Townsend’s mav­er­ick Scots are just so un­pre­dictable...

The Rugby Paper's Essential - World Cup Guide 2019 (Irish Edition) - - CONTENTS -

SCOT­LAND were fixed in Eng­land’s crosshairs when the Red Rose squad gathered at Pen­ny­hill Park on the Wednesday be­fore the 2019 Cal­cutta Cup to listen to their coach, Ed­die Jones.

There was one mes­sage Jones wanted to get across in midMarch as his play­ers went into their last com­pet­i­tive game of the Six Na­tions be­fore as­sem­bling in June for World Cup train­ing.

He told the 9-1 favourites that this was the time to put down a marker by show­ing them­selves, and the world, that they have the hall­marks of world cham­pi­ons. By the fol­low­ing Satur­day evening those hall­marks had been scuffed so badly by Scot­land that Eng­land’s lofty World Cup am­bi­tions looked more like wish­ful think­ing than some­thing at­tain­able.

By con­trast, the rip-roar­ing sec­ond-half that Scot­land sum­monsed to come within a cou­ple of min­utes of an epoque-mak­ing first win at Twick­en­ham for 36 years had turned coach Gre­gor Townsend’s out­fit in­stantly into the wild card side that no one will rel­ish meet­ing in the World Cup.

Although the Scots were even­tu­ally de­nied vic­tory when Ge­orge Ford’s last-gasp try se­cured Eng­land a 38-38 draw, the flair they showed warned their Pool A ri­vals Ire­land and Samoa just how sharp this this­tle can be.

Nowhere was this truer than at fly-half, where Finn Rus­sell has emerged as one of the most gifted play­mak­ers in the in­ter­na­tional game. Rus­sell and Townsend are chips off the same block in the sense that both have a de­sire to push the bound­aries.

Townsend showed in his ca­reer as a fly-half for Scot­land and the vic­to­ri­ous 1997 Li­ons that he was at his best when he was al­lowed to play what was in front of him, rather than stick­ing rigidly to a pre-or­dained script.

Fur­ther­more, just as Townsend went walk­a­bout in pur­suit of new knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ences – play­ing in Aus­tralia, Eng­land, South Africa and France – Rus­sell has shown a sim­i­lar wan­der­lust hav­ing joined Parisian club Rac­ing 92 from Glas­gow War­riors last sea­son.

Rus­sell, who is a for­mer ap­pren­tice stone­ma­son, turned the English de­fence to rub­ble af­ter the break as he in­spired a Scot­land side trail­ing 31-7 to over­haul Eng­land with a man-ofthe-match dis­play.

This saw the Scots score five sec­ond-half tries, with the high­lights reel fea­tur­ing Rus­sell’s non­cha­lant long pass to set up the elec­tric wing Darcy Gra­ham, as well as the fly-half scor­ing him­self by in­ter­cept­ing off

Owen Far­rell.

The Rus­sell master­class that set Scot­land on an un­stop­pable roll was an all-court ar­ray of pass­ing and kick­ing skills which flum­moxed the English de­fence.

Af­ter the match Rus­sell re­mained in the free-spirit mode that made him al­most un­playable, re­flect­ing on a half-time talk in which he said he and Townsend were not on the same page.

“I ac­tu­ally had an ar­gu­ment with Gre­gor at half-time. He was telling us to kick and I said, ‘ev­ery time we kick they run it back at us and cut us open – and when we run it they are just hit­ting us be­hind the gain-line and win­ning the ball back’.”

He added: “I’m gut­ted…

For us to come out and have a sec­ond-half like that just shows the char­ac­ter the boys have. I’m just so dis­ap­pointed we didn’t man­age to fin­ish it off at the end. The first half we got caught off guard, then in the sec­ond half we had noth­ing to lose… We played good Scot­tish rugby in the sec­ond half.”

Townsend agreed with the last ob­ser­va­tion, but had a dif­fer­ent view on how his team turned it around. “It was about do­ing what we wanted to do in the first half, which was pres­suris­ing Eng­land with kicks in be­hind. That didn’t work in the first half be­cause we didn’t have a good chase, and be­cause Eng­land counter-at­tacked very well, but it worked much bet­ter in the sec­ond half, and we took our op­por­tu­ni­ties with some ex­cel­lent at­tack.”

This post-match dif­fer­ence in in­ter­pre­ta­tion be­tween Townsend and Rus­sell cuts to the heart of whether Scot­land can em­u­late David Sole’s 1991 World Cup semi-fi­nal­ists by reach­ing the last four in Ja­pan.

