COACHING a rugby team is a bit like playing an elaborate game of Whac-A-Mole. There will be one area which urgently needs dealing with, but no sooner has that issue been knocked on the head than something else pops up elsewhere demanding your attention, and so it goes on, forever and ever, until you retire or are sacked.
It is impossible to be on top of everything all at the same time because none of the issues ever really go away. Spending time on one thing naturally means you are neglecting something else which will need to be dealt with at a later point. Plus, the game, the opposition and your own players are constantly evolving and adapting, which means the coaching you do has to constantly adapt and evolve as well.
Gregor Townsend identified that his team needed to focus on what they were doing without the ball – defence – after their disappointing 2019 World Cup campaign, and having conceded only five tries in last year’s Six Nations and 11 tries from nine games over the whole calendar year you have to say that he and his defence coach Steve Tandy have been fairly successful in dealing with that.
Set-piece has also gone well these last 12 months, with fit again Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson emerging as genuine Lions contenders under the tuition of South African-born former French international prop Pieter de Villiers.
So, attention must now turn back again to attack, generally regarded as Townsend’s strong suit during his time at Glasgow Warriors and the first two years of his Scotland tenure, but something he admits is now a key work-on during this upcoming Six Nations.
“You want to build on areas that are already strengths, so defence and set-piece [for Scotland at the moment], and you want to build on areas which are very important to winning games, so that is defence and set-piece again, but so is attack,” said the coach during yesterday’s team announcement.
“If you make more line-breaks than the opposition and score more tries then you are going to win games, and we didn’t always get that right in the Autumn. But we learned a lot about ourselves, and also where the game is going and where there are opportunities within a game.
“You don’t always get your attack out in a game. It is weather dependent, the opposition is a factor as well, but we feel that this team we have are going to bring their own decision-making and skills up against whoever they play.
“We certainly want to get the best of the players we have out there. We’ve got some outstanding attacking players in our backline and throughout the team, If conditions allow we want them to express themselves. We want to see them bring their strengths into the game, which is unlocking defences on their own but also bringing others into play. That is the aim for this campaign but we’ll see how it goes game to game.”
Redpath in at the deep-end
Which brings us to the selection of Cameron Redpath at inside centre. It feels like a throwback to the Townsend who took on the Scotland job in the summer of 2017 – bold, ambitious and based on the belief that rugby is about setting the agenda with ball in hand.
“He’s good enough to play,” Townsend stated emphatically, when asked if it is a risk throwing a 21-year-old in for a debut against the country he recently snubbed. “He’s played really well for his club this season. Maybe away from home or when his team is up against it, he has that fearless mind-set of wanting to take on the opposition.
“He’s a fierce competitor and we also see his skills in attack, so we think it is the right time for him – and each Test match he plays in he will learn from the players inside and outside him.
“It would have maybe been different if he’d come in tentative and nervy, but he’s not done that,” added Townsend. “We did, obviously, have a big discussion around the other two 12s in our squad. We feel that Duncan Taylor has not played enough rugby since his game in Ireland, but we know Duncan would have played really well too if he had been fully match fit. I thought he had an excellent game out in Dublin. James Lang has been really consistent for Harlequins but again he has maybe missed out on minutes in the last month, which Cam hasn’t.
“Cam’s played a lot of games this year and he’s improved in each outing, learned from each game and had more impact in each game that he’s played.”
The fact that Finn Russell is now back in harness at stand-off was also a factor in the selection. “That was one of the discussion points,” conceded Townsend. “Cam has Finn inside him, who’s a very experienced 10 who can help him around the attack side of things, and he has Chris Harris outside him, who’s one of the best defensive centres in the world, who’s also attacking really well just now and has really improved his game on that side.”
Townsend’s clear admiration of Redpath’s attacking game doesn’t mean that he is given up on defence, with Townsend arguing that Redpath’s work in that area had to be up to scratch before he could come into the selection debate.
Case for the defence
“I thought the game he played for Bath against Exeter in last season’s Premiership semi-final was outstanding, one of the best players on the park that day, and Bath were on the backfoot a lot in that game,” he explained.
“When he came on at the weekend with his team 40 points down he took the game to the opposition on the back of what would have been a challenging week, being up here with us and having to go back down. That shows the kind of competitor Cam is.
“So, his skillset is outstanding – very good running game, passes off either hand, has a short kicking game and has played a bit at 10 – while on the defensive side he is a competitor. So, both those areas, as well as how he’s integrated with players on and off the field here, led us to the strong belief he will go well at Test level.
“Our defence has improved a lot, the system in place and the time we spent on defence has gone up,” Townsend added. “The players have really embraced the defensive side of the game, and we’ve got an outstanding coach in Steve Tandy who is working really well with the players.
“The game is about defence as well as attack but it’s about other things too, it’s about set-piece and position kicks, about putting your own kicking game out there and all of these things are under the microscope at test level, because you’re playing against the best teams. We know we have to build on what we did last year in defence. There’s a few things we can improve and have to improve if we’re going to have success this season.”
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The other tight selection call ahead of Saturday’s trip to Twickenham was at No8, where Gary Graham – another son of a Scottish international who flirted with England before opting for his ancestral homeland and being capped twice during the 2019 Six Nations – ends up on the bench, with Matt Fagerson getting the nod as starter.
“Matt played well for us in the autumn, he had a really good game against France and likewise over in Dublin,” reasoned Townsend. “Matt’s a young player and there’s a lot of learning and improvement to do but we feel his work-rate and what he did in the autumn gives him the opportunity to start.
“We’ve been really impressed with Gary. He hasn’t played many games this year – I think he’s only played one in the last four or five weeks and only four overall – but the games he has played, he has played really well. He’s played with aggression, more controlled aggression than maybe two or three years ago.
“The fact that he’s played No 8 [at club level this season] gives him a different understanding, a better understanding of the game, and he’s been a leader at Newcastle.
“He did play on Sunday, which meant he wasn’t involved in our training game against Glasgow on Friday. That compromises the week a little bit when you’ve played in a Sunday game. But he looks in good shape this week and we expect him to have a big impact off the bench.”
Meanwhile, Dave Cherry, who has had to take the tough route to the top, is rewarded for his fine form with Edinburgh this seasons as well as his staying power during years of playing lower league rugby in England and France, with a spot on the bench as cover for George Turner at hooker.
“It is a big achievement for him,” agreed Townsend. “He’s had to show patience and resilience over the years – and wait for opportunities. But that perseverance has paid off. He’s played really well for Edinburgh and can’t wait to play.
“We know he can make a big impact off the bench. He’s a very good jackler and he’s very fast. In attack and defence, we’ve got two hookers who are explosive and really good defenders.”
Winger Darcy Graham didn’t come into the selection mix after missing Edinburgh’s matches at the start of the year.
“For him to have missed two or three weeks of training, we thought maybe there would be challenges, but he’s trained really well, is travelling with us this weekend and is very much in the mix for the following week,” said Townsend. “We’ll make a call next week to see if he is available or if he needs more game time with Edinburgh.”