Gregor Townsend: Learning key to winning in Europe

Toulouse's French full-back Maxime Medard offloads as he is tackled by Jonny Gray last week. Picture: Getty

Toulouse's French full-back Maxime Medard offloads as he is tackled by Jonny Gray last week. Picture: Getty

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WE ARE now half-way through our Pool 4 campaign in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup and, despite our defeat at Toulouse last Sunday, we still have an opportunity to qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time and are better placed than ever to progress from the group stages.

Taking an overview of the tournament so far, what is very interesting is just how competitive it has been and the fantastic level of rugby that has been produced.

I believe that teams from the English Premiership have 11 victories behind them, while sides from the Guinness Pro12 have ten wins and the French Top14 clubs have amassed nine successes.

With only two unbeaten sides left in the tournament, that provides a further illustration of just how hard-fought the competition has been.

But now we face Toulouse for the second time in six days and I believe that one of the key factors in the outcome of our second meeting with them will be which side has learned, absorbed and been able to put into action most effectively the lessons from the first game.

Athletics coach Frank Dick, who is one of my mentors, often uses a quote from Arie de Geus – “Probably the only sustainable competitive advantage you have is the ability to learn faster than the opposition.” For us at Glasgow this week, the above quote has driven our meetings, our training and how we prepare to play Toulouse.

We have worked very hard to put the knowledge we gained from that defeat at the Stade Ernest Wallon to the best possible use.

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Whether it has been experiences picked up by the players on the field, the observations of the coaching staff from the sidelines or input from any other members of our staff, we have searched for that little nugget that may make a difference on Saturday, at Scotstoun.

Clearly these two successive meetings with Toulouse will go a long way to defining our European campaign this season and it is absolutely vital that we get all of the basics right and, of course, improve on the things we did not excel at first time around.

For example, we are going to have to be more effective in clearing at the contact. Last Sunday, we allowed Toulouse to get on the ball early and, due to their size, that made it difficult for us to move them. We will have to make sure that the proximity and speed of our support and impact at the contact is improved, as that will have a huge bearing on how we get on in this crucial part of the game if we are to clear rucks in the manner we want.

To further help this process, our decision-making on the ball must also be smarter and more in relation to where the defence is placed.

Clearly, our discipline will have to be much better, and we can’t afford to be reduced to 14 men for a quarter of the game once more.

But on Saturday at Scotstoun it is also going to be vital that when we get within yards of the Toulouse tryline we convert that pressure into precious points.

Passes must go to hand, ball must be recycled quickly and we must make sure we do everything we can to get the scoreboard ticking over. That, despite our periods in the ascendancy in the first game, is something we did not manage in France.

But what we also have to take into account is that when two top teams go up against each other there will be elements of the game in which either side excels for certain periods.

Looking back at last Sunday, I must give credit to Toulouse as they played very well indeed and I thought that their defence throughout was outstanding.

Interestingly enough, the stats revealed that they had 31 offloads and are the pre-eminent off-loading team in European rugby, with ourselves second in that particular chart. To face a team with such a physical and high-paced offloading game also illustrates just how well we defended against them last weekend.

But Toulouse will be coming to Scotstoun in the knowledge that, with a three-point lead over us and only two more games to play following round four of the pool fixtures, a victory would take them to within touching distance of the quarter-finals.

We are expecting a similar challenge to the one we faced out in France and we will have to deliver an outstanding performance to win on Saturday.

Yet we have a proud record at Scotstoun and with what is expected to be a sell-out Glasgow crowd behind us, who will get behind the team from the first minute to the last, I firmly believe that our players can rise to the occasion and create the special performance that will be required.

Norman Mair, a writer whose words meant so much

NORMAN MAIR was a fantastic rugby writer and a very nice man whose passing is a sad loss to our sport and my heartfelt condolences go out to his family.

The highest compliment I can pay Norman is that when I was a young player, and then an international, I always looked for The Scotsman to see if he had been covering the game I had played in and, if he had, I made sure I absorbed every word of his report. As my career progressed, I was fortunate to have a good friendship with Norman and enjoyed our rugby conversations. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the game was immense.

He was able to talk with authority and knowledge on our great game and he liked to ask questions of how the latest technical and tactical developments were viewed from a players’ perspective. But that immense knowledge of our game was built up over five decades stemming from his spell as a player, which culminated in him becoming a Scotland international, and then his role as the foremost rugby writer for many years.

Along with Bill McLaren, he was a legend of Scottish rugby and was respected throughout the rugby world.

I am not sure we will ever see his like again.

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