Six Nations: Scotland v France: Gregor Townsend plays down discipline concerns

Head coach describes penalty count against Wales as 'unbelievable'

Referee Ben O'Keeffe awarded 16 penalties against Scotland last weekend. Image: © Craig Watson -
Referee Ben O'Keeffe awarded 16 penalties against Scotland last weekend. Image: © Craig Watson -

GREGOR TOWNSEND has revealed that the Scotland squad have taken steps to address how they can better react to pressure and adversity following their heavy World Cup pool stage defeat to Ireland last Autumn – and he believes that the benefit of that work was evident in how they ultimately managed to survive a major second half wobble against Wales last week to hold on for a 27-26 win.

His view was that the 26 unanswered points conceded during a 22 minute spell to a Wales team who had been painfully inept during the first half was primarily down to an unfathomable penalty count against his team, and he added that his players should be commended for the way they managed to stay focussed to get over the line with their noses in front despite the difficult circumstances.

“We analysed how we could have been better but I thought, in the main, we were really good and got through that period,” he said.  “There was a couple times where players maybe tried to solve things on their own, whether it was coming out of the line in defence or going for a jackal [when it wasn’t on] but it wasn’t a running theme.

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“I think the key theme during that period was the amount of penalties the referee was giving against us which brings its own pressure. You’re back in your own 22 and players start to question: ‘What am I going to do because I might give away another penalty?’ And then when you’re down to 14 men it’s very tough to get through that period.”

“It’s unprecedented. To have a 16-1 penalty count against you after the first eight minutes, and an 8-1 penalty count against you when you score 24 unanswered points is unbelievable.

“With that penalty count, no international team should win a game of rugby … 16-1 and two yellow cards against you during that period. With Sione Tuipulotu’s yellow card … I can’t believe that is a penalty, there is no way he is offside and to get a yellow card for that incident, you think, we are really up against it, which we were for that period. So, to weather that storm is a real credit to what the players did.”

Asked if he had raised his concerns about the penalty count with the match officials and Six Nations rugby, he replied: “There is a review process we follow but that’s private between us and the match officials.

“People can rightly say discipline is a problem, but I thought the way the players handled themselves with the referee was excellent,” he added. “There could have been a lot more frustration but there wasn’t and I thought Finn Russell [as team captain] spoke really well to the referee, but it didn’t change what was happening.

“Yes, at some of the penalties we have to be better and we had a pretty tough analysis of that with the players. But when we’ve gone through it all, looking at how we could have been better, what was our communication was like to each other, where were we in our own individual mindset, in general it was a really good performance from the leaders on the field.

“And we’ve got to look at the first half too, how clinical we were and how we got on to the next job when we had the momentum was really positive.

“It was a fantastic test of the leadership, a fantastic test of the mental side of the game and it was great the players got through that.”


Asked if the imbalance in the penalty can be explained as a difference in interpretation between the match officials – led by New Zealand referee Ben O’Keeffe – and the Scotland team, Townsend said: “I don’t know. We all make errors – coaches, players and referees. That’s always factored in.

“It’s the first game of the season for these referees – they’ve not refereed since the World Cup and it’s a pretty big game to be refereeing in, a Six Nations game at the noisiest stadium you get.

“So, who knows? The positive side is that even with an 8-1 penalty count against us, we found a way to defend our 22 because Wales had a few opportunities in that period, and then when we had our chances, we took them. We couldn’t keep that up when we were down to 14 men.

“The last 10 minutes was really encouraging,” he added. “There was an incident just before we went back up to 15 men where we defended well just outside our 22, Wales put a kick in which we dealt with, then we moved the ball wide and we attacked out of our 22, then we put a kick in and we pressurized Wales in their 22 with 14 men. I thought: ‘This is great, this is still a team looking for opportunities, it is fit and together’.

“Then when we got back to 15 men, most of that game was played in Wales’ half, whether through our defence or our attack. Ultimately, we were frustrated at the end. We felt there were three or four penalties in that sequence of 15 phases where we should have got advantage or penalties. We got the ball over the line but didn’t ground it, so that was the ultimate frustration that we weren’t able to get that fourth try.


Townsend also explained that two of Scotland’s professional referees – Mike Adamson and Sam Gove-White – had been in camp this week to help ensure that no stone is left unturned on the disciplinary side ahead of this Saturday’s Six Nations round two meeting with France at Murrayfield, while Aaron Walsh, the team’s mental skills coach, also ran a session on how the team responded.

