SATURDAY’S Calcutta Cup clash with England will be Gregor Townsend’s 50th Test in charge of Scotland.
It is a significant milestone given the uncertainty swirling around the former fly-half’s position after the failed 2019 World Cup campaign.
Nineteen months out from the next global jamboree, Townsend appears well set to take Scotland to the 2023 edition in France given recent successes and the increasing depth of quality at his disposal.
But what are we to make of his tenure to date? Here are some numbers behind the story so far:
The ‘Toony Tombola’ has become a feature of squad announcements over the last five years, with the head coach never afraid to change things up or explore new options. He has used 94 different players in his 49 Tests so far. Of those 94, 16 have only featured as replacements. That means 78 different players have started a Test under Townsend – with 21 of those only starting once. The overall figure was inflated somewhat by the first Test of last autumn against Tonga, when no players based outside Scotland were available as the match was played outside the official Test window. Eight players made debuts that day, four from the start and four more from the bench.
As well as five of that group who have yet to add to their tally, the one-cap-under-Toony club also includes the likes of Phil Burleigh, Jake Kerr, Jon Welsh, Darcy Rae, John Hardie and Blair Cowan.
The selection merry-go-round has been most apparent in midfield, where Townsend has selected 24 different centre combinations so far – including 16 that only lasted one Test. 13 players have started games in the 12 and 13 jerseys, including a lone outing for Finn Russell at 12 against Argentina in November 2018. Two more – Phil Burleigh and Mark Bennett – also featured briefly off the bench. Initially it appeared Pete Horne and Huw Jones were the chosen pair, enjoying some notable success including the 53-24 thumping of Australia and the 2018 Calcutta Cup win in Townsend’s first season. But they only started five Tests together. Sam Johnson and Jones also got five outings, James Lang and Chris Harris four. Since the 2019 World Cup, the combination of Johnson and Harris has become, if not a fixture, at least a consistent feature, playing 10 Tests together – twice as many as any other combo. But with Cameron Redpath restored to fitness and Sione Tuipulotu in compelling form, it would be premature to assume it is one fixed in stone.
Who has scored the most tries for Scotland in Townsend’s tenure? Stuart Hogg, now the country’s all-time leading try-scorer? Darcy Graham, Hogg‘s fellow Hawick native, perhaps? The dependable Sean Maitland? Or maybe Duhan van der Merwe, South Africa-born wing who topped the charts in last year’s Six Nations. Actually, none of the above. He’s not even a back. Take a bow… Stuart McInally. When the Edinburgh hooker came off the bench to score Scotland’s final try in their most recent outing against Japan, he equalled the record for a Scottish forward – shared by John Jeffrey and Derek White – with his 11th Test try, all scored under Townsend. For a coach renowned for his teams’ attacking flair, it may surprise some that 18% of Scotland’s tries under Townsend have come from hookers, with George Turner (seven), Fraser Brown (five), Dave Cherry and Ross Ford (both three) and Ewan Ashman – with a memorable finish against Australia recently – all chipping in.
Townsend has won 28 and drawn one of his 49 Tests in charge, giving him a win percentage of 57.14% (or 58.16% if you’re feeling generous and give him half a point for that bonkers 38-38 draw at Twickenham in 2019). That is a better winning record than any of the 12 previous incumbents since the role was created for Bill Dickinson in 1971. Ian McGeechan’s record was ever so slightly higher (57.58%) in his first spell in charge, a period which included the 1990 Grand Slam. But when you take into account his second, less successful, tenure from 2000 to 2003, his overall win rate drops to 50%. Jim Telfer, across three spells at the helm, achieved a shade under 45%. In the professional era only Townsend’s predecessor, Vern Cotter, comes close with 52.78%. If the decision to dispense with the New Zealander’s services appeared harsh to some observers at the time, it is hard not to argue, statistically at least, that Townsend has built impressively on those foundations.
In the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Townsend appeared unsure over his choice of captain. John Barclay was his first after he took over and the flanker enjoyed some notable successes in leading the side on 12 occasions but missed the entire 2018-19 Test season through injury and had only just returned to the fold. Greig Laidlaw, who captained Scotland more times (40) than anyone, also did the job before injury struck in the 2019 Six Nations, while Stuart McInally had led the side six times before being made captain for the World Cup, only to be dropped for the final pool match against Japan amid a dip in form. In the period of reflection that followed, Stuart Hogg was made the leading man. After a couple of costly errors in his first two games as skipper, the full-back has grown into a role he has now performed on 17 occasions, including his first stab at it against the USA in 2018. Grant Gilchrist, Ryan Wilson and Fraser Brown, plus Ali Price and Jamie Ritchie – co-captains against Tonga last autumn – have also led their country once under Townsend, making nine players in total, but Hogg remains the totem figure for now.
