As disputes go, it wasn’t quite Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy in the cloying heat of Saipan, but the very public departure of Finn Russell from the Scotland hotel in January and the rancour that followed between the fly-half and Gregor Townsend gave Scottish rugby an almighty gut-punch.
Back then, in what feels like an age ago, Scotland were in grave need of feel-good. Townsend, perhaps most of all, needed a booming 2020 after the meek Six Nations of 2019 and the mortification in Japan. He wanted a high-profile fall-out and withering remarks from his fulcrum like Wile E Coyote wanted an anvil to the head.
Nine months on, details around the mending of fences remain sketchy. Russell is back in the Townsend squad and would have played for Scotland on their summer tour of South Africa and New Zealand had it not been cancelled. “We had conversations towards the end of the Six Nations that have carried on all the way through the summer up until as recently as a few days ago,” said Townsend.
“The lockdown and time away from rugby and normal life allowed people to connect throughout the world and certainly we have connected a lot over that period. We want the best for him, we want the best for the Scotland team, and we see them both coming together over this period.”
Mike Prendergast, the highly respected attack coach at Racing 92, forged a fertile relationship with Russell that Townsend has, for whatever reason, not been able to cultivate in the past with Scotland and Glasgow. “You’ll be getting a very determined and motivated Finn who is in great form,” Prendergast told The XV last week.
One man may have stolen the headlines, but Gregor Townsend's Scotland squad contains several typically bold selections.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 12, 2020
Townsend said he had ruminated on the experience as the pandemic raged and sport fell into shadow. He is a vociferous student of sports and leadership and culture and the hope is that both coach and play-maker can foster more fruitful bonds in the weeks to come.
“It has been a very good time for learning,” he added. “The lockdown started and life changed a lot at the end of the six nations. I’ve certainly reflected on the events and what I could have done better with Finn and in my role as a coach.
“I’ve had plenty of time to learn off others during that period. You learn from your experiences. As a coach, you make lots of mistakes throughout the season so it has been a time to put all of that into the memory banks and make sure you become a better coach for the experience.”
Before he returns to Scotland and Towensend, Russell has a European final on his agenda with Racing. So too do national captain Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and Sam Skinner. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, their Exeter Chiefs teammate, is a surprise omission after a brilliant beginning to his stint in Devon.
The scrum-half’s absence owes to being unavailable for the first two weeks of camp while Exeter contest the Champions Cup and Premiership showpieces. Having not been involved under Townsend, the worry is that it would take too long for him to get up to speed.
“We are fortunate that three of those players are three of our most experienced players,” said Townsend of the Champions Cup finalists representing Scotland. “Finn is on 49 caps, Jonny over 50 and Stuart over 70. “These are players who have been around the group, who know the players and the coaches and know the rugby we are aiming to play. If they are to go from one environment to the other in a short period of time, we believe they have the capabilities to do that.
“We have to find ways to build that cohesion as well. They are all going to be online via Zoom for a meeting on Tuesday night. We will be filming training sessions and sending out information to them during the next two weeks, albeit they have their own games to focus on.
“They will have that information so they will see what we have done in training and will see things we are trying to add to our game since the Six Nations.”
He's back. ?https://t.co/G6gQzCjH32
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 12, 2020
One of the most riveting aspects of the autumn will be Duhan van der Merwe’s assimilation to Test rugby. The South African juggernaut is a totemic figure for Edinburgh and, having completed his three-year residency period, he will be given the opportunity to transfer blistering club form to the international stage.
Van der Merwe has been prolific in Scotland – 31 tries in 60 games – and routinely tops the attacking charts. Since his PRO14 debut in November 2017, he has scored more tries, gained more metres, average more metres gained per carry, made more clean breaks and beaten more defenders than anyone else in the league.
Although devastating with the ball, Edinburgh have had to upskill the 6ft 4in winger on positional awareness, defence and handling. “Yes, he can (add a different dimension to the Scotland attack),” said Townsend.
“He is obviously a very powerful player, a very fast player, but also a player who has worked on parts of his game that needed improving from a couple of years ago, especially around his positioning in the backfield, his defensive work. He has been outstanding there so far this season.
“We were all delighted he got through the Munster game this weekend having not played for a couple of weeks. He looked sharp and strong. He has got to find out what we do in certain situations and the style of rugby we play. We want him and the other wingers to get on the ball as much as possible.
“Wingers tend to be the players who break more tackles and are the quickest, most powerful, most dynamic players on the field so if Duhan gets double-figure carries that means he has worked really hard to get on the ball or we have found ways to get him into the game.”
Best of frenemies next Saturday ? https://t.co/3R0zMI5xJN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 11, 2020
Townsend was full of praise for 34-year-old Blair Cowan, called up for the first time in four years, and 30-year-old Rob Harley, capped once in the past three. Both forwards have been wreaking destructive mayhem for London Irish and Glasgow. Cowan might be a particular asset as a jackal under the new breakdown law interpretations. Blade Thomson is fit again and has a precious point of difference with his ball-carrying and footballing elan.
Matt Scott narrowly missed out to Sam Johnson, who has credit in the bank despite not playing post-lockdown. Jamie Bhatti gets a shot to impress because Allan Dell has repeatedly failed to take his domestically. Magnus Bradbury is dogged by injury and needs game time, while Duncan Taylor, Rory Hutchinson, Kyle Steyn, Byron McGuigan, Alex Craig and Luke Crosbie are all sidelined.
During the interrupted Six Nations, Scotland tackled and scrapped like wild dogs. They have the best defence in the tournament. They are playing craftier, crueller rugby. They look like a team who reel in the bruising throes of a Test match, rather than one desperate to give it some air at all costs.
“To have six games over an eight-week period is great for us as coaches and hopefully good for the players to spend time in each other’s company, play international rugby but also improve and evolve week to week,” said Townsend.
“There are a few more things you can add from a coach’s perspective when you have the players there for such a long time. We’re looking forward to it. We know there were a few areas we were encouraged by during the Six Nations but there are also a number of areas in which we have to improve and that starts tomorrow when we have everybody back in the squad.
“As a coaching staff, it’s about starting work again. We’ve had a lot of learning as a group and learning from others throughout the summer. We have to distil that into making this team better and building on what they did well in the spring.”
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