A damp squib, but Scotland win key to Gregor Townsend's plan

After what was a rather forgettable end to the international year as Scotland ground out this narrow and, it could be argued, slightly fortunate victory over the Pumas, it was no surprise that much of the after-match talk thrust thoughts forward to the new year and the Six Nations and World Cup to come.

Sean Maitland dives over for the only try in Scotland's win over Argentina. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Sean Maitland dives over for the only try in Scotland's win over Argentina. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

After a curate’s egg of a November for the Scots, with wins over Fiji and Argentina added to defeats by Wales and South Africa, where exactly the team currently lie in the scheme of things remains a tantalising mystery that will only become clear when the competitive action gets going again in February.

In horrible wintry conditions on Saturday, the Scots eked out the win in what became a tough attritional battle with the combative Argentines. The much-vaunted experiment of Adam Hastings at stand-off and Finn Russell never had a chance to achieve any fluency and, ultimately, victory was secured by the combination of quick thinking by Stuart Hogg and Greig Laidlaw to put Sean Maitland in for a second-half try and a horror show with the boot from Pumas kicker Nicolás Sanchez, who missed four eminently makeable penalty shots.

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With a Test year that contained seven wins and four defeats ending in a bit of a damp squib, coach Gregor Townsend assessed the upcoming challenges of 2019.

In the past it was always felt that the evenly numbered years, when England and France were played at home, gave the Scots the best chance to do well in the championship, with the Grand Slams of 1984 and 1990 coming with such a fixture sequence.

Nowadays, the oddly numbered years, which see the visits of vastly improved Welsh and Irish sides and the bonus extra home fixture against Italy, are viewed as the better opportunity for the Scots to push for more than wooden spoon battles which have mercifully been avoided in the past three campaigns.

Getting off to a losing start has often put the Scots on the back foot but a rare chance to start the championship at home to Italy, a fixture which has by no means been a guarantee of victory down the years but is better than any alternative, gives Townsend’s men a chance to get off to a positive start.

“To do well in the Six Nations, you need momentum, you need wins early,” said the coach, pictured below “We have an opportunity, playing at home rather than away. But we know Italy are going to be really strong. For 60 minutes against us in Rome [in March], they were the much better team. And I’m sure they’ll lean on what they did that day, which was make really powerful carries.

“Both of their pro sides are playing much better, both are tough to beat. And Italy will be tough to beat. Momentum is an interesting thing. We’ve got to build our momentum through the Six Nations, with how we prepare, what team we select for that first game – that will have a huge bearing on how we gain momentum in that tournament.”

With the November series over, Townsend releases his players back to their clubs and begins the planning process for what will be the biggest 12 months of his coaching career.

“It’s back to watching a lot of rugby, watching our players, making sure they’re hearing from us in terms of what we believe will help them get into the Scotland team come the end of January, February,” said Townsend.

“And planning and learning as a coaching group on what we’ve experienced these past five weeks. It’s not just on the games, it’s what we did at training, what could we have done better to put a better performance out on the field. It’s been great we won this [Argentina] game, great that we got through this period having had, I don’t know how many, it’ll be over 30 players playing international rugby, a bit more depth, competition, creating a bit more depth,

“Rotating the players with the goal of getting them through healthy, which has happened. Now I’m sure there will be a few injuries between now and the Six Nations but, if we get a bit of luck, those players that are coming through from injury are available before the Six Nations and we can select from a strong squad.”

Townsend was reluctant to set any targets for a Six Nations which will be fiercely contested by a number of teams coming off the back of successful autumns.

“We know it’s going to be very tough but we believe we have a squad that can take on anybody,” said the coach. “That’s within the Six Nations and 
outwith the Six Nations, whether South Africa come here, Australia come here, New Zealand over the past 12 months to teams that we’ve played in the Six Nations like England and France.

“We know we have to do better away from home within the Six Nations. We’ve got Paris and London, two very tough venues, but we’ve got to make sure that, over the five games, we play as close to our potential as possible.”

For all the positive results which have been racked up by this Scotland team in the past few years, it is actually the two home defeats of the past year which, potentially, have given the best indications of how close the national team are to competing with the very best – and the work that needs to be done to make that extra push.

“I think it was a big step forward against South Africa with the pack they had and the pack we had,” said Townsend. “We did have some injuries around the back-row. I thought the players did an outstanding job. We had enough opportunities to grab with our attack, we just didn’t take them that day, but in terms of a set-piece and forward performance that was excellent.

“That was a very good marker for us to say we play Italy, we play England, we play France, all the teams that have huge packs, we need a South Africa performance, plus our own game getting imposed on the opposition.

“We played really well that night [a year ago against the All Blacks]. Maybe the games haven’t gone as fluently. [Against Argentina] I would say the conditions mean you have to play a different game, both teams, and also the opposition the way they play means you may have to play slightly differently.

“When you play a team that is playing as open rugby as we intend to play then it allows you to play more. So, there’s been parts of our game, especially the Fiji game, when we did that and really played at pace.

“The last two weeks have been more about making 
sure the opposition don’t get an upper hand in their strengths and finding a way to win.

“We did that [against Argentina], we didn’t do that last week [against South Africa]. But that was certainly a bench-mark, the New Zealand and Australia performances last year that we maybe reached a couple of times against England and Argentina in the summer.”