DAVID BARNES in YOKOHAMA
SCOTLAND head coach Gregor Townsend says that if he leaves the role before the end of his contract in the summer of 2021 it will be because he is pushed out the door – as he has no intention of quitting.
He was speaking under embargo following his team’s 28-21 defeat to Japan in Yokohama on Sunday, which condemned Scotland to an early exit from the 2019 World Cup before the knock-out stages have started. It is only the second time in history that Scotland have not made the last eight.
“Yes, of course,” he replied, when asked if he planned to carry on in the job he first took on during the summer of 2017. “I feel very lucky and privileged to be in this role. If someone else was to do it, the least I could say is that I’ve enjoyed the time here.
“It would not be my decision anyway,” he continued. “I am not somebody who would not go to the end of his contract. When it comes to the coach, it is somebody else’s decision, but I believe we have the makings of a very good team that can compete with the best teams in the world.
“We have not done that well enough in this tournament. But we have underperformed at other times and gone and worked to make it better. We are running to keep up with these teams but I believe in this group of players and that we can beat the best teams in the world.
“You might not get the impression, but I do not like losing. You always feel you’ve represented your country and not done a good enough job. That’ll start to hit over the next few days. But walking in tonight, in that atmosphere, and with these great players, it’s the best job in the world.
“There’s highs and lows, but I know I’ll be a better coach for the experience, and the team will be better … but the proof will be in the next games.”
Scotland’s next match is against Ireland in Dublin on 1st February at the start of the 2020 Six Nations. One of the key issues facing the team is how many of the current veterans of the squad will be involved in that match. Greig Laidlaw (who turned 34 on Saturday), John Barclay, WP Nel (aged 33), Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland (both aged 31), Duncan Taylor and Ryan Wilson (both aged 30) are among the senior players who will decide during the next month or two, or have it decided for them, whether it is time to hang up their international boots.
While all of them have some gas left in the tank, the start of a new four-year cycle towards the next World Cup is always a brutal stage when it comes to changing the balance of a team.
Gordon Reid, who is 32, has almost certainly played his last game for Scotland having signed for part-time outfit Ayrshire Bulls who will play in Scottish Rugby’s new Super6 competition next season.
“You have a build-up to a World Cup,” acknowledged Townsend. “Could this be time for certain guys who have played in their last World Cup? Will they go on beyond that? Will it be their decision? Will it be our decision to say we want to move on with players and need to build up experience for the next World Cup?
“That was one positive tonight [he was speaking directly after the Japan loss] with the guys who came off the bench – they were young players who came on in tough circumstances.”
Townsend was referring to Blair Kinghorn (22), George Horne (24 – but a late developer into the professional game), Scott Cummings (22) and Zander Fagerson (23 – very young for an international tight-head). He also had Darcy Graham (22), Magnus Bradbury (24) and Jamie Ritchie (23) in his starting XV on Sunday, who had travelled to Japan as back-up players but established themselves as key men following the team’s disappointing tournament opener against Ireland.
Adam Hastings (23) is another squad member who will look to have a more central role going forward, while the likes of Stafford McDowall (21) and Matt Fagerson (21) will push on into the team during the next few seasons.
Whilst acknowledging that the Six Nations will be the start of a transitional period for the Scotland team, Townsend cautioned against pushing too hard, too soon.
“The team that played on Wednesday [in Scotland’s penultimate pool match] was a younger team and it did very well in a difficult position,” he said. “But if that team had gone out tonight, they would have been lacking a lot of experience in a game of the magnitude of this one.
“But it is encouraging when you see players such as Scott Cummings who did well to make our squad of 44 play every game in the tournament and the warm ups. It is really encouraging to see Jamie Ritchie ,who was really outstanding tonight and had an outstanding game against Samoa off the back of surgery two weeks before and there are more.
“Not everybody is going to make the next World Cup. Some will transition out of their own accord or because a younger or different player deserves selection. We have some players coming through who should make us stronger.
“We have a group of players at the age of 25 to 27 – guys from Finn Russell and Jonny Gray who have at least one more World Cup in them. Jonny has 55 caps, Finn on 49. They have to drive the team forward.
“Coaches will be there, but the players are the ones that have to set standards and step up. Some of the players have stepped up during this tournament.
“Greig [Laidlaw] is not going to be at the next World Cup,” he added. “It is safe to say that. Players like him have left as massive legacy. He drives high standards off the field and really cares what it means to play for Scotland. I am sure the other ones do, and I have seen it, but it will have to become more their responsibility.
“I think the Six Nations is such a big tournament and it’s only two months away. It’s around the corner and we have to represent our country the best we can.
“It’s not a case that we’re now planning for four years’ time, we’re planning to have a successful 6 Nations, then we have a very tough tour in the summer and then we’re back playing quality teams in November. So, we have to make sure we put the best team out.
“If that takes an older player who might not be in the next World Cup, he still should be selected – of course he should be selected.
“If we have a transition or development plan to ensure players get the experiences in the 6 Nations, they have to be deserving of that as well. But as we said earlier, these (young) players have shown that they’re deserving. Young players have stepped up and grabbed their opportunity these last few weeks.”