Interview: Gregor Townsend on learning lessons from World Cup failure

Apessimist is never disappointed, so the saying goes, and it’s never a bad coping phrase for any Scotland rugby fan to keep at the back of their always optimistic minds.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. Picture: Gary Hutchison / SNS

Throughout his long and distinguished career, on the pitch and as a coach, Gregor Townsend has had many an adjective thrown at him from the sidelines, but pessimist is certainly not one.

Trust your instincts and have a go has been the braw Gala lad’s driving philosophy and has brought, on balance, more bouquets than brickbats down the years of a glittering rugby career.

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At the Parc des Princes on 18 February 1995, Townsend slipped one of the greatest passes in Scottish rugby history to send Gavin Hastings thundering under the posts for a one and only victory at that once iconic venue.

In the subsequent couple of decades, travel sickness seems to have become endemic for Scotland. The away record is nothing short of shocking. Italy aside, the one win in Dublin [at Croke Park in 2010] actually counts as a decent return in the past couple of decades.

As a new make-or-break campaign swiftly approaches, the focus has to be on the future but Townsend is well aware that a 2019 containing a 
fifth-placed Six Nations finish and pool-stage World Cup exit needs to be put right. Before looking forward, there has to be an honest assessment of what has passed, however, and Townsend is open to that.

“I learned a lot as a coach,” said the man who won 82 caps for Scotland, plus a couple for the British and Irish Lions in 1997 and also coached Glasgow to a historic Pro12 title in 2015.

“I learned about how I would do things differently in terms of selection, gameplan, how you coach on a daily basis.”

There are many who feel that a Six Nations with Ireland away first up could lead to the end of Townsend’s tenure.

That thumping by the Irish in the first game of the World Cup was clearly a mood-setter which fine shut-out displays against Samoa and Russia couldn’t quite quell amidst the gathering storm.

“There’s a number of reasons,” said Townsend as he opened up for the first time since last October’s World Cup failure.

“We didn’t get things right on the day before the [Ireland] game and the game itself. We changed things around in the warm-up, and these are peripheral but these things we go through in the review.

“We trained really well until two days before the Ireland game – the intensity of training, how our leaders were contributing, the clarity was all there.

“Then two days before the game, things weren’t as good. We had a two-hour bus trip so we decided to change our ‘Captain’s Run’ so it was more of a jog-through, we didn’t want to go to the [Yokohama International] stadium and get caught in traffic again.

“I’m not saying that’s what led to the game but you could just tell the intensity wasn’t there like it had been. It was a bad start and we didn’t react to a bad start. We’ve got to be better. We didn’t play how we’d trained, we didn’t play how we were capable.”

The coach added: “Everyone was hugely disappointed, me the most, with how we performed there.”

Townsend holds the best winning percentage record as national coach in the professional era, with famous wins over Australia and England, but there have been some shockers too. The 34-7 hiding by Wales at the start of the 2018 Six Nations, 32-3 battering by France in a Nice World Cup warm-up and, most costly, those 27-3 and 28-21 losses to Ireland and hosts Japan at the World Cup.

So the pressure must be on? “No is the answer,” said Townsend. “Because I feel so much privilege to be in this job, to deliver my best. It’s not coaching that delivers sudden changes to how the team plays, it’s a coach working with his coaches and his players and I feel that.”

Townsend remains but his chief lieutenant Matt Taylor has departed to head up the new Dave Rennie-led Australia regime. Forwards coach Danny Wilson continues until he replaces Rennie as Glasgow Warriors boss at the end of the season. Welshman Steve Tandy and South Africa-born former France international Pieter de Villiers join Townsend’s staff as defence and scrum coaches respectively, ahead of a Six Nations and into a summer tour of two Tests against world champions South Africa and then New Zealand.

“There’s a determination to get things right because we weren’t consistent enough last year and I’m looking at the World Cup and the Six Nations, that’s really disappointing,” said Townsend. “We might not win every game because the teams we’re playing against are very good teams.

“But they’re brilliant challenges, to go up against the best in the world and go, ‘Right, there’s going to be a level of performance we don’t drop under’ and if we get to our best, we can trouble any team but we’ve got to be more consistent. I know that.”

Townsend was, under the circumstances, calm, frank and rational in the aftermath of that crazy weekend in Yokohama, which could have seen the final Pool A match scratched due to super Typhoon Hagibis, but ended in arguably the best game of the 2019 World Cup as the hosts won an emotionally-charged contest 28-21.

Townsend has had time to reflect since but said: “The time off can be frustrating as well because you want to get back coaching. It’s felt like a long time.

“Obviously I’ve had some other jobs to do like getting coaches on board but I can’t wait to get coaching.

“I feel confident in the group, confident in what this team can achieve and I feel like I’ve learned as a coach and I still feel hugely grateful to be in this role.”

The fabled “Toony Flip” opened the door to Scotland’s first and only win at the Parc des Princes and Townsend admitted both psychology and just playing better rugby on the day will be key a week on Saturday. “Both. We know we haven’t got a great away record in the Six Nations”, said Townsend. “Ireland have a fantastic home record. When they lost to England last year it was the first time in five years, so that’s obviously a brilliant record to have.

“But we’ve got to learn from occasions when we haven’t delivered our best performances away from home. Not just in the last couple of years, but the last 20 years. We need to look at what we do early in games so we’re still in fights in second halves.

“It will be tougher away from home. Teams play with more energy and probably come at you a bit more in attack and they have that confidence that they’ve won here before.

“We’ve got to make sure we are in games, tough to beat but have confidence that we can win there. That’s all you ask from a team.

“If we lose at the end of the day because Ireland play better then fair play to them because they’re a quality team and they have quality players.”