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FEATURE Can Townsend's Scotland find balm for festering Irish sore?

Can Townsend's Scotland find balm for festering Irish sore?
4 months ago

Gregor Townsend’s CV as Scotland head coach is bulging with historic landmarks – a first win in Wales for 18 years; breaking a 38-year hex at Twickenham to ignite a run of four successive Calcutta Cup victories; a first win in Paris for 22 years; a first triumph at the Principality Stadium for 22 years, only last month.

But the manner of that victory in Cardiff, playing superbly for 40-odd minutes to lead 27-0 before hanging on grimly to sneak home by a point, has come to represent the perception – or reality – of Scotland under Townsend. A side capable of playing rugby from the gods, but rarely for a whole match, or from one week to the next, and never for a whole campaign.

That perception has been cemented by the events of recent weeks. Building a comfortable lead against France before letting the match drift and falling behind late on, only to rouse themselves for a big finish that fell short on the back of a controversial decision by the TMO.

There was the raucous victory over England, where the Scots – by their own admission – didn’t play as well as the 30-21 scoreline might have suggested but fed ravenously on a diet of English errors as deadly Duhan van der Merwe helped himself to a hat-trick of tries.

Scotland huddle
Vice-captain Grant Gilchrist has admitted that Scotland’s ability to manage games in adversity is a “work in progress” (Photo Timothy Rogers/Getty Images)

And then came Rome. Another half-hour of sublime attacking rugby and an obstruction away from probably putting the match to bed before indiscipline and inaccuracy in the face of a stirring Italian revival. Again there was a spirited late salvage operation. Again it fell short.

Amid the despond and debriefs that have followed, mental toughness – or resilience – under pressure has been the theme of the week in the Scotland camp.

Defence coach Steve Tandy took umbrage at the suggestion Scotland are maybe lacking something in the top two inches, but experienced lock Grant Gilchrist conceded the team’s ability to manage games that start slipping away is still “a work in progress”.

The mental side of the game is not an easy fix. It’s something you’re working on continually, the players’ togetherness, how they deal with events that might be happening to them or to a team-mate.

The squad have been holding weekly sessions with mental skills coach Aaron Walsh during the Championship, with Townsend adamant the “growth we’ve had mentally is evident in the games we’ve played”, despite evidence to the contrary from those outside looking in.

“The mental side of the game is not an easy fix,” he said. “It’s something you’re working on continually, the players’ togetherness, how they deal with events that might be happening to them or to a team-mate, and how we get on to the next job. That’s what we practise in training and talk about in our reviews and what they show in our games.

“We didn’t do it well enough [against Italy]. It took us too long to get back into a more accurate performance and by that stage it was almost too late to win the game.”

Ange Capuozzo
Scotland’s failure to cope with Italy’s second-half surge has raised questions about their mental resilience (Photo Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Federugby via Getty Images)

The ability to react positively in adversity and make the right decisions under extreme pressure will face the ultimate test in Dublin on Saturday, against an Irish side also on the rebound and intent on showing their Twickenham loss was a mere bump in the road – albeit a painful, Grand Slam derailer – on the journey towards a second straight Six Nations crown.

Only three members of the Scotland 23 who will be on duty at the Aviva Stadium – Huw Jones, Finn Russell and Zander Fagerson – have tasted victory over Ireland, and that was another lifetime ago in rugby terms.

A 27-22 victory in the opening match of the 2017 Six Nations at Murrayfield, achieved with only 41% possession and 37% territory and secured by two late Greig Laidlaw penalties, occurred in the final campaign under previous head coach Vern Cotter.

Since Townsend took over from the popular Kiwi that summer, they have faced Ireland on nine occasions – six in the Championship, two at World Cups and once in the Autumn Nations Cup during the Covid pandemic – and lost the lot.

If Townsend’s tenure has brought balm to decades-old Scottish wounds against other opposition, a lack of answers to ‘the Irish question’ threatens to become a long-festering sore.

