BETTER results. Better performances. Better, more varied options for the selectors.
As Scotland get ready to depart for Japan on Monday morning, Gregor Townsend is able to reflect on a series of four warm-up games that has shown steady progress.
Of course, that progress was made from the low point of a disheartening defeat in Nice, but it is still the case that a lot has gone right in the three weeks since. Even when Scotland have not been playing well, as was the case in parts of the return match against the French and on Friday night at home to Georgia, they have shown the strength of character to fight their way out of trouble and claim a win.
Add the victory in Tbilisi to those two home results and the overall picture has brightened considerably, even if there are still concerns about Jamie Ritchie and those squad members who suffered less serious injuries on Friday. “If you compare last week’s game to our game two weeks ago [at home to France] there was huge improvement in the things we set out to do, whether it be our kicking game, our attack or our defensive structure,” Townsend said after the 36-9 victory over Georgia. “Tonight wasn’t as accurate as last week but there was really good energy within the team.
“When I replay it in my mind I have pictures of George Turner, Scott Cummings, Blade Thomson, Jamie Ritchie running on to ball, getting behind the defence and creating quick ball so that was really pleasing.
“There are things to work on, and we probably guessed that tonight it wouldn’t be as cohesive because it’s a new team. Our training this week has been compromised pretty heavily coming back from a game on Saturday and a flight, brand new team, only one training session, so I thought to produce a result like that shows the players have worked hard and they know how to find a way to win.
“I was pleased with the energy the players brought and I firmly believe we’re the fittest team going to the World Cup. We’ve seen it in the numbers they produce in training, the fitness tests, and tonight showed examples of that.
“They looked sharp in the first half and were still working really hard in the second half. We’ll have to be as fit as possible to take on all the teams we’re playing against, especially the first one [Ireland] and the last one against Japan.”
An aye on Darcy
Darcy Graham was once more one of the real positives on Friday night, and although he is still probably unlikely to start against Ireland, he could be getting closer to the matchday 23. “I love his attitude,” Townsend said of the Edinburgh winger. “With some players they need a dozen games to adjust to Test level, but Darcy, that’s not been the case for him.
“[In his] debut in Cardiff he was only on for seven or eight minutes and made two line breaks, then he came on in Paris and made a difference, got a start the next week, scored a try and the following week he got two tries at Twickenham.
“He’s got an energy about him, and an edge about wanting to get on the ball, but also wanting to defend and take the game to the opposition whether with or without the ball. And that’s great to have whether it’s starting, off the bench or in training to keep the other guys in that position on their toes.”
Today’s Premiership Match Reports:
Another reassuring element of Friday night for Townsend was the fact that Saracens centre Duncan Taylor played the whole game. Taylor has been plagued by injury for years, but his importance when fully fit has never been in doubt.
“Duncan worked very hard, and a real positive was he played 80 minutes and at the end of the game he was getting a turnover, putting a kick in and chasing after it,” Townsend added. “He’s not been able to train fully since his game in Nice because of an Achilles flare-up. He has been able to train fully this week, so to see him play 80 minutes which would have included high numbers in terms of sprints and metres run – because the flow of the game was back and forward – was a really good performance for him to get under his belt.
“He played well in Nice: there was an action just before half-time when he got up and made three tackles within 20 seconds, which was outstanding. We all looked heavy-legged in Nice and that was partly our preparation but also the pitch, and he’s looked really good in training and it was great he played the whole game tonight.”
While Taylor’s endurance was a reassuring sign and Graham was named man of the match, lock Scott Cummings was just as impressive with his dynamic carries. Not so long ago the lock would have expected to be on pre-season duty with Glasgow rather than preparing to fly out to the World Cup, but he has taken his chance well.
“I wasn’t involved in that initial squad that was named, but Gregor gave me a call, said there was still a slot and to work hard until the end of the season,” Cummings explained. “When he added me to the squad, I was genuinely just thinking about training as hard as I could to try to get a warm-up game.
“[The World Cup] probably wasn’t even on my radar last winter, never mind last summer. There was a bit of time at Glasgow where I wasn’t getting picked, so I just had to knuckle down and when the Six Nations came round I started to get a better run of games.
“It’s all still a bit surreal, the fact we’re going to be in Japan for who knows how long,” he said. “It’s going to be something special for everyone, and personally I can’t wait to get out there.”