AFTER the high drama of the All Blacks game, when Scotland played magnificently at times yet still lost, what they need to do against Australia on Saturday is obvious: play magnificently more of the time, and actually win.
Consistently playing at a high level is one of the hardest tasks in sport, of course, but it is what separates the best teams from the also-rans. Scotland have offered hints under Gregor Townsend that they have what it takes to become one of those best teams, but they know that to continue their progress they have to replicate the standard they reached against New Zealand all of the time. In the short term, that means finishing off the Autumn Tests with an inspired win against the Wallabies, and not falling back to the patchy form they showed in just getting the better of Samoa.
“It’s a mindset thing,” centre Huw Jones said on Tuesday. “Barcs [captain John Barclay] alluded to it after the game when he said that pretty much every team will have their best game against the All Blacks because they’re No 1 in the world, but it’s getting into that mindset every game of wanting that intensity and level of performance, no matter what the opposition is.
“I think we’re getting there; it’s more about focusing on ourselves rather than the opposition. If we can get to that level every game then we should get some really good results.
“You can look at our first two games. Against Samoa we didn’t have our best game, and while we didn’t underestimate them perhaps that’s because mentally we might not have been in our best place possible. But for the All Blacks, for most of us it would be the biggest game of our careers so far, and if you’re not going to be in the best headspace possible for that game then there’s something wrong with you. It’s replicating that and getting to the right frame of mind for every game.”
Townsend and his assistant coaches have a delicate balancing act to maintain this week, between the self-criticism that has to follow any defeat, and the recognition that their players performed so well on the whole. According to Jones, the shortcomings of that 22-17 loss to New Zealand will be addressed, but there will also be a strong emphasis on the things that went right.
“A lot did go right for us, but quite a bit went wrong as well. When you look at the stats we had about 60 per cent possession and didn’t manage to score a lot of points. We missed an awful lot of opportunities, especially in the first half, and again in the second half we were in their 22 for ages and didn’t convert it into points even when they were a man down.
“We’ll be looking at that: the tries they scored against us, those defensive errors. We won’t over-analyse it – we’ve got another game this weekend – but we’ll look at those mistakes and look forward to Australia.
“If you’re going to be playing a high-tempo game, then mistakes are part of that, but it’s how you recover from those and work to get ball back. There’s always going to be mistakes in a game of rugby – no-one’s ever played the perfect game. So analysis is necessary, but I don’t think we’ll be too hung up on it.
“Definitely ready to go again. A close defeat makes us more keen to play again. I was thinking on Sunday that I can’t wait to play again. We’ve got some bruised bodies, so today was quite chilled, but we’ll get straight back into it tomorrow.”
Jones has become a key player in the Scotland back line so quickly that it can be hard to remember that he only made his debut a year ago, against Saturday’s opponents. He scored two tries that day only for Scotland to lose 23-22, so has mixed emotions about the match.
“It was a nice game and I managed to get two tries, but it was a tough loss at the end, so I was pretty disappointed. I was really happy for the boys to beat them in the summer, but because I wasn’t involved this is my second chance to try and beat them.”
That 25-19 win in Sydney was not merely revenge for last year’s defeat, or even for the Rugby World Cup quarter-final loss in 2015. It was a result that proved to the squad that they were capable of taking on the top sides in the world and getting the better of them – and Jones is sure it can have a lasting impact on that mindset he talked about.
“It gave us massive belief. We came really close against them this time last year, so to finally beat them, and to beat them in Australia as well, is no easy feat.
“The confidence we got from that has carried on to here. We have far more belief now and go into every game thinking we can win: that’s just our mindset now. It’s a new squad with younger guys and exciting players, and that belief is not going to go away.”