Why cau­tious Townsend ditched his cav­a­lier ways

De­feats by Wales and France have shaped the Scot­tish ap­proach to the cup, writes Richard Bath

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby -

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

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