There are some rugby ro­man­tics who swoon at the idea that Rus­sell plays test rugby with a smile on his face whether he has just thrown a sub­lime pass, or a sui­ci­dal one. There are oth­ers that want a more rig­or­ous ap­proach from the gifted fly-half. This puts con­trol­ling the game as his first pri­or­ity – which means mix­ing it up with a ju­di­cious kick­ing strat­egy al

ter­nat­ing with a run­ning game – rather than con­stantly try­ing to open de­fences with mir­a­cle passes.

Townsend is al­most cer­tainly of the lat­ter per­sua­sion, as is for­mer Scot­land and Li­ons cen­tre Scott Hast­ings, who said dur­ing the Six Na­tions in ref­er­ence to Rus­sell’s habit of smil­ing when he drops a clanger: “I don’t want to see a chirpy smile when Finn makes a mis­take. Screw the nut, concentrat­e!”

How­ever, it is not so much that Rus­sell’s match-turn­ing gifts are doubted as much as whether he could max­imise them even more.

Scot­land have much more sig­nif­i­cant fault lines than Rus­sell’s smile, such as the late penalty they con­ceded against Eng­land fol­low­ing bench hooker Fraser Brown’s re­fusal to re­lease the ball car­rier at a break­down with time al­most up. This re­sulted in Eng­land kick­ing to the cor­ner and then work­ing through the phases ruth­lessly un­til Ford scored with the clock in the red.

It re­flected a lack of fo­cus and dis­ci­pline up front which goes a long way to ex­plain­ing why Scot­land have won only seven out of the 50 away games they have played since the Six Na­tions ex­pan­sion took place in 2000. Given that five of those have come against tail-en­ders Italy in Rome, leav­ing only one vic­tory over Ire­land in Dublin and an­other over Wales in Cardiff, the Scot­tish for­wards can­not dodge responsibi­lity.

The re­al­ity is that de­spite the py­rotech­nics the Scot­tish back­line pro­duced against Eng­land, with Ali Price, Sean Mait­land, Sam Johnson and twotry Gra­ham fol­low­ing Rus­sell’s lead, Scot­land still fin­ished fifth in the Six Na­tions ta­ble af­ter de­feats at home by Ire­land and Wales, and an away loss to France.

While a long in­jury list was an ame­lio­rat­ing fac­tor, the main rea­son the Scots have clutched straws not just this sea­son, but for most of those pre­ced­ing it, is that the Scot­tish pack is not fit for pur­pose when it comes to se­cur­ing a top ta­ble fin­ish.

One Scot­tish for­ward that charge can­not be lev­elled at is Stu­art Mci­nally, the team’s cap­tain and hooker. Where his pre­de­ces­sor, Ross Ford, can count him­self one of the luck­i­est cen­te­nar­i­ans in world rugby ow­ing to the marked form swings dur­ing his test ca­reer, Mci­nally is a fire­cracker of a leader.

It is seven years since Mci­nally made the switch from back row to hooker, but the Ed­in­burgh player made such rapid head­way that by 2015 he won the first of his 27 caps in the mid­dle of the front row.

Mci­nally is fast and fu­ri­ous in the loose, and it was his charge­down of an Owen Far­rell kick, fol­lowed by a swift gather and sprint for the line, that sparked the Scot­tish come­back against Eng­land. His set-piece is also solid, and although his line-out throw­ing is not yet un­err­ingly ac­cu­rate, his work in win­ning ball, or carrying it, is of­ten in­spi­ra­tional.

Scot­land also have a proven test tight-head in the South African-born breeze­block JP Nel, who brought a so­lid­ity to the Scot­tish scrum that saw them come within a ref­er­ee­ing con­tro­versy of be­ing 2015 World Cup semi-fi­nal­ists.

Alan Dell, their other South African-born prop, is very much a light­weight loose-head at un­der 17 stone (106 kg), but his speed around the pitch is a bonus in the loose. The Scots also have bulkier back-up in the form of Lon­don Ir­ish No.1 Stu­art Reid, although Scot­land’s real strength is at tight-head where both the Kiwi-born Simon Berghan and Glas­gow’s Zan­der Fager­son are well-sea­soned stan­chions at the scrum.

If the au­thor­ity on the left side of the front row does not match that at tight-head or

hooker, where Brown is a solid re­place­ment for Mci­nally, the same is true for the back five of the scrum.

