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