“Total Rugby”, often revised in many editions, was rugby’s Holy Writ for coaches from New Zealand to England and elsewhere. It is as relevant tot he modern game as it was when first published more than half a century ago, a dozen or so years after he had retired from a playing career in which he captained Scotland and played in all four Tests for the 1955 Lions in South Africa. He would have been delighted by the way Scotland are now playing and by recent performances from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Gregor Townsend, Mike Blair and Danny Wilson are all his sort of coach, encouraging players to think for themselves and express themselves on the field.
Two of his dicta come to mind today. The first – “What characterises this game is well-judged risk-taking” – exactly describes recent Edinburgh and Glasgow displays. Think of that first Edinburgh try against Cardiff last week. It began when, after sustained pressure from Cardiff, Magnus Bradbury won a turnover close to Edinburgh’s try-line. The safety-first coach, averse to risk-taking, would have looked for a kick to touch to relieve the pressure and allow his team to re-group. Instead Edinburgh ran the ball and within seconds went the length of the field to score a try. Jim would have purred with delight. The risk had been well-judged and well-taken.
“Selection”, he also wrote, “is the most important part of a coach’s job”. Get the right players on the field in the right positions and you have given your team their best chance of winning. This will often mean that you make your selection with at least half an eye on the nature and quality of the opposition: where are they strong? – where may they be weak? Over the years we have sometimes been surprised by some of Gregor Townsend’s selections, but the surprise might have been less if we had reflected that assessment of the opposition had been taken into account.
Club coaches are of course in a different position from coaches of a national team. When selecting the team for any match, they have to consider that their club has a long fixture list, that some players may be in need of a rest or a week off, and that fringe players in the squad must be given game-time. Mike Blair will, I suppose, have had these things in mind when naming his team for their European Challenge Cup match away to London Irish today, a game that will be followed next Friday by a home one in the same competition against Brive.
On the face of it there are two surprising omissions, Mark Bennett and Hamish Watson both absent from today’s squad. Bennett was brilliant against Cardiff last week, and was indeed one of the players publicly praised by Blair. Those of us who so admired Bennett when he was first capped for Scotland as a very young player and featured in the 2015 World Cup side before his career was interrupted by a succession of injuries have longed to see him in that exhilarating form again. Well, we saw it to our delight last Saturday, but he is missing today, replaced by the still very young Matt Currie who signed his full professional contract only last week. So why? Well, perhaps Bennett with his record of injuries, requires – and deserves – careful handling and more time for rest and recuperation than players without such a record. Perhaps, with Edinburgh in a strong position in the Challenge Cup after their great win away to Saracens, Bennett is being saved for the Brive match on Edinburgh’s artificial pitch which so suits his style of play.
As for Hamish Watson, one of this past summer’s Lions, who would never, one supposes, be omitted from any crunch match for Edinburgh – or indeed Scotland despite the way in which Glasgow’s dashing young star Rory Darge is snapping at his heels – perhaps he too has reached a stage in his career when he needs careful management. In any case, today’s Edinburgh back-row of the powerful Nick Haining, the utterly reliable Jamie Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury in the form of his life should be more than a match for almost any club opposition.
London Irish are a good team lying midway in the English Premiership, but their record – won 4, lost 5, drawn 3 – indicates that while they are hard to beat, they are not to be feared. Meanwhile Glasgow, also riding high, have a very tough task away to Exeter Chiefs seeking revenge for their thumping in the mist or fog of Scotstoun. Another day for “well-judged risk-taking”, I would say.