“Both Mike and Sam are in regularly with us,” explained the coach. “Mike was here on Tuesday and Sam on Wednesday. As coaches we communicate with the referees to make sure what we’re seeing is what they’re seeing, and we speak closely to the referees that did our game at the weekend, and the officials from World Rugby.

“Aaron plays a part in how we review our communication and the mental side of the game. All of that is taken into account. It is really important that if there’s something we’re doing that is clearly wrong, we’ve got to take it out the game, but at the weekend, it was so unusual and, so not what we’ve seen should have been right once we reviewed the game, it was amazing to think those stats happened in a game of rugby.

“He [Walsh] loved the Wales game. He thought it was the perfect test because you can’t replicate through training how players are going to work under pressure as a group and also react as individuals.

“Having that opportunity to go through that period and win – obviously if we had lost it would have been a lot more overtime for Aaron this week – but to go through that and learn [is great].

“The players were brilliant on Monday night with a specific session on that. Asking how we could communicate better? What were we thinking? So, I know the players will be better individually for that experience, and as a team we’ll grow – just as we discussed a lot after Ireland when the momentum went against us and put things in place since that Ireland game.

“This is now a new meeting in our schedule to address the mental side of the game, how we communicate together and stick together to get on to the next job.

“For us, there was evidence there of growth from Ireland in Paris to what happened last weekend.”

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About David Barnes 3817 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. By the way, the referee against France is Nick Berry…another official who does us few favours and whom we’ve often struggled to come to terms with.

  2. Let’s hope tomorrow all 46 players strive to take the referee out of the game as much as possible. Scotland/France games have the potential to be the most competitive and exciting in the 6N so let’s hope we aren’t focusing more on the officials than the rugby tomorrow night.
    You can win this one boys.
    Come on you floo’ers.

  3. There was absolutely no reason for a team comfortably cruising at 27-0 to start committing endless penalties.
    Gatland rolled the dice and made some necessary personnel and game plan changes, the players knew they would get booed off if things didn’t change and so stepped up a gear. This brought the stadium to life. Anyone who’s been to the principality knows what a cauldron it can be once the crowd gets behind you. ( something Murrayfield will never capture)
    O Keefe I think unwittingly got swept up in the atmosphere and from then on was not consistent. As well as their own disciplinary mistakes, the players were clearly scratching their heads wondering what they were doing wrong. O Keefe aint the first and won’t be the last at the Principality to do so.
    Townsend was right to criticise – I’d have went full rassy. It could have cost us a game we were comfortably winning.

  4. As a Scot living in Cardiff for 30 years with all the suffering that’s involved , I think the stadium is worth 5 to 10 points to the home side . Two reasons really – firstly if Murrayfield could produce that atmosphere and level of noise I’d be interested to see the impact on the Scottish players and also I feel that the pressure generated by a very voluble , largely knowledgeable and xenophobically nationalistic crowd on occasion gets to even the best refs ( and I wouldn’t have their job ) – I think net effect of atmosphere and ” crowd pressure ” is worth 5-10 points to Wales every game .
    However I’m pleased that the levels of criticism and sledging of refs is limited – long may it remain so .

  5. Ben O’Keefe is a great ref. This though was not his (for his AR’s) best game and Wales benefited most.
    Most the pens were accurate – as they always are. It just got a bit weird for a while.

    Offside against Cummings was extraordinary. Never off or even close. Peculiar.
    YC Tuipoluto was an AR call and never ever material to play.
    YC Turner could have been avoided? Wales were themselves going to ground and scoring.
    Wales massive side entry clearcut ignored just before a good jackal from Ritchie pinged huge momentum swing.
    Final minute not rolling not given against Wales x2 arguably inconsistent and earned Wales a point and cost Scotland 1

    There was no bias or incompetence etc etc just a few errors just like players make and coaches.

  6. Interesting to hear the coaches are frustrated by some of the officiating, it seemed very inconsistent at the time.

    Reffell’s hands were all over the floor at a couple of turnovers, but he was allowed away with it to the extent that I figured O’Keefe must have spotted an Irish badge on his shirt.

  7. Even the most professional individuals lose their heads to pressure. The most important thing is that the team have collectively taken an opportunity to evaluate their actions. The only way to see if they have learnt is by seeing how they adapt to pressure tomorrow.
    With no doubt that response will require a collective effort and we will need to see the leaders step up but for all others to follow right on their shoulder. Collectively if done rightly last week to most part could have been the making of this team if they are really to be contenders for a higher place amongst the rankings.

