GREGOR TOWNSEND says he plans to name his strongest available team for Scotland’s next two World Cup warm-up matches – back-to-back encounters against France at Murrayfield next Saturday and then in St Etienne seven days later – in order to build momentum ahead of the tournament.
Speaking after his team’s solid but uninspiring win over Italy in their first pre-tournament hit out, the national team coach explained that offering key players an opportunity to play themselves into form is just as big a priority at the moment as taking a closer look at those on the fringe of selection to the final World Cup squad.
There are currently 41 players in the mix for selection, and that will be cut down to 33 on the week after the second France game.
“There is a lot around World Cup squad selection, but the important thing is for us to get the team out there and play these big games, so we go into that South Africa game with a team that has gelled together,” said Townsend.
“There is no bigger challenge right now in world rugby than playing France, they are the number two team in the world, they are hosting the World Cup and are full of confidence, [so] we will be putting out as strong a team as possible over the next two weeks.”
Townsend confirmed that this mind-set means Darcy Graham – a two try hero in Scotland’s opening World Cup warm-up match against Italy this [Saturday] afternoon – is likely to feature in one or both of the upcoming matches against Les Bleus.
“The way Darcy has played for us in the last few seasons, he’s obviously going to be very much in the mix for that,” the coach said.
“It was great that he got a game against Italy. He missed the Six Nations [through injury] and we just need to get him and the back three more ball.
“He didn’t need to do much for his scores, but it shows his instinct for the try-line – especially the second one, he has to finish that, but it was created by a solid scrum and a really good carry by Stafford McDowall.
“The first one was a solid line-out maul then a really good kick from Ben Healy. That’s sometimes the way for wingers, but Darcy can create other things with his footwork and pace.”
Townsend was tight-lipped on whether anyone had either played themselves in to or out of the final World Cup squad.
“I’d need to have a deeper look at it,” he replied. “Games will obviously weigh heavily on our selection discussions but we’ve trained for seven weeks now, and what players have done in training is really important.
“Sometimes, it just might not go your way in a game. We’ve got to understand that too.
“I was really pleased with the bench as well. To come on and make an impact in the first game of the season, a Test match, a lot of credit goes to them.”
The coach did, however, acknowledge that stand-off Ben Healy – who switched allegiance from Ireland to Scotland earlier this year – did his chances of making the 33 no harm. The 24-year-old was named man-of-the-match after shrugging off a couple of miscalculations to produce an assured all-round performance which featured two penalties, two conversions and an inch-perfect cross-kick to set up that first Graham try.
“I thought he was excellent,” said Townsend. “To play at 10 you need to have a confident temperament, you need to be calm when things aren’t going well for you, and he showed both of those.
“His kicking was outstanding. Those spiral kicks, you could sense the crowd thinking, ‘ooft, we don’t often see this’. On a couple of them, it changed it from us winning a penalty in the 22 and maybe getting to the halfway line to actually being in their 22.
“And he delivered at the end there with two good passes that led to Ollie Smith making the break and Cam Redpath putting away Josh Bayliss for the final try.”
Chris Harris picked up a shoulder knock in the first half but played on until just before the hour mark, and Townsend wasn’t overly concerned about the centre – or any other player for that matter – being an injury concern.
“I think he’s fine. I think it was more a stinger. He seems fine in the changing room.”
In terms of work-ons for next weekend, Townsend said: “Our handling, [especially] handling in the wet [needs to be better, so keeping our depth, making sure we get the catch first. And our contact area [needs to improve] because Italy are really strong there and they got a few jackal penalties, as they did in the Six Nations.
“So, those are the two [areas] that stand-out and that probably could have led to more pressure that we could have exerted in our attacking game.
“I thought our movement off the ball was good, we just didn’t get to phase four or five enough,” he added. “It was pleasing that we finished with a try which was accurate attack, good passing, good work off the ball and good decisions.
“But we want to work on every area so the areas which were positive we want to build on them. I though set-piece wise, our maul looked good when we actually went through with it, our maul defence was excellent, our scrum was very good on our ball and the opposition’s – I think we drove Italy off their ball for two turnovers there and we were dominant on our ball. So, we want to build on that for the challenges ahead.
“The other thing was that 80 or 90 percent of the time our defence was excellent, really physical in the tackle. We spread out well and communicated well. But every now and again we could have brought more impact.
“But that’s a credit to Italy too. The way they play, they stress defences because they are willing to move the ball wide, and they were more accurate than us at handling.”