THIS isn’t the time to panic – but neither is it the time to play down the significance of what happened on Saturday evening at the Allianz Riviera stadium. We didn’t expect Gregor Townsend’s team to be firing on all cylinders in their first World Cup warm-up match, but we did expect them to be better than that – much, much better.
Scotland started poorly with a try conceded within two minutes of kick-off and things went downhill from there. They didn’t get across the whitewash themselves throughout the 80-minutes, even when some of the urgency went out of France’s play during the last quarter and in the final reckoning they must consider themselves deeply fortunate that they didn’t lose by more.
France were good. Better than we have come to expect from a country which has struggled to harness its formidable rugby resources into a disciplined and coherent national side in recent years. They were hungry, they were focussed, and they were fitter than Scotland – not just bigger but quicker round the park and more dynamic in the collisions. That’s a big concern because Scotland are always going to struggle in matches which become an arm-wrestle, so if they can’t stress teams with superior movement and tempo either then it is hard to see where they go next.
“We’ve worked hard, and we know the players are in really good physical shape, but they’re obviously not match conditioned yet and we’ll look at how we can accelerate that over the next week or two,” Townsend told the BBC after the game. “We allowed them into the game by not making enough dominant collisions, dominant tackles and when you give a French team space, they can cause you damage, so that’s very disappointing.”
Townsend’s words raise an interesting point. Was this in issue with match-fitness or was it attitude? How come players like Jamie Ritchie and Stuart McInally were able to throw themselves around so vigorously and relentlessly, while others in the starting team should really have paid like the rest of the punters to watch the action.
Attitude is everything
Magnus Bradbury was unavailable for this match due to a rib injury and isn’t expected to be back for the re-match against France at Murrayfield next week, so New Zealander Blade Thomson – who has finally shrugged off the concussion which scuppered his chances of an international bow in both November and during the Six Nations – must surely come in at No 8 to see if he can provide some much-needed ballast to the pack.
Jamie Ritchie could not have done much more to state his case, and will likely be rested next week with Hamish Watson certain to take the game to France if selected at open-side. It feels a bit like John Barclay could do with another run-out after missing most of last season but as he is a near certain traveller it makes sense at this stage to see how Ryan Wilson and/or Sam Skinner approach the challenge of helping Scotland achieve a remarkable turnaround in fortunes inside the space of seven short days.
Sometimes there are easy solutions to big problems. Richie Gray’s absence from the training squad this summer is hard to fathom given the physicality deficit and lack dynamism on the ball in the back two rows of the scrum – but it is surely too late to call for the big man now.
Younger brother Jonny will surely come into the second-row next week which should help with the battle to slow France down in contact, while Alan Dell starting at loose-head, alongside WP Nel or Zander Fagerson at tight-head, will hopefully solidify the scrum and add some punch around the park.
Do or die time
Behind the scrum, Townsend must decide if he can risk Finn Russell, who is so central to the team’s prospects in Japan, or use next Saturday’s game as another opportunity for one of his potential understudies – Adam Hastings, Pete Horne, Rory Hutchinson or even Greig Laidlaw – to get more time in the saddle.
Saturday was a tough shift for Hastings but not nearly as bad as some of the more hysterical analysts on social media have been making out. We know he is loose, that he is prone to errors, that he needs to accept that caution is sometimes preferable to rash bravery – but we also know how dangerous he can be at his best and that he is a work in progress. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not a good long-term strategy.
Next Saturday isn’t a must-win game – but it is a must-play game. Another half-baked performance will be crushing to morale. There was a sense of purpose about France this weekend which suggests that they might have finally found a groove at just the right time, and they will rock up in Edinburgh ready to do another number on their opponents.
Scotland need to start well because they are not good enough to be continually giving top sides the sort of head-starts which they have been in the habit of generously handing out in recent outings.
They need to win more collision and make life harder for the French at the breakdown. “We allowed them to get that front-foot ball, which is much tougher to defend,” conceded Townsend. “When you are defending 20 different sets throughout a game you have to make sure the opposition are getting slow ball or you are forcing errors from them, or it will be a tough night physically, which was the case for us.”
Talk of defensive systems and shape is all well and good, but without urgency it is just hot air. At least four of France’s five tries on Saturday were a direct result of Scottish players being too slow to get into position.
“There is a group of players who weren’t involved here who will get a chance next week,” said Townsend, hinting at how selection might go next week. “Some guys will have to go again, but that was always the plan for the first two games – to get that match conditioning into a group of 35 players and then look to build more combinations in the two games against Georgia with the players who are more likely to go to Japan.”
For the time being, all talk of Japan should be banned. It needs to be all about Saturday.