  8. Never realised the penalty count was so high against us, yes, discipline was poor but I feel it was exacerbated by a definite biased referee creating frustration in the Scottish team. O’Keefe is a controversial official regarding his standards and decisions, not the first nor unfortunately will it be the last poor performance by this overrated ref.

  9. Interestingly, completely polar opposite to Finns take on it at the end of the game. I know whose interpretation I concur with. Townsend does not do himself any favours with these banal responses. FFS tell it like it is. Either he is living in a parallel universe or he’s a media automaton or thinks none of us have played the game and we are all stupid. Or he simply doesnt care because he thinks he is teflon and hes probably not wrong as there is no coach in world rugby who has overseen as many failures as he has and remained in a job.

    • Is it an opposite take?

      Finn was frustrated as individual players weren’t following the instruction to not compete at the breakdown.

      Seems to me that instruction only makes sense if you think the referee is not treating each side fairly. Finn also said this instruction came from the coaches.

      I think m both can be right. Townsend thinks Scotland aren’t an I’ll-disciplined team and got treated unfairly by the ref; Russell was frustrated as the team weren’t following instructions to be ultra-cautious as a result.

  10. Bit disturbing that meetings to address the mental side of the game are new.

    Mental skills coaches, psychologists etc have long been part and parcel of any professional sport- is Scotland only just now bringing it to the party?

      • “This is now a new meeting in our schedule to address the mental side of the game, how we communicate together and stick together to get on to the next job”.

  11. Ye gods will Townsend never learn – many of the penalties were stupid and really unprofessional, Pulling down a maul already over the line? Stupid offsides, we do have a discipline problem, which if not recognised by the coach will continue? So disappointed by this interview. I’d love to see a list of the penalties and the Scotland culprits. No recognition that instructions were ignored – see Finn post game.

    • ..and yet none of the stupid and unprofessional penalty offences committed by the Welsh in the second half were given, far less carded. Is being offside twice a yellow card – surely an individual has to be warned first? Whilst there were clearly some poor decision making by our team, the statistics suggest that the referee was a bit lop-sided. One particular example is on about 72/73 mins when there was a Welshman lying on top of the ball trying to get out of a ruck but BOK simply waived play on. We got a penalty against and yellow card in a similar situation earlier. Whilst not necessarily a yellow card for the Welshman, a penalty award would have shown consistency – which is all we are asking for.

    • thing about the offsides is this. Ref was so inconsistent. He warned Wales after 3 early pens that next would be a yellow card. Few mins later van clearly tell welsh prop 3 times to take a step. No pen never mind promised card. Cummings then dubiously offside, straight pen. Pattern repeated. “Wales 18 take a step”, 3 times. Tuipolotu, maybe offside maybe not, straight pen and card

    • The instructions ignored were from the Scottish bench not the ref. It was pretty notable that the Welsh got instructions from the ref whilst the Scots didn’t. BOK is known for not ‘coaching’ teams, which is fine but he needs to take the same approach to both sides consistently.

      I don’t think BOK is a bad ref. I think it’s a fiendishly difficult job, refs also feel the pressure from the home crowd and he put in a poor performance. It happens, glad Scotland dug out the win.

      • Agree, reffing is a really tough gig and probably more so in rugby than in almost any other sport. Line of sight is often obstructed and in any given breakdown or set-piece, there are usually any number of technical infringements but constantly blowing for some of the more minor issues would just kill the game. I know refs are told of particular areas to look out for but are they also coached in terms of what to let go? A rugby ref is almost certain to get at least one decision wrong every match, but as others have said, consistency is the key which is way easier said than followed. BOK did look a bit bias at times last weekend but still doesn’t excuse the mess Scotland only just dug themselves out of…and Turner should consider himself quite lucky to be starting again and needs to keep his mouth shut at times.

      • exactly. He coached one team but not the other. It is stressed to new refs that consistency or both teams is the key. That is the only way we can expect players to adjust to the refs interpretations (which vary far too much between refs and even for the same ref in different games).
        Its also why I disagree with you on one art of your post. O’Keefe is a very poor ref at this level, precisely because of his inconsistency in and between matches. He has history for the same with other games, and even when we have won with him I’ve been very uncomfortable with his reffing


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