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.
“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.”