GREGOR TOWNSEND experienced one of his proudest moments this weekend … and it involved veteran back-row Ryan Wilson, a jack-the-lad character who earned his 50th cap for Scotland against France in Paris on Friday night as a late call-up after Matt Fagerson picked up an ankle injury at the end of training on Wednesday afternoon.
“I was sitting with him two hours ago and he was fast asleep while I was still awake, so that’s probably one of my proudest moments, he couldn’t keep up!” revealed the coach during an 9am press call on Saturday morning.
“On Wednesday we had a training session against Glasgow when Matt got injured, and we had to make a really quick decision because we were about to fly,” he continued. “It didn’t look good for Matt so I spoke to Ryan and said: ‘How do you fancy going to Paris?’ And the first thing he said was: ‘What about Glasgow this weekend? We’ve got a big game.’ I think that says a lot about him and how he’s put his club first this last 12 months.
“He’s not played for us since the World Cup, but we knew how keen he was to play again and he’s been playing well in a competitive position. He was on 49 caps so he may have thought his opportunity to get to 50 had gone. To get a late call-up and to integrate really quickly, as we knew he would as an experienced player … it is a great story and we’re delighted for him that he’s got his 50th cap.”
Townsend was still clearly on a high after that remarkable success at the Stade de France. Bleary eyed and croaky voiced but wearing a broad smile across his face, the Scotland coach admitted that he doesn’t know what will come next for his squad – with Covid making it very difficult to plan more than a couple of weeks in advance – but as he reflected on his team’s performance against France he was able to assert with justified conviction that things are indeed moving in the right direction.
That wasn’t always clear during this Six Nations campaign, which started with a bang against England at Twickenham in round one, but then stagnated as the team slumped to two frustrating defeats against Wales and Ireland in rounds two and three. Beating Italy by a record margin was nice, but hardly a bellwether of progress against such lacklustre opposition, however France on Friday night felt significant, with the team overcoming serious adversity before and during the match to still find a way to win in the fifth minute of injury time.
The squad quite rightly enjoyed Friday night but professional sport means that they can’t revel in the moment too long. For the players, there is European action to jump right back into with their clubs next weekend, while Townsend is acutely aware that his team still have a lot to prove.
They finished fourth in this Six Nations, so there is no doubt that there is room for improvement, and with more players likely to be involved in the Lions tour this year than has been the case since he was a player back in 1997, this summer should present an opportunity to blood a few more youngsters and grow the depth of the squad generally.
“We don’t know yet who we are playing,” said Townsend. “Georgia, Romania and Spain are options. Japan are playing the Lions so we may be able to do something around them. There are discussions around that. There are also discussions around playing England in a friendly, whether it is a development or an A game, so I am hoping that in the next two or three weeks we will be able to put some fixtures together.
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“It’s been great bringing young players into our training squad,” he added. “You’ve seen that Jamie Dobie and Rufus McLean were invited to train and now they’re full members. Seeing how they’ve progressed in this period for their clubs. The try Rufus scored for Warriors against the Dragons the other weeks was a worldie. We had two 18-year-old second-rows training with us in the past couple of weeks in Max Williamson and Alex Samuel. They’re very young but it shows there are players coming through.
“So, I’m sure there will be opportunities for those young players and it’s up to them now. They’ve got two or three months of the season left to play well for their clubs.
“And there are also players down south. Cam Redpath has played one game for us and what a debut that was. Josh Bayliss came into our squad. We hope they are available and fit and ultimately playing well enough to get into our squad for the summer.”
There is a strong suspicion that Townsend will be a member of Warren Gatland’s Lions coaching team. If that is the case, he doesn’t see his absence during that period as an impediment to the team continuing its progress. “If anybody is away during the summer, we have capable coaches that can step up and do that role,” he insisted.
The one real set-back from Friday night’s match was the shoulder injury sustained by loose-head prop Rory Sutherland. “He was in hospital but came back into our camp late on Friday night,” explained Townsend. “He’s in a lot of pain. We won’t know until he has another scan if there’s any more damage.
“I really feel for him. His performance last night on the back of the last two years in the Six Nations has put him in a very good position to go on the Lions, so let’s hope he’s not out for any length of time that puts that under pressure.”