Gregor Townsend demands ‘big improvements’ as Scotland caught cold again

It is obvious to the point of almost going without saying that Scotland’s opening World Cup Pool A match against Ireland, now just over a month away in Yokohama, is looming as one of the most pressurised games the national team have faced in years.

Bloodied flanker Jamie Ritchie is put under pressure by Charles Ollivon as Scotland slumped to defeat by France in Saturday's World Cup warm-up match. Picture: Pascal Guyot/AFP

It is increasingly worrying, then, that the habit of getting off to slipshod starts continues, the latest being a woeful start to this warm-up series in Nice.

Make no mistake, something similar to this debacle at the stunning Allianz Riviera would have Gregor Townsend’s men staring down the barrel of failure to reach the knockout stage for only the second time since the World Cup began in 1987.

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Townsend is not the kind of coach to blow a gasket and he was outwardly calm in the aftermath of a 32-3 thumping by a French side who looked highly impressive but were given no shortage of help by the visitors.

“We need to see big improvements,” the Scotland head coach said.

“We’ve got 40 in our squad and the majority of them are going to Japan, so we’ll be working with them to improve. Some might not get as many opportunities after tonight, but that might have been the case anyway.

“We all know we have to show a 
better picture of ourselves next week [against France] at Murrayfield.”

It was a first proper hit-out since the end of last season but Townsend refused to use that as an excuse for a squad who have been preparing together solidly for months but, at times, looked like they had only just met.

“It was the first time that team has played so we knew there would be errors. We made more errors than the French did. They picked a more experienced team, more similar to what they’ve run in the past.

“But it was the first game of the season for France as well as us and they have got up to speed quicker and been more accurate.

“They do very well off errors, but they also constructed a couple of very good set-play combinations. They got over the gainline on the first phase and we allowed them to get that front-foot ball, which is much tougher to defend.

“When you are defending 20 different sets throughout a game you have to make sure the opposition are getting
slow ball or you are forcing errors from them, or it will be a tough night physically, which was the case for us.”

The sultry heat by the Mediterranean was supposed to be a further replication, following on from a week of warm-weather training in Portugal, to the kind of conditions they are set to face in Japan.

The 9pm local time kick-off meant things had cooled relatively but it was still a very warm evening and the Scots wilted worryingly.

After the kind of poor start which has become all too familiar – Fiji-born wing Alivereti Raka scything in on his debut after just a couple of minutes – the Scots leaked four further tries at regular intervals as defensive frailty was exposed again.

Townsend added: “We’ve worked hard and we know the players are in really
good physical shape but they’re obviously not match conditioned yet and we’ll look at how we can accelerate that over the next week or two.

“We allowed them into the game by not making enough dominant collisions, dominant tackles and when you give a French team space they can cause you damage, so that’s very disappointing.”

Scotland trailed 20-3 at 
half-time, which was less than the deficit they overhauled in the famous 38-38 draw at Twickenham but there was never any flicker of a similar fightback on Saturday.

Skipper Stuart McInally, who lifted the Calcutta Cup in March, was a much less happy man at the weekend. “We’ll need to review the whole footage. You can have immediate thoughts but we’ll need to look back and see,” said the hooker.

“There were a lot of similarities [with the loss to the French in Paris during the Six Nations]. I thought they played really well. They found holes in our defence and they offloaded well.

“They played really good, typical French rugby and they caught us a few times. Credit needs to go to them; they played well and put us under a lot of pressure and they’ve shown us areas we need to improve on.

“My initial feeling was that we just need to tighten up our defence a bit and try to win some collisions. We were caught a bit narrow a few times and when you’re playing against a good team like France they will expose that.

“They got width on us a few times. But we’ll look at it and we’ll debrief it.”

There were international debuts off the bench for centre Rory Hutchinson and lock Scott Cummings, who became the 1,104th and 1,105th men to represent Scotland, but not ones they will look back on with much pleasure.