OUR victory over Montpellier on Saturday was a very important one for us in so many ways. Obviously it was great that we followed up our win over Bath with another win, which has moved us up to nine points after the first two games of our European Rugby Champions Cup campaign.
But the benefits we will derive from winning in France in terms of the experience gained and lessons learned for our squad will be very valuable in the weeks and months of rugby that lie ahead.
We knew it would be a tough challenge against one of the biggest packs in European rugby and one that have excellent technique and application in the set-piece exchanges. Montpellier are also a team that play ambitious rugby, and this was shown in the first 20 minutes with their short restart kicks and offloading out of contact, even when deep in their own half.
However, after the opening quarter the match took a different route and it became more of an arm wrestle with many more scrums – 30 in total – than we had anticipated.
More than 150 years ago a Prussian military chief once commented that “no battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy”. That sentiment could equally apply to any rugby match, and what coaches and players might expect to happen can quickly change due to the weather, the referee, where we are having success, or what type of game plan is being deployed by the opposition.
In any game, you have to get the fundamentals right as well as being adaptable to these changing circumstances. Last Saturday our players defended exceptionally well and when we got the opportunity to attack we moved the ball with accuracy and speed to keep the scoreboard ticking over in our favour.
The squad can be proud of the performance and the result they produced at one of the toughest venues in European rugby.
Yet this victory was one that was not just down to the 15 players who started the game or the 23-man match-day squad. For the work that our support staff put into the preparation for the tie was vital.
On the day itself I watched how our three players who were not involved – Dougie Hall, Peter Murchie and Jerry Yanuyanutawa – were constantly encouraging the team from the sidelines, which really underlines the camaraderie and tight bonds that exist within our group.
Now we have a break from European competition until we travel to Toulouse on Sunday, 7 December to face one of the most formidable teams and biggest clubs in European rugby, in another tie that will again provide our young group with more invaluable experience.
But before that encounter at the Stade Ernest Wallon there is an awful lot of rugby to be played, with three Test matches and three fixtures in the Guinness Pro12, with the first of these league games coming tomorrow night with the visit of Treviso to Scotstoun.
This period is likely to see a return from injury of several of our longer-term absentees. Ryan Grant, Ryan Wilson and Jon Welsh have all had game time under their belts in the club game in recent weeks and are not far away now from a return to our playing squad.
Our whole group has also taken a big lift from Mike Cusack’s return to training in the last couple of weeks and in general terms the squad is in a good place in respect of injuries as we go into this crucial phase of the season.
But clearly when the demands of the viagogo autumn Test series take place you have a different set of challenges to manage as a coaching team and with 16 Scotland squad players unavailable for tomorrow’s game we will have a number of new faces in our match-day squad against Treviso.
We are learning all the time as a coaching group about how to better manage our preparations during the Test windows, as we aim to do better on and off the field than we did at this time last season. In the four defeats we experienced in the Pro12 in 2013/14, three of them came during the November international Test break and the Six Nations, so we are looking at doing things differently – and better – this season.
We have had the majority of the squad for the Treviso game together in training over Monday and Tuesday while we also had a training match last Wednesday to establish combinations and improve our match fitness, while a number of our players had run-outs in the BT Premiership last weekend.
So individually and collectively as a group we are confident our preparation will be at the desired level for our second meeting with Treviso already this season.
Looking at our first encounter with Umberto Casellato’s side back on 5 October, at the Stadio Monigo, I believe that the 40-23 scoreline flattered us somewhat.
Treviso were excellent at the contact and competed hard for the ball after the tackle. They also played with ambition, varying the point of attack, so we will have to be alert on both sides of the ruck tomorrow night.
It will also be another opportunity for our forward pack to go up against another very good scrum and one of the best lineout teams in our competition.
This is a very important game for us to remain near the top of the table before a number of our players get a well-earned break – while others enjoy the privilege of playing international rugby.
This weekend will see the end of the first third of our season, and also the end of my weekly columns for a few weeks.
So I would like to wish all those involved with the Scotland team over the next month the very best of luck and I’m looking forward to seeing how we play against three very different and challenging opponents.
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