ADAM HASTINGS had a tough day at the office against Italy on Saturday, but under-pressure Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has backed his playmaker to show the resilience required to bounce back from a match when his kicking radar, his ability to attack the line to get the team moving and his general decision-making let him down badly.
The match didn’t start well for the 23-year-old when he butchered an easy penalty opportunity from directly in front of the posts on nine minutes, and it didn’t pick up for the Glasgow Warriors man until the 79th minute when he opportunistically broke from the base of a ruck on halfway to snatch his team’s third try, which finally took the game away from a limited Italian side.
In fairness to Hastings, the breakdowns were a mess meaning there was a lack of quick ball to work with, but at this level you are looking for your stand-off to be able to adapt to the situation they have been presented with.
“Today will be a good learning day for him because he will see he has to improve as both part of the team and individually,” said Townsend. “But he’s got through that experience, and the last game [against England played in the clutches of Storm Ciara] was a very good learning experience, too, in terms of the conditions and how he has to handle that as a 10.
“So, he’s learning all the time, and what pleased me today is that he was able to turn things around in the second half, and I thought he defended very well with a couple of really good hold-up tackles on some of their big men, and even a jackal turnover.
“He worked very hard, and like the other Scottish players he will be feeling good about winning, but also know there are improvements to come.”
Hastings is a young and relatively inexperienced player finding his way in the international game, and Townsend knows it would be crazy to throw the baby out with the bathwater at this stage – especially as he has very few palatable alternative options in that crucial chief playmaker role.
Finn Russell’s walk-out from the squad and subsequent public spat with the Townsend regime means it is highly unlikely that he will return to the Scotland fold any time soon, Duncan Weir has been training with the squad these last three weeks but there has been no indication that Townsend is minded to give the Worcester Warriors man his first cap since March 2017, and although Peter Horne has made it clear that he hasn’t given up on a Scotland return he is principally a centre who is now 30-years-old so not really a long-term proposition.
Rory Hutchinson has been covering Hastings from the bench these last three matches, but he is also principally a centre and hasn’t really played stand-off since his Scotland Under-20s days four years ago.
“Rory has really impressed us in training with how he has stepped in at 10. We gave him an opportunity to come on earlier this week at 13 and I thought he defended very well there. So, we’ll keep on progressing with those two if they are the stand-offs going into our next two games,” said Townsend, which was a rather half-hearted commendation of the options currently at his disposal.
Unless something major changes soon, Townsend has no choice but to continue backing Hastings no matter what, which is not ideal for the coach who could surely do with having a few choices in this most pivotal of positions, and is also unfair on the player who is now stuck in the firing line no matter how much his form fluctuates (whilst constantly being compared to the incomparable Russell as Townsend perseveres with a game philosophy that does not sit well with the team’s recent DNA).
It is just as well that Hastings appears to be such a thick-skinned and self-assured character. He celebrated like he had won the World Cup after his try on Saturday, kicking the ball deep into the crowd despite the fact that the bonus-point was still on if the team could get back into action immediately. It perhaps wasn’t the smartest move in the world, but there was something re-assuring about his undiminished spirit.
For his part, Townsend insists that Scotland’s new commitment to pragmaticism does not mean disenfranchising the players.
“At the beginning of games, especially when you are away from home, you want to stay in the fight, and you don’t want to give the opposition easy chances to get into the game, so if that means more kicking then that is the option the nine and ten have to use,” he said. “Although sometimes, like against Ireland, it is about keeping the ball in hand because we were getting quick ball and able to move them around.
“I felt at half-time [against Italy] we weren’t as decisive in our actions – whether that was passing, kicking or running – as we could have been. But then we were really decisive for that 10-minute period [after half-time] and that opened up some spaces for our forward to carry hard with the ball, and then we ended up creating a few opportunities.
“As long as we’re decisive in our actions, and producing quick ball, which wasn’t always the case today, then it is up to the half-backs to play where they sense space and opportunities.”