20 minutes we’ll have that extra little bit in the tank, I think, to keep going.”
The combative back-row forward knows as well as anyone that for a fast game to be effective, the application of brute force is required. He believes that provided the pack play their part, the backs can do the rest.
“To play quick rugby, you’ve got to be brutal and aggressive. The contact area is what makes you play quick rugby. If you’ve got slow ball and you’re not brutal and aggressive at the contact area, you aren’t going to get quick ball.
“With players like Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos behind those rucks, looking to play, we want to get that quick ball. We can get better at that. But there are plenty of players in this group who have that edge to them. We’ll be looking for that tomorrow.”
They will look for that quick ball, and they should get enough of it to win well. There will be a couple of scary moments – there are always are when you play the Samoans – but in the end Scotland should have the power as well as the pace required to win by two full scores or more.