It may provide some reassurance to Scotland fans to know that nine of the 10 players Townsend has picked most during his reign are in the starting line-up for this weekend’s contest, and the other – Stuart McInally – is on the bench. Stuart Hogg, unsurprisingly perhaps, has started more – 35 – of Townsend’s 49 Tests than any other player. Hamish Watson (32), Finn Russell (30 – despite his fallout with the coach in 2020), Jonny Gray and Jamie Ritchie (29 each) and Ali Price (28) are not far behind, with Grant Gilchrist (24), Zander Fagerson and Sam Johnson (both 21) completing the top 10. When players’ totals include replacement outings as well, however, Price has won the most caps under Townsend, having appeared in 41 of those 49 Tests, including 13 off the bench. The Glasgow number nine started six of Townsend’s first seven Tests in charge before a nightmare against Wales in Cardiff at the start of the 2018 Six Nations. He subsequently had to play mostly second fiddle to Greig Laidlaw until the Borderer’s retirement after the 2019 World Cup, since when Price has established himself as Townsend’s undisputed number one scrum-half, and a Test Lion to boot.
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Scotland have scored 166 tries in 49 Tests under Townsend, an average of 3.39 tries per Test. They have conceded 107, an average of 2.18 per game, but that has dropped to 1.56 since Steve Tandy took over as defence coach after the 2019 World Cup, with only 28 tries conceded in 18 Tests.
Of the 166 tries scored, 108 have been scored by backs and 55 by forwards – plus three penalty tries. Those 55 tries feature 36 by front-rowers, six from locks and only 13 from back-rowers. Within that, only two have been scored by number eights. The game may have changed since the guy at the back of the scrum used to routinely pick up and charge over the opposition try-line, but the prolific scoring rate of the likes of Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt – the two eights in England’s 23 on Saturday – does make you wonder if it is a peculiarly Scottish trait. Only Magnus Bradbury, in that 38-38 draw at Twickenham, and Nick Haining, as a replacement in the rout of Tonga in the autumn, have scored a try from number eight under Townsend, Bradbury’s other two Test tries coming when he started at blindside. More remarkably still, Bradbury and Haining’s are the only two tries scored by a Scotland number eight since Johnnie Beattie’s try in their last win in Dublin in 2010. None of a batch including Dave Denton, Ryan Wilson, Josh Strauss, Cornell du Preez, Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson have crossed the whitewash during the past decade in more than 150 caps between them.
If Saturday’s Calcutta Cup encounter goes down to the wire and Scotland work their way into the England half needing a score to win the game, don’t expect to see Finn Russell dropping back ‘into the pocket’, waiting for the right moment to take aim and fire over a drop-goal. The mercurial fly-half may have scored 201 points for Scotland, including 166 with the boot, but he has yet to bisect the posts from open play in any of his 56 Tests wearing the thistle. Neither has Adam Hastings (24 caps) or any of the other six players Townsend has picked at 10 while playing in the position.
One of those – Duncan Weir – enjoyed a Six Nations moment to remember with his famous ‘Duncy drop’ to beat Italy in Rome back in 2014, but it is the only one of his Test career. Townsend wasn’t averse to the odd attempt in his own playing days – he landed seven drop-goals for Scotland. But the only one during his time in charge of the national side to date came courtesy of a booming 40m effort from full-back Stuart Hogg – in a 34-0 win against Samoa at the 2019 World Cup.
If Townsend achieves nothing else for the remainder of his coaching reign, he will always be remembered as the coach whose side broke the longest winless run of any country at a rival’s home in the entire history of the Home/Five/Six Nations Championship. Generations of Scottish players had made the trip to Twickenham and never tasted victory until Townsend’s troops ended that 38-year, 18-match winless run this time last year. His teams have also shattered a few other notable hoodoos of course – the 22-year barren run in Paris last year, an 18-year losing streak in Wales in 2020. “What the players have done over the last 12 months or so has hopefully put a lot of that history and those records to bed,” he said recently. Townsend’s first Six Nations in 2018 brought a first win over England at Murrayfield for 10 years. If they win again on Saturday, it will also be the first time in 38 years that they have enjoyed back-to-back wins over the Auld Enemy. In 1984 Jim Telfer’s side went on to secure only Scotland’s second ever Grand Slam. A good omen for this campaign perhaps?