Gregor Townsend faced the All Blacks half a dozen times in his Scotland career and, while he can’t draw on any tales of victory to rally his troops for tomorrow evening, he can certainly drum into them that they are about to face the “ultimate test”.
For those in the squad who haven’t faced New Zealand before, it is poised to be the most challenging experience of their careers and the coach made no bones about the fact they will need to be at peak performance both in terms of their rugby ability and mentality if there is any chance that a famous victory can be secured.
“We’ve got a job to do and that’s to play as well as we can to win the game for our country and in any game you’ve got to take the game to the opposition in attack and defence,” said Townsend yesterday after naming his team.
“So we admire the way New Zealand play, I love New Zealand as a country and the New Zealand people. But when you play any team, if you want to lose you’ll just sit back and admire their play, if you want to win you’ll really go at them.
“That’s what we have to do and that’s what we’re planning to do and I believe that’s what our players will do.”
Asked about how he approached matches against the greatest superpower in the sport’s history. Townsend said: “I just think you knew it was the ultimate test, so the focus went up a few notches.
“It’s the biggest challenge that any country, any player faces in rugby, to play the best rugby team. They’ve been the number one ranked team for eight years I heard today. There’s not many nations or clubs that can do that in any sport, so you know it’s the ultimate test, so you know you’ve got to get the focus, the best out of yourself and your team-mates and view it as an opportunity.
“It’s a huge challenge but also a huge opportunity for our players. We don’t play them very often. We’ve not been in New Zealand for 17 years, which is a real shame. We used to tour there every five or six years. Now we’ve an opportunity at home in front of 67,000 to give our best and put pressure on them for 80 minutes.”
Speaking a couple of hours before the All Blacks named their strongest team for the match, Townsend said he hoped that Scotland have regained some respect in Kiwi eyes and that that will be borne out by a competitive encounter tomorrow.
“I’d like to think we’d have that and we’ll see their team, but if they do announce their strongest team to play us that shows that they view us as a very competitive side that they have to play their best to beat,” said the former Scotland and Lions stand-off.
“It is disappointing we haven’t been to New Zealand for such a long while, but that was the previous agreement on tours and we missed out on going there. I believe that will change in the next few years. I’d like to hope that we’ll be back out there within the next two or three seasons because it is a great environment to test yourself, to learn from.
“There’s a number of our players who are playing on Saturday have had experiences in New Zealand [through the John Macphail scholarship] – Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, Finn Russell have all been out there for three or four months and came back as better players for that experience.”
Townsend believes that, of the players at his disposal, this group is the one that gives them the best possible chance of a momentous victory.
“We’ve had a few injuries at the weekend and a few injuries just before we announced our 36-man squad,” he said. “But we’ve worked with our squad, the players are training and they know the rugby we aspire to play, so they’ll be ready to take this opportunity.”
The coach accepts that it will require a near-perfect display by his men to keep the world champions within reach and have a chance of closing the game out.
“It is a challenge in all aspects: accuracy, decision making, fitness and also the psychological side in terms of your focus, your confidence,“ said Townsend. “You’re going to have tough times but you have to go right through that 80 minutes believing you are going to win, so that you are in a position with ten minutes to go that you can still win.”