Townsend is show­ing Wales the way to play

The Rugby Paper - - Feature - PETER JACK­SON

Gre­gor Townsend last ap­peared in Cardiff on Six Na­tions busi­ness a long time ago, help­ing Scot­land beat Wales in a duel for fourth and fifth place.

He will be back in the New Year in cir­cum­stances very dif­fer­ent to those of April 2002 when the most anti-cli­mac­tic of fin­ishes would have left Wales lum­bered with the Wooden Spoon had Italy not beaten them to it by los­ing all five matches.

Now, as a fur­ther re­minder that not ev­ery­thing stays the same, Scot­land will start the Cham­pi­onship with the aim of win­ning it when for too of­ten their am­bi­tion started and fin­ished with win­ning the peren­nial spoon de­cider against the other team in blue.

While Vern Cot­ter raised ex­pec­ta­tions to the rar­i­fied at­mos­phere of the top three, his suc­ces­sor has raised them higher still. Scot­land’s jus­ti­fi­able claim to be the Six Na­tions team of the Au­tumn se­ries en­ti­tles them to be taken se­ri­ously as con­tenders.

If all goes to plan for Townsend at the Mil­len­nium Sta­dium on Fe­bru­ary 3, he will un­cork the tar­tan fizz on a Wales squad in the throes of some se­vere teething prob­lems over their be­lated switch from ‘War­ren­ball’ to some­thing a touch more so­phis­ti­cated.

The irony for home fans is that Scot­land are play­ing the ex­hil­a­rat­ing brand of rugby to which Wales as­pire. Their game has a pace and pre­ci­sion based not on the wave of any old wand but on the years Townsend spent at Scot­stoun mak­ing those at­tributes sec­ond na­ture for his Glas­gow play­ers.

Hav­ing made the War­riors the most con­sis­tently watch­able of all Bri­tish clubs over the last few sea­sons, he has taken the best of an Ed­in­burgh pack stiff­ened by a few im­ports from what used to be the Em­pire and lifted them to a higher plane.

Their abil­ity to hack it there, as demon­strated on suc­ces­sive Satur­days against the All Blacks and the Wal­la­bies, prom­ises to make the Six Na­tions more than an An­glo-Ir­ish duel be­tween the world’s sec­ond ranked team, Eng­land, and the third,

“Scot­land are play­ing the ex­hil­a­rat­ing brand of rugby to which Wales as­pire”

Ire­land.

From a dis­tance, it is tempt­ing to iden­tify their col­li­sion at Twick­en­ham on the last Satur­day, March 17, as the de­cider. Who’s to say that Scot­land won’t have scup­pered that sce­nario a few weeks ear­lier by see­ing Eng­land off in Ed­in­burgh?

And where does that leave Wales? At best fourth in the peck­ing or­der which is not say­ing much con­sid­er­ing that France ap­pear to be in too di­shev­elled a state to bank on re­tain­ing the Garibaldi Cup against Italy.

By Six Na­tions time, some of the Welsh wounded will be up and run­ning again, ea­ger to an­swer ques­tions over their form. In that re­spect Ge­orge North tops the list, his rep­u­ta­tion hav­ing suf­fered through a fail­ure to make the Lions Test team in New Zealand last sum­mer.

Two of the most in­flu­en­tial play­ers, Jonathan Davies and Sam War­bur­ton, will still be miss­ing, in Davies’ case not merely for the open­ing Scot­land fix­ture but the en­tire tour­na­ment. There is also ev­ery chance that War­bur­ton will play safe and de­lay his Test come-back after neck surgery.

The big­ger is­sue is over the Welsh man­age­ment’s fail­ure to set the ‘evo­lu­tion­ary’ process in mo­tion sooner, evo­lu­tion be­ing their buzz word in vogue this time 12 months ago dur­ing Rob How­ley’s sea­son as act­ing head coach. For all the talk, it didn’t hap­pen.

It meant Wales were go­ing to pay a higher price for War­ren Gat­land’s sab­bat­i­cal with the Lions. Since re­turn­ing to the day job he has wasted no time pro­mot­ing a raft of new play­ers although noth­ing could re­trieve the time wasted last sea­son, es­pe­cially over the de­lay in cap­ping St­eff Evans and Owen Wil­liams.

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Pace and pre­ci­sion: Stu­art McI­nally touches down for Scot­land’s eighth try

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