NEXT stop the Six Nations. Yes, yes, we know, there have been seasons before when the optimism of autumn has evaporated come spring, but after a performance like this 53-24 demolition of Australia, Scotland can surely look ahead with realistic hope to the Championship.
They will not be favourites to win it, they are far from the only team who are improving at present, and they are led by a coach who is certainly not going to get carried away by this win over the Wallabies. Still, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground, and insisting that his squad were still very much a work in progress, Gregor Townsend was clearly extremely pleased by the progress made in this record-breaking victory and in the autumn series as a whole.
“All the teams in the Six Nations are very good, and I’m sure they’ll approach February with a belief they can win all their games,” Townsend said when asked if he would call his team contenders for the title. “We said back in [the training camp at] St Andrews that the challenge facing us over the next 12 months was a huge one, playing every team in the top eight apart from South Africa, but if we played at our best we could win all those games. Win every time we play a top team.
“We showed that last week, almost getting the win, and we certainly showed it today. We’ve got to have that same belief but also the same mindset to play, take the game to the opposition and work hard. That will bring its rewards.
“There’s been a lot of positivity around Scottish rugby, and a lot of work gone in, in the last few years. It’s great to get that win against the current third team in the world and I felt the win in the summer was different, because it wasn’t as open as today’s game, but there was a lot of work put in in defence and attack, and it shows you what these players are capable of.”
One highly encouraging aspect of the eight-try win was the fact it was achieved in the face of disruption to the squad – both on Thursday, when Alex Dunbar was ruled out by concussion after being named in the starting line-up a day earlier, and right before the match, when Stuart Hogg had to withdraw after aggravating a hip muscle in the warm-up. Add in the fact that some other senior internationals have been out of action throughout the Autumn Tests, and it becomes evident that Townsend’s squad now has an enviable strength in depth.
“Very pleased to see the replacements play so well,” he said of the reshuffle which saw Sean Maitland move to full-back and Byron McGuigan come off the bench to start on the wing. “Byron was outstanding. And Sean Maitland, fitting in at full-back having trained mainly on the wing this week, and only in his second game back after injury, that was great.
“It was also very good to see it not affecting the players too much. When you have to say to them five or 10 minutes before kick-off that there’s a change you know there’s going to be a slight effect and players are going to be asking questions, ‘What does that mean for certain moves?’ but they kept their focus. It shows their resilience and also shows the depth we have in certain positions, especially in the backline.
“And we’re well aware that there were a lot of players who could have been playing today who will come back into the mix, but it shows the depth we have and what the players are doing coming through from the age-groups and the pro teams. It’s an exciting time to be involved with Scottish rugby. If you ask the supporters from the last few weeks if they’ve enjoyed watching the Scotland team play, and ask the players whether they’ve enjoyed playing for Scotland I’m sure they will all say ‘yes’.
“Now we’ve got to build on that to bottle it to ensure that this energy, enjoyment and hard work keeps on going because we’ve got some hard Tests coming up – Wales, France and England are our next three games and they will really test us. They are excellent teams, but we have to go into that Six Nations with real confidence that we can do well.
“If we’d lost today it would have been disappointing given how close we came last week, but we were really working towards a better performance and a lot of the times out there it was better than last week. There are still a few things to improve, but to come into such a big fixture with some bodies that were tired after last week, all that energy was brilliant to see.”
Although Townsend’s opposite number Michael Cheika did not try to use the dismissal of Sekope Kepu as any sort of excuse, the Scot acknowledged that the incident a minute before half-time had had an influence on that game. “It was a big advantage to us,” he said. “It was such an open game there was going to be some tired bodies, and when the game became less structured it suited us.
“Australia showed at the beginning of the second half, and with 15 minutes to go, what a quality side they are even with a man down. We had to up our game at the end. We gave them a little bit of a sniff to potentially come back, so it was great to see the players closing the game out and playing really well that last 10 minutes.”
Captain John Barclay was every bit as pleased, and was particularly enthused by the adventurous style of play Scotland have adopted under Townsend. “The way we performed was the most encouraging thing,” the forward said. “The speed, the tempo, the chaotic way we’re trying to play.
“Australia are a very good team. They lost a player, but sometimes that galvanises a team, so it was absolutely fantastic. It meant a lot to the guys after the disappointment of last week. Every player who has come into this squad in the last few weeks has stepped up and looked very comfortable in the group, and that says a lot about the mindset.”