Famous fightback gives Gregor Townsend grounds for great hope ahead of World Cup

Scotland coach heartened by spirit shown in barnstorming second half at Twickenham

Scotland at full-time on Saturday: frustrated by England's late equaliser, but determined to learn the lessons of an inspired recovery. Image: © Craig Watson. www.craigwatson.co.uk

THE Calcutta Cup may have ended in a moment of frustration for Scotland as England snatched a draw at the death, but there is another emotion that may well be more enduring as a consequence of the 38-38 result: optimism.

Not baseless, it-will-be-all-right-on-the-night optimism either. Instead, we have real grounds for hope that, as we look ahead to the World Cup, Scotland can grow significantly in self-belief thanks to this performance. They may not have won, but they still put one of their best displays ever at Twickenham, one that has to go down as one of their best away performances in recent years.

Granted, they have yet to prove they can play at that level over 80 minutes, and the Six Nations as a whole has to be ranked as a serious disappointment given it yielded just one win. But, again with the World Cup in mind, there is a real feeling within the squad and the coaching team that they can benefit from adversity, and that the lengthy injury list could be a blessing in disguise given the extra players who have now been given unexpected experience.

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“It showed when we get things right – and that could be system, effort, communication, belief – then we can do special things,” Gregor Townsend said. “It also showed the fitness of our players. The last two weeks we’ve played better in the second half than the first half and that shows that in the tough environment we play in that the players can dig deep and still take the game to the opposition.

“It also shows that we have good depth. We obviously have had to play players this year for a number of reasons. They’ve got experience of Six Nations.

“Our bench has come on and made an impact. I was really looking forward to the bench coming on and making an impact today because of the experience we had. Fraser Brown, Jonny Gray, Josh Strauss, Greig Laidlaw – these are players that have played the last five or six years for Scotland. But at half-time I thought obviously the impact they were going to make was going to be minimal. So, for them to come on when the team had got back to nine or 10 points behind then really add their power and experience, that really helped us in the last 15 minutes.

“Obviously we believe that with everybody available we’ll be stronger. You never know what happens in the summer. It’s likely we’ll have less injuries than we have halfway through the season.

Selection headaches

“It makes things more difficult selecting an initial squad for the World Cup and a final squad for the World Cup, because there are players who have played really well for us in the last two or three weeks and they’re going to be competing against players who have played really well for Scotland in the last two or three seasons. A lot will go down to how they train in the summer and how they play in the warm-up games.”

While Scotland’s fitness has been beyond doubt for some time, the mental fortitude of the players has been called into question at times in recent years when they have failed to rise to the occasion in big games. On Saturday, however, they displayed considerable courage to play with such adventure in the second half when the safer and supposedly wiser route at 31-7 would have been to try to restrict the damage.

“It’s a credit to the players,” Townsend continued. “It’s a tough thing to do to go back out knowing that the team you’re playing against is on fire, running hard on to the ball, getting off the line in defence, and with history against us, the scoreboard and history against us.

“To see that they didn’t lose faith and didn’t give in and went at the opposition was great to see. At the time we were probably thinking that if we came back and showed a true picture of ourselves in the second half and get a couple of tries and keep them try-less, that would be a positive achievement to move on to the World Cup.

“But what they did was amazing. Thirty-eight unanswered points, 31 in the second half, that was a real credit to them and showed what they are capable of doing.”

Captain fantastic

Four of those points were scored by Greig Laidlaw, who came on quarter of an hour or so into the second half as a replacement for Ali Price. But, as Townsend explained, the scrum-half’s role began long before he got off the bench.

Greig Laidlaw at half-time was excellent. He has been excellent all week as one of our leaders who was not in the starting team. He spoke to Ali and Finn at half time and he was a calming influence on the backs.

“It’s tough when you’re 30 points down. A lot of players played here two years ago and the final scoreline was very different as well. It’s tough to get back into the process of working out how to get some respect back.

“That was the first thing – not to win, just to have a good second half and win the second half. It was just amazing to see how that led to us getting right back into the game and going ahead.

“He was very calm. I wasn’t listening to it, but he spoke to Ali [Price] and Finn [Russell] and the backs. The changing room was a calm place. To get those calm influencers in the team – Stuart [McInally] is another one – is a massive help to us as a coaching staff.”

Townsend can justifiably be hopeful about the future of his team, but it is perhaps reassuring that some of the players remained frustrated above all after the game – not only about the outcome of that 80 minutes, but about the tournament as a whole. “I’m disappointed in how we’ve gone,” try-scoring centre Sam Johnson said.  “You can say how well we’ve done here, grittiest comeback and all that, but you also look at the Wales game, the Ireland game, the France game and what could have been.”

Having said that, the Queensland-born Glasgow Warriors back added that it had still been a memorable occasion against our oldest rivals, one which perhaps ended with more mutual respect between the teams than is often the case in this fixture. “Awesome: any experience like this, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. To play at Twickenham, home of rugby you could say, in front of 82,000 screaming Poms – in Australia, it’s the same as Scotland,  you grow up hating the Poms.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was such a great contest and I think they’re a good bunch of boys.”

Thoughts with Christchurch

There had been a sombre start to the afternoon as the match which ended in such frantic fashion was preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand – a mark of respect which had particular resonance for Simon Berghan, who was born there, and Sean Maitland, who played six seasons for the Crusaders and still sees the South Island city as his home.

“Woke up and had a few text messages saying ‘Are family OK, is everyone OK?’, and I thought ‘Earthquake, there’s been another earthquake?,” Maitland said, referring to the 2011 event. “My wife’s family still live in Christchurch and my mother-in-law was in the park close to the hospital, and saw the police come from all angles to get to where it was. Obviously Christchurch is a small place and straight away when they said it was that mosque I knew exactly where it had happened.

“I was just in shock and disbelief. Bergy and I couldn’t believe it. There was a lot of emotion in the minute of silence. Christchurch has had its fair share of setbacks and this is one of the darkest days. Just lost for words.”

Neither player thought of pulling out of the game, but Maitland admitted it had been difficult to get in the right frame of mind. “No, never in doubt,” he added. “ It was tough, but me and Bergy had a little word to each other and said let’s go out and put a performance out there for our city.”

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About Stuart Bathgate 1427 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.