In the sec­ond row the Aus­tralian-born Ben Too­lis and the home-grown pair of the hard-graft­ing Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist are all re­spected op­er­a­tors, although none of them have forced their way into world-class con­tention yet.

Util­ity back-row­ers like Ryan Wil­son, Josh Strauss, Jamie Richie and Gary Gra­ham are

in the same bracket. It also re­mains to be seen whether for­mer cap­tain John Bar­clay can get back to his best at flanker af­ter be­ing called up for Townsend’s World Cup long squad af­ter a year on the in­jury list.

An­other back rower look­ing to make an in­stant im­pact is Scot­land’s lat­est Kiwi im­port, for­mer Hur­ri­canes blind­side Blade Thomson, who is a team­mate of Bar­clay’s at the Scar­lets.

It is good news for Townsend that there is such fierce com­pe­ti­tion in the back row, although the 6 and 7 shirts look ear-marked al­ready for all-ac­tion open­side Hamish Wat­son and promis­ing Ex­eter blind­slide/ lock Sam Skin­ner.

Wat­son is a ma­raud­ing old school break­away whose ath­leti­cism in the loose and bel­liger­ence at the break­down con­stantly raises the tem­per­a­ture, while the 6ft 5ins Skin­ner’s strength and pass­ing abil­ity out of the tackle, mobility and ac­com­plished line-out jump­ing are valu­able as­sets.

An­other plus is the rapid ad­vance that Mag­nus Brad­bury has made at No.8, typ­i­fied by the way he tracked Price with a beau­ti­fully timed sup­port­ing run to earn his try against Eng­land.

The sum of th­ese parts should add up to a far more im­pos­ing pack than Scot­land have mus­tered since they rat­tled the cage at the 2015 World Cup.

Four years on from that Townsend’s mis­sion has to be to im­press on his for­wards that with quick ball in Ja­pan – and also the vari­a­tion of a dy­namic pick-and-drive game up the mid­dle – the Scots can un­leash a back­line that can com­pare with any other team in terms of mul­ti­ple threats.

Whether it is wingers like the twin­kle-toed Ed­in­burgh new­comer Gra­ham, or big­ger men like Mait­land, By­ron Mcguigan and Tommy Sey­mour, or pow­er­ful well-bal­anced cen­tres like Aussie im­port Sam Johnson – who wreaked havoc with Eng­land this year – and Huw Jones, who did like­wise in 2018, the Scots have un­earthed an im­pres­sive ar­ray of strike run­ners.

It’s also worth re­mem­ber­ing that the mid­field has been strength­ened by the re­turn of the ac­com­plished Sara­cens cen­tre Dun­can Tay­lor and the ar­rival of the elu­sive Northamp­ton new­comer Rory Hutchin­son.

Add a full-back of Stu­art Hogg’s at­tack­ing cre­den­tials, as well as those of his un­der­study Blair Kinghorn, and then spice it with the elu­sive­ness at half­back of Rus­sell and the speedy Price, and it is a po­ten­tially heady mix. The only draw­back is that it reg­u­larly leaves the Scots with their heads in more of a spin than their op­po­nents.

While the 9-10 pair­ing of

Price and Rus­sell thrives on play­ing at pace – to the ex­tent that some­times the mis­take of run­ning bad ball burns them – the back-up duo of Greg Laid­law and Peter Horne find it hard to inject the same ur­gency.

Laid­law is a top tier goal-kicker but his ser­vice is laboured, es­pe­cially when his for­wards get stuck in first gear, and Horne is more of an in­side-cen­tre that a stand-off. Con­se­quently, when they were in tan­dem last sea­son Scot­land of­ten strug­gled to find their spark.

Townsend’s chal­lenge is to en­sure that Scot­land’s for­wards rise to the oc­ca­sion. If he suc­ceeds in that, and coaxes Price and Rus­sell to get the right bal­ance be­tween der­ring-do and do­ing the ba­sics clin­i­cally, then the Scots could be one of the sur­prise pack­ages in Ja­pan.

Mag­nus Brad­bury cel­e­brates scor­ing Scot­land’s third try in their remarkable 38-38 draw against Eng­land at Twick­en­ham in March

Full-back Stu­art Hogg adds to Scot­land’s at­tack­ing cre­den­tials

For­mer skip­per John Bar­clay is back af­ter in­jury

Tal­ented fly-half Finn Rus­sell can in­spire the Scots

Sara­cens Dun­can Tay­lor adds steel to the mid­field

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