OPTIMISM and positivity have always come naturally to Gregor Townsend, but the Scotland head coach has admitted that at the start of last year’s Six Nations Championship he was perhaps too positive about his team’s prospects after a couple of outstanding displays in the preceding Autumn Tests, and failed to place enough emphasis on the hard work that would be required to beat Wales in the opening game.
Scotland lost that game in Cardiff badly, and, while they recovered well to beat England and France at home in their following fixtures, Townsend is determined to ensure that this year his team will hit the ground running when they welcome Italy to BT Murrayfield a week on Saturday. “In that opening game in hindsight we maybe reflected too much on the positive things that happened in November and not enough on the hard work or the accuracy we’ll require to beat any of the teams in the Six Nations,” Townsend said yesterday (Wednesday) at the launch in London of what is now the Guinness Six Nations.
“We learned that the Six Nations is tougher than the November Tests and the quality of opposition we’re facing is very high,” he continued when asked to explain the lessons of that 34-7 defeat. “We probably learned that the first 20 minutes of a game is so important – to be accurate, to stick in the fight longer than we did that day.
“But we also learned the resilience of our team to come back – the next two games we won against two very good sides in France and England. So our players quickly bounced back to perform much better in the following weeks.”
Such resilience is all well and good, but the ideal, of course, is not to need to bounce back at all – by winning your opening game then keeping on winning. Italy at home may seem the ideal opportunity for Scotland to get off to a victorious start and build some momentum for the visit of Ireland a week later, but Townsend is wary of a nation whose players are steadily getting better both technically and mentally.
“We’ve had recent reminders of how good Italian rugby is. Glasgow lost to Treviso a few weeks ago; we should have lost to Italy last year given that we were well behind on the scoreboard with 20 minutes to go. We found a way to win and that’s what we’ll be doing this week to start that campaign with finding a way to win.
“I think over the last two years the Italian teams have improved. More young players have come into the team and performed well. They’re physical; they use the ball a lot. Of all the teams we play against, they probably kick the least, and so they’ll take us on with ball in hand.
“They always have a strong set piece, maul, scrum, and they’ve got one of the best-ever players to play in the Six Nations [in captain Sergio Parisse] – I heard earlier it could be his last Six Nations. They are a dangerous opponent and I’m sure they’ll be looking at our game as a perfect start to the Six Nations – a team that they’ve beaten before in a venue that they’ve won in before.”
They have also won against Scotland at home, most memorably in 2000, in the opening game of the very first Six Nations. Curiously, next Saturday’s match will be the first time the sides have met on the opening day since that meeting in the Stadio Flaminio, although Townsend was disinclined to dwell on what might have delayed a repeat for so long.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. “The fixtures fall where they fall. To get a home game is a good start to the tournament, because there’s no travel and you can do things in your own training venue and that leads you into a performance that should be better.
“That’s the start we’re looking for. Whether it was Italy or Ireland, we know the challenge we face, because every team has a short window to get things right for that first game.”
Scotland have a lengthy injury list going into the game against Italy, including Edinburgh openside Hamish Watson, who broke a bone in his hand in his team’s win over Montpellier last Friday. But, contrary to one report yesterday, Watson is not expected to miss the whole tournament.
“I didn’t say that,” Townsend added. “Hamish had surgery on Monday and he should be back at some stage during it. We don’t expect that to be Italy or Ireland, the first two games. We think he’s unlikely to be available for the third game, but if things heal well he should take part in potentially the last two games.”
While Scotland approach the Championship in a confident frame of mind thanks in part to the good form in Europe and the PRO14 of both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, the Italians are also buoyant. As their coach Conor O’Shea explained, the performances of Benetton have been part of the reason for that, while recent displays at international have convinced his squad that they can get some impressive results provided they learn to play at or close to their best more consistently.
“We know if we play to our maximum ability, we’re going to be competitive against anyone,” he said. “In the last 18 months, beating Georgia, beating Japan away in that second Test, beating Fiji – we haven’t beaten teams at a higher level than us. When we’ve played at our best, we’ve been incredibly competitive.
“Scotland last year in the Six Nations, or Australia, we know how competitive we can be. But we know the challenge for us is to replicate that level and actually go above it. There’s a real confidence in terms of the results that the Treviso boys are coming in with – they’ve got a spring in their step.
“The challenge for us is to deliver our best on a consistent basis throughout a match, and for the energy moments to go our way. We know the challenge. We are very realistic. But we also know that we can be very, very competitive, and hopefully it’s Tommy Allan or Ian McKinley or Carlo Canna knocking over an 80th-minute kick this year and not Greig Laidlaw.”