Why cautious Townsend ditched his cavalier ways
Defeats by Wales and France have shaped the Scottish approach to the cup, writes Richard Bath
There is a tendency in some quarters to think of Gregor Townsend as a one-dimensional coach who has simply transferred his swashbuckling elan as a player to his current role. Both Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland have alluded to Scotland’s supposedly relentless expansiveness under Townsend in less than flattering terms. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
When the stakes are at their highest Townsend actually becomes a cautious punter, one who hates disastrous losses even more than he savours against-theodds victories. That has had a profound effect on Scotland’s approach to this World Cup.
For all Scotland’s successes under Townsend – winning then retaining the Calcutta Cup, beating Australia home and away – it is the crushing defeats against Wales and France that have shaped his tactical approach to the World Cup.
The first of those two defeats came when Scotland arrived in Cardiff on a wave of optimism after an outstanding autumn. But after being tactically outsmarted and watching his team dismantled, a visibly stunned Townsend had to put up with the unseemly crowing of Warren Gatland in the immediate aftermath of a game he had entered with high hopes.
After that 34-7 humbling in Cardiff, he retrenched. Out went Ali Price, the embodiment of his desire to play faster, and in came veteran Greig Laidlaw for the visit of France. Unknown quantities, such as No 8 Cornell du Preez, were discarded in favour of a proven performer in the streetsmart Ryan Wilson, who had served Townsend well at Glasgow Warriors. Byron Mcguigan also went, replaced by Sean Maitland, while centre Chris Harris was replaced by another of Townsend’s go-to Warriors, Peter Horne. It worked too, Scotland edging a tight encounter and vindicating his faith in his old dependables.
A similar process took place after a car crash in Nice, a defeat that was all the more worrying because it was so close to the World Cup. In the next game Townsend changed his side and stacked the squad with as many caps as possible, later admitting that the Nice loss led him to pursue a more conservative selection and game plan. Again, it was an approach that worked.
Nice persuaded him to leave defensively suspect but prolific try-scoring centres Huw Jones and Rory Hutchinson at home, and now it is helping to shape team selection and tactics in Japan. The Scotland coach has admitted that players with defensive solidity, huge experience at test level and the “rugby intelligence” to think on their feet when things go wrong have all gathered more weight in his mind as a result of Nice.
When picking his World Cup squad, in every instance Townsend went with experience and triedand-tested players. The side to play Ireland, which boasts 630 caps in a starting line-up where track record has trumped form and the decision to once again opt for Laidlaw over Price encapsulates his approach, is simply an extension of that mindset. Nice has added a ruthlessly pragmatic edge to Townsend’s thinking – keeping it tight is back in vogue and winning ugly is no longer a sin when compared to the alternative.
This has manifested itself in Townsend repeatedly stressing that “defence wins World Cups”, a mantra repeated by Stuart Hogg in Tokyo in midweek. Given the way defensive lapses cost Scotland victory against Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, defence would have been a priority even before Nice. Games against Ireland are always tight, and the superexperienced team Townsend announced yesterday reflects that.
But his whole approach also reflects a wider nervousness about the potential for a terminal reversal of fortunes later in the tournament, especially when it comes to Samoa, who Scotland beat by just a point at the 2015 World Cup, and hosts Japan, who Scotland only defeated 26-13 and 21-16 in 2016.
Scotland’s current tighter game plan against established rugby powers like Ireland was set at Murrayfield in the wake of the Nice game. Their plan for the second tier nations who see defeating Scotland as the next realistic step up the ladder was established in Tblisi, when Scotland shut up shop behind the scrum and pummelled Georgia into submission up front.
As Townsend’s assistant, Matt Taylor, said yesterday, Scotland’s selections and tactics against sides who can spring an upset are different to those they will deploy against Ireland. “With teams that love to play loose, like Samoa and Japan, you’ve got to tighten up and strangle them,” he said. “If you play too loose you play into their hands, so we’ll use our set-piece, the kicking game, the pressure game.”
Asked whether the plan was to shut up shop in the backs and smash both Samoa and Japan up front until they have a matchwinning lead, Taylor agreed. “That’s the objective,” he said. “We’ll be looking to impose ourselves on them and force errors through our kicking game.”
Against Ireland tomorrow, Townsend’s hugely experienced side will kick for position, ratchet up the pressure, hopefully stop Ireland scoring and get ahead on the scoreboard. After Nice, such pragmatism is the new normal.
Gearing up: Scotland prepare for their crunch World Cup opener against Ireland