It is Ireland’s best ever winning run in meetings between the Celtic cousins, and the Scots’ worst losing sequence in the fixture since 11 consecutive losses at the back end of the 19th Century.

The cumulative score in those nine games is 238-102. Ireland have scored 30 tries to Scotland’s 10. The Scots have managed one try or less in seven of those matches. The last one, only five short months ago, was a 36-14 humbling in their World Cup pool encounter in Paris where just about everything that could go wrong did for the Scots.

If Townsend’s tenure has brought balm to decades-old Scottish wounds against other opposition, a lack of answers to ‘the Irish question’ threatens to become a long-festering sore.

Garry Ringrose
Ireland’s crushing World Cup pool victory in Paris last October is still fresh in the Scots’ memory (Photo Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

How, psychologically, do Scotland convince themselves that they go to Dublin with genuine hope of pulling off what Townsend concedes would be a “a massive result” – something to eclipse any of the previous highs under him – given the accumulated scars since 2018?

“They have a bigger advantage over us in that they’ve beaten us and they’ve got evidence that they can talk about on how to beat Scotland,” he said, rather stating the obvious.

“That’s a big challenge for us. But this team has shown in winning away from home in Wales, Twickenham and Paris, that they can produce a massive performance regardless of what has gone on in history. We need to deliver a performance that the guys have been working on over the last few weeks.

“We know how tough it’s going to be. They’re one of the top two teams in the world and at home they’ve been virtually unbeatable the last few years so it’s going to require something special from our players.”

It’s almost inevitable that they will create opportunities to score points – and they will score points. So you’ve got to make sure that you limit that as much as possible, but also you’ve got the points on the board yourself.

Could Scotland take a leaf out of England’s book, perhaps, in the way Steve Borthwick’s side stemmed Ireland’s flow of quick ball at the breakdown and disrupted their attacking rhythm?

“England showed real energy throughout the game, off the ball in particular,” Townsend noted. “I thought they pressurised Ireland, never let them settle. That’s something you have to do. You’ve got to be on it defensively, with your chasing game, and with your work rate off the ball. And you’ve got to take opportunities.

“It’s almost inevitable that they will create opportunities to score points – and they will score points. So you’ve got to make sure that you limit that as much as possible, but also you’ve got the points on the board yourself – something we didn’t do at the World Cup. We had chances in that first 15-20 minutes, and we have to be better this time round.”

Missed opportunities have also been a recurring theme of Scotland’s recent Championship visits to Dublin. In 2018 there were a blizzard of them – Huw Jones butchering a two-on-one with a forward pass to Stuart Hogg stands out – while Hogg’s fumble over the line two years later was perhaps the most egregious example.

Stuart Hogg
Stuart Hogg dropping the ball over the line in 2020 came at a crucial juncture with Scotland on top (Photo Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

That 19-12 defeat – in Andy Farrell’s first game as head coach – was as close as Scotland have come under Townsend to stalling the green machine on Irish turf. Two years ago it was a similar story; plenty of promise and multi-phase attacks from the visitors, but all the ruthlessness from the hosts as they clinched a Triple Crown on the final day.

That particular bauble is only available on Saturday to Scotland, for whom it would be a first since 1990, while Ireland, whose only home Championship defeat over five campaigns under Farrell was a two-point loss to France in 2021, target a fifth Six Nations title in 11 years.

“We are playing for a trophy but the bigger motivator is to put in a performance that will test Ireland because if we don’t put that performance in, we are not going to win,” Townsend added.

Will Scotland’s best be enough to trump Ireland’s, if the hosts also bring their ‘A’ game to the Paddy’s Weekend party? Probably not, by any objective measure.

If they get somewhere close to it – a big if where Scotland are concerned – we might yet have a grand old game on our hands. Another calamity of Paris or Rome proportions though and the grumblings around Townsend will only grow louder.

Comments

1 Comment
B
Bull Shark 124 days ago

If Scotland’s last game is anything to go by - Scotland to win emphatically by 3 points.

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