THE relationship between Gregor Townsend and Finn Russell is clearly in a much better place now than during those fraught periods when the stand-off ended up exiled from the Scotland camp as a consequence of disagreements over team protocols or game strategy.
However, in the aftermath of Saturday’s brain-scrambling first win for the national team in Cardiff in 22 years, it was abundantly clear once again that the two dominant characters in the national squad are cut from very different cloth.
Russell shot from the hip when interviewed on the pitch immediately after his team’s much narrower than it should have been 26-27 win over Wales.
“I’m probably a little bit disappointed, to be honest,” he said. “I mean the win is brilliant, but I think that second half was nowhere near where it needed to be.
“First half, we played really well and controlled the game, but second half the discipline was poor [with] two yellow cards which allowed them back into the game.
“I think when we scored that try at the start of the second half, we probably got a little bit complacent, to be honest. I think we probably thought the game was done, but there was still a long way to go, especially away from home.
“The frustrating thing from that was that the points we were making weren’t being listened to. One of the main things was to leave the ruck and we kept on going into the ruck. We got a yellow-card for going into the ruck too many times and a yellow-card for going offside so that is something we will have to review as a team.
“And when we are getting messages from the coaches or from the players then we need to listen to it. If the message is to leave the ball and we are still going for it, then the individuals who are going for it need to have to have a look at their game and what they are doing because it is putting us under pressure.”
No names mentioned, but Russell made it clear that he felt let down by certain players failing to follow simple instructions, that he felt there should be accountability, and – crucially – that Scotland cannot be happy scraping through a game against bang-average opposition which was done and dusted at half-time.
You’d hope that there will be some introspection there as well. Russell was far from blameless in that shambolic half hour, giving the ball back to Wales when the game needed to be shut down. But it was refreshing to hear some candour from the Scotland stand-off all the same.
Meanwhile, Townsend – perhaps mindful of his chequered history with Russell – was careful not to directly criticise his captain’s analysis. But he couldn’t live with the lack of positive spin.
The coach accepted that it was not a complete performance from his team, but reasoned that this wasn’t a consequence of any sort of deficiency in mindset.
“I know Finn used the term ‘complacency’ – I wouldn’t probably be as hard as that,” he said. “It’s probably a natural feeling when it’s never happened before for a Scotland team to be 20-0 up [in Cardiff] at half-time, 27-0 up just after it.
“It’s easy to say ‘just keep the same intensity and level’, that would be brilliant, but there are going to be times when the opposition do get momentum.
“They’re a quality side – we just can’t help them increase that momentum by being down to 14 men and giving away penalties. That’s what really cost us a chance to get a foothold in that second half.”
Or maybe it is further evidence of the Scotland coach’s refusal to confront a difficult truth?
Like, after his team’s World Cup pool stage loss to South Africa last September, when he was asked about his team’s habit of coughing up tries in costly clusters and dismissed out of hand the notion that there may be a problem with maintaining focus under pressure.
“It happens in games,” he retorted, after watching Scotland go from 6-3 down to 18-3 down in the space of three minutes against the Springboks.
“I wouldn’t say it was a theme. If you’re talking about themes, previously it would have been us being behind at half-time,” he added, before seeming to confirm that Scotland had failed to cope when the Springboks upped the ante.
“We obviously had possession then we had a fumble, they got a scrum penalty, got through a few phases, then got another scrum penalty. They were putting us under pressure, so you have to credit them for making the most of their opportunities.”
It was a similar story in Scotland’s World Cup warm-up defeat to France, when two Les Bleus tries in two minutes led to a 30-27 defeat. And against Ireland in the penultimate round the 2023 Six Nations when it was 10-7 to the opposition going into the last quarter before two tries in five minutes created the final score-line of 22-7. And against France a few weeks earlier when they lost two tries and Grant Gilchrist to a red-card inside three minutes at the start of a 32-21 defeat in Paris.
Centre Huw Jones also spoke to the press after Saturday’s match and was typically thoughtful and honest in his assessment of Scotland’s disciplinary problems.
“Discipline is not just penalties, it is sticking to the plan, and doing what you’ve said you are going to do,” he pointed out.
“And I think at different times we were all guilty of maybe that panic of ‘we need to get that turnover now’ and trying to solve something by ourselves, which doesn’t work, especially when you are a man down and the opposition are playing wide to wide which means you are chasing touchline to touchline. It wasn’t ideal.
“Our response to what they brought in that second half wasn’t good enough, but we had the right messages, and we need to be better as a team responding to those messages.
“We spoke about it, and across the board we were guilty. When we were one man down, we talked about not putting our heads into rucks, and then I went and put my head in a ruck at one point.
“The things is, we had the right plan,” he added. “We were saying the right things. We did it in the first half, but we didn’t quite do it in the second half, and I think I’ve said so many similar things after tight losses before.
“A five-minute period or a ten-minute period has let us down and we’ve lost the game. That happened today but we’re really happy that we’ve come out of it and we’ve won, but I guess it’s still happening and it’s something we really need to fix if we want to continue to grow and win big games.”
Perhaps Jones and the other culprits instinctively felt that attacking Wales at source to stop them getting fast ball to the wide channels would be the more effective strategy. Perhaps they were right. But that wasn’t the plan, and Scotland’s failure to get everyone on the same page when the chips were down needs to be addressed ahead of the arrival for France at Murrayfield this coming Saturday.
Some of the negative reaction to the Wales performance has been hyperbolic in the extreme. A win in Cardiff after 22 years of pain is not to be sniffed at, regardless of the deficiencies of the opposition. And everybody loves the drama which Scotland have become masters of producing.
But, on the flip side, Scotland do need to address their nasty habit of falling out of games at crucial moments. It is not good enough to shrug and say: ‘At least we got away with that one!’
At the Principality Stadium, Scotland failed to pick up a bonus point which was there for the taking and handed their rivals two. If they truly consider themselves serious contenders for the title, they should acknowledge this as a big time fail, and be kicking themselves for being so slapdash – complacent – when all that was needed was some focus and precision to kill Wales off.