Gregor Townsend era begins but pressures remain the same

Scotland's new head coach Gregor Townsend. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS
Scotland's new head coach Gregor Townsend. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS
Share this article
1
Have your say

It is a new era for Scotland with Gregor Townsend coming in as head coach and having to revamp the team. Captain John Barclay, however, has brushed aside any suggestion the side are under extra pressure to start with a victory.

“There’s always pressure to win; I don’t think there’s more because there’s a new coach,” he said. “I’m sure Gregor wouldn’t expect players to play just for him. You have enough to play for when you play for Scotland.

“We have spoken about how special it is to play for this group. Vern [Cotter, Townsend’s predecessor] was keen to stress that and Gregor [Townsend] is the same. It is a privilege to play for this team and you shouldn’t need extra motivation.”

The big challenges as far as he is concerned are twofold. First, to get back to playing as a unit after more than two months away playing for their clubs; second, to be able to ignore the sauna-like conditions and keep up the pace and intensity that Townsend is demanding. “I’ve only been with the squad for a week, but I understand that they have been working extremely hard,” said Barclay. “Test match rugby is always fast, always much harder than club rugby. It is a challenge, but we’ve spoken about embracing the challenge and pushing ourselves to try and play with tempo.”

It is hard to know just what to expect from either side before they take to the pitch at the Singapore National Stadium. Both have gone through significant changes since they last met in the final game of the RBS Six Nations Championship and are seeing the match as something of a fresh start.

They have a lot in common, making nine changes from the Six Nations sides – the Lions and injuries forcing Townsend’s hand, while Conor O’Shea, the Italy coach, elected to leave his veterans behind and launch himself into a new era with a bunch of youngsters.

“It is hard to analyse and 
predict what they are going to do, so we have focused on ourselves,” Barclay added. “We have a new coach, new systems, new calling structures. A lot is how we are going to go about our business rather than what they will bring.

“It will be hot but we back ourselves fitness-wise to adapt to the conditions. We want to play fast rugby, we are not shy about saying that.

“Everybody is trying to play fast but, in some ways, you can go away from that, go away from the way you are trying to play the game. The key thing is to do everything with speed.

“Hopefully you will see a different way we approach it. Sometimes it may not come off but as long as the intent to play with speed is there we will reap the benefits.”

That battle at the breakdown, in which Barclay himself will be crucial, not just as a leader but as one of the key players, will make all the difference. If they let it degenerate into a forward slog, they may struggle, but should have more firepower if the ball is whizzing around. “We want to set the tempo of the game,” emphasised Dan McFarland, the forwards coach. “We train at a high pace. There is no room for sitting back and taking time.

“Pace and tempo are things we do at training – we stress them harder at training. You want to win but, as far as I am concerned, if you play and win you still look for the things you can improve on.

“We are confident in our ability and that what we can do will win.

“We are here [on the tour taking in Singapore, Australia and Fiji] to win all three games in the same way that going into a World Cup you are there to win all your games.”

The Italians have gambled. They left their veterans, including talisman Sergio Parisse, behind to rest and recuperate and have handed Scotland a significant advantage in terms of experience. That includes two new caps, though Dean Budd, the lock, is scarcely a newcomer having arrived in Italy five years ago from New Zealand and played regularly for Benetton Treviso in the meantime.

“I never came over to play for Italy but it evolved as my passion for the country has grown,” he said. “I am in charge of the lineout but know a lot of the guys around me well, I don’t feel under extra pressure.

“I know most of the Scottish players from playing against them, which helps with the comfort.

“It is not like jumping in against Australia where I don’t know the guys. It will be a step up but we know what we are in for.”

After today’s game, the tour moves to Australia.