WHEN on song and in full flight, Gregor Townsend’s Scotland side can be both hugely entertaining and effective. They play fast and loose and are not afraid to innovate. However, after three defeats on the bounce in this year’s Six Nations – two at home and one away to a poor French side – it is hard to escape the feeling that, far too often, they are a nice team to watch and a nice team to play against.
Refereeing decisions, defensive lapses and lack of accuracy have all been cited as reasons for the team’s lack of success in this campaign since that opening day victory over Italy, but that feels a bit like scratching around the edge of the problem. Fundamentally, Scotland haven’t been able to really impose themselves on the opposition in any of the three defeats, and have been left relying on a flash of inspiration or a stroke of luck to get over the line.
Scotland must now regroup to go again next Saturday, away to England, at a venue where they have not won since 1983 and where they were on the painful end of a 61-21 drubbing on their last visit two years ago. With so many of their most dangerous and experienced outside backs unavailable due to injury – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Blair Kinghorn and Huw Jones – it is an extraordinarily tough ask, but chief playmaker Finn Russell has insisted that there will be no switch away from the team’s tally-ho philosophy as they look to break out of their current slump.
“No, we just keep playing the same – the attacking, fast rugby that we’re trying to play,” he replied, when asked if he might need to adopt a more pragmatic approach at Twickenham. “At times against Wales we created a lot of chances, we created edge attacks, three-on-twos or four-on-threes, and we just need to get better at executing those down in the finish zone … getting that killer instinct that we need to win games at this level.
“I’m not going to change the way I’m playing with a few boys coming in who can fill the spots and play, slightly differently, but as well as the boys we’ve had. I’m not going to change anything. We’re still looking to play an attacking game of rugby.
“If we get as much pressure and territory and possession [as we did on Saturday], then we need to get more points,” he continued. “Our conversion rate when we’re in the 22 will need to go up. Looking at the [Wales] game, we had three or four penalties in their 22 in a short period. We could look back and say: ‘If we took three points there it would be a different game’ – but we were going for the win.
The problem with positive spin
For many, frustration at how things have gone recently was exacerbated in the aftermath of the Wales defeat by the Scotland squad’s determination to accentuate the positives both in the post-match press briefings and on social media. You can’t help feeling that their opponents would not have been so quick to trot out phrases such as ‘amazing experience’ if they had lost. But Russell insisted that this shouldn’t be mistaken as an ambivalence towards defeat.
“I think we were maybe a bit more positive because of the way we played in the second half [against Wales],” he said. “The second half was better than the first, but we are disappointed, and we know we need to win these games when we get close.
“We need to be hard on ourselves at the right times, look at the negatives and look where we need to get better and be honest with each other. That comes from the coaches and the players, because going into the World Cup we will be looking at this Six Nations and November Tests for how we can improve.
“In sport, it’s not always going to be happy and pats on the back. So, we’re not making a massive deal of the negatives, as if it’s the end of the world, but we are making sure they get picked up and we know that we do need to get better.
“At this level it’s about results. We’ve not got them in this Six Nations although we have played some good rugby. We’ve not been as good as we maybe could be.
“We need to stay positive for the week building up. At the same time, we know we have to turn pressure and opportunities into wins. We can’t keep getting close and being happy with that. We need to start turning these games.”