Gregor Townsend says the decision on whether he remains as Scotland coach following the failure to reach the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals will not be his to make but, for his part, insisted he won’t be walking away.
As the dust settles on an extraordinary weekend in the history of the Scottish national team, Townsend said he would take time to “reflect on my own performance” as he spoke with written press in Yokohama after a campaign months and years in the planning was ended early by a 28-21 defeat to a truly inspired Japanese team.
It came after the SRU had dug in hard against World Rugby and tournament chiefs to make clear a match cancellation would not go unchallenged. Super Typhoon rolled in with devastating force, with over 30 killed and many missing, but the weather changed dramatically in Yokohama by Sunday morning and the match went ahead in front of an ecstatic home crowd.
So the Scots head home from Japan in the next day or so with only a second failure to reach the knockout stages since the World Cup started in 1987 following a similar outcome at New Zealand 2011.
Asked simply if he will consider his future in a job he has held since June 2017, Townsend said: “It wouldn’t be my decision anyway. I’m not somebody who would not go to the end of his contract.
“When it comes to the coach it’s somebody else’s decision but I believe we have the makings of a very good team that can compete with the best teams in the world.
“We’ve not done that well enough in this tournament. We’ve done that other times and gone on to work to make it better. We are running to keep up with these teams but I believe in this group of players and that we can beat the best teams in the world.”
Famously, after Townsend was at the 2003 World Cup his future as a Scotland player was made for him when incoming coach Matt Williams jettisoned him at the age of 30.
With that painful experience in mind, Townsend said it was not the time to make sweeping changes with four years still to prepare for a next World Cup in France and the huge standalone challenge of a 2020 Six Nations to come.
“The team that played on Wednesday [in the 61-0 win over Russia at Shizuoka] was a younger team and it did very well in a difficult position,” said Townsend.
“If that team had gone out [against Japan] they would have been lacking a lot of experience in a game of the magnitude of this one.
“It’s encouraging when you see players such as Scott Cummings who did well to make our squad of 44 play every game in the tournament and the warm-ups.
“It’s really encouraging to see Jamie Ritchie who was really outstanding after an outstanding game against Samoa off the back of surgery [to his cheekbone] two weeks before.
“There are more. Not everybody is going to make the next World Cup. Some with transition out of their own accord or because a younger or different player deserves selection. We have some players coming through who should make us stronger.
“We have a group of players at the age of 25 to 27. You know these guys, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray who have at least one more World Cup in them. Jonny has 55 caps, Finn on 49. Jonny Gray stood up against Japan and stood up against Samoa. They have to drive the team forward.
“Coaches will be there but the players are the ones that have to set standards and step up. Some of the players have stepped up during this tournament. Greig [Laidlow, now 34] is not going to be at the next World Cup. It’s safe to say that.
“Players like him has left as massive legacy. He drives high standards of the field and really cares what it means to play for Scotland. I’m sure the other ones do and I have seen it but it will have to become more their responsibility.”
The lead up to the Japan game was not ideal, with SRU chief executive Mark Dodson holding a press conference on Friday to state the union’s position they would not accept a straight match cancellation, as was done for three games over the weekend, if all feasible alternative options had not been explored ahead of the typhoon coming in on Saturday. The Scots were rebuked by World Rugby for disregarding the participation signed, which Dodson challenged.
Asked if all the dramas had taken a toll on preparations, Townsend replied: “No. If we had come out looking off and just not right in the first ten or 15 minutes... we were not right in the first ten to 15 minutes of the Ireland game, you saw that, and it cost us the game then and that was a huge regret.
“On Sunday we came in up for the occasion and up for putting real pressure on Japan. We just gave them too much ball in the first half and their attack paid off.”
Addressing the quick turnaround from Russia to Japan, the hosts who had at least a week’s break before all their pool games, and the growing debate over squad sizes, Townsend said: “I don’t want this to be the narrative and it’s not why we lost to Japan.
“It was always going to be very tough when that draw was made. The fact we had to do something different on Wednesday. Yes, most of the players who started on Wednesday didn’t start. But it changes your training plan quite severely when you’ve only got one training session going into the biggest game in your pool.
“Now, we’ve always known this would be the case and would be a challenge and that’s why I was delighted to see the way we started on Sunday. It didn’t seem to have taken too much out of them and obviously as we went into the second half it didn’t affect us hugely. But of course it’s a handicap.
“Every team got a four-five day turnaround but one [the hosts] in this tournament. But they can make the tournament last longer and have no turnarounds, or everyone should have one. The other thing the organisers have to look at is bigger squads, 31 is very tight.
“If we’d picked up a head knock [which leads to a six-day protocol phase] in our game on Wednesday or two or three players we might not have a squad, we’d need to call up guys and send guys back, and his [the called-up player’s] World Cup would be over even though he’d just been out for six days.”
Townsend added: "It’s a long reflection for us. We can’t just do a 'how did we lose that game reflection,’. Did we play to our best over the four games?
"And you look to the future. You have a build up to a World Cup. It could be this has been a time for certain guys who have played in their last World Cup, will they go on beyond that. Will it be their decision? Will it be our decision to say we want to move on with players and need to build up experience for the next World Cup?"
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