Autumn is usually a time for home comforts for northern hemisphere rugby nations but Scotland find themselves in the strange position of starting their November back on the road, something which has not exactly been paved with gold over the years.
National coach Gregor Townsend again rejected the notion yesterday that Scotland have an “away problem” after he named the team he will take to the Principality Stadium on Saturday, the scene of his worst 80 minutes in the job since taking over from Vern Cotter in June 2017.
There have also been away defeats in Ireland, Fiji and the United States but, while acknowledging stats don’t lie, Townsend insisted that there were other factors to consider rather than an ability to operate effectively away from the familiarity of BT Murrayfield.
“I don’t believe it’s a problem with being on the road. We’ve won in Sydney and won in Resistencia [Argentina],” said Townsend. “The issue is underperformance when we’ve gone in as favourites, more often away from home.
“Every game is a challenge. We have bigger challenges and obviously the stats show that, in the Six Nations, we’ve not done nearly as well away as we have at home.
“I don’t believe there is an away game approach and home game approach in which our performance differs. But I do believe there is a performance change when we’re favourites.
“If you look at our wins and losses, we’ve had great wins away from home. We won in Sydney for the first time, we got a record win in Argentina and that shows the team can front up in different environments. But our poorest performances have been when we are the favourites, away from home especially. That’s something we will look to address.
“We’re not the favourites this week so it’s more about the challenge of taking on the number three team in the world.
“But it is something in the back of my mind that we must be better.”
Despite not winning in Cardiff since 2002, Townsend’s side did go into February’s Six Nations opener there as many people’s favourites off the back of a fine 2017 under both Cotter and the new coach.
Infamously, the wheels came off badly that afternoon as the Scots slumped to a chastening 34-7 loss and Townsend accepted memories of that afternoon will form some part of the preparation without being front and centre.
“It’s on the backburner,” he said. “Because there is so much information and work we need to do for the first game.
“Now we’re into training and then at the team run I would think it will become a factor. We don’t want to go through that again. We don’t want to come off the field and feel we have underperformed with a bad defeat. The players feel that more than coaches so I’m sure it will get talked about as we approach the game.”
With Townsend restricted to his home-based players for this additional Test, there were no real surprises in the selection, although the coach admitted there were tight calls over Ben Toolis starting at lock ahead of Edinburgh team-mate Grant Gilchrist and Jamie Ritchie’s blindside nod ahead of Glasgow’s Matt Fagerson.
The coach stressed that, unless injuries force his hand, no player is likely to start all four games, with Fiji, South Africa and Argentina to come, which will present opportunities for most of the squad at some point.
Saturday will be another big afternoon for Adam Hastings in the dark blue No 10 jersey Townsend filled with such distinction for many years. The coach said he was confident the 22-year-old, who got his first three caps in the summer, will thrive in another big-match occasion and continue his progress to be a genuine challenger to Racing 92 superstar Finn Russell.
“Adam is playing really well for Glasgow, he has played Champions Cup games,” said Townsend. “That was a big test for him, Saracens, and I thought he played really well. A week later in Cardiff, he was really proactive in how he played and took on the Cardiff [Blues] defence – in a bonus-point victory the stand-off is going to be a huge part of that.
“His experience in Argentina and how he played has got to be in his muscle memory and realising that the next time he gets to play at international level he can do similar things and they will work out OK. This is a big challenge this week; it is Wales, it is away, they are huge favourites I would imagine, but if he plays really well that does make it a much more competitive position.”
Townsend, who had a fair few games at inside centre during his 82-cap Scotland career, didn’t rule out the prospect of Russell, who began his pro career at No 12, and Hastings featuring together in a starting XV at some point.
“Yes and not necessarily would it be Finn who would be the potential 12,” said Townsend. “Adam, the way he has run this year and his rugby ability, could certainly play 12 or 15, Finn likewise.
“We have pretty good depth at 15 and centre, well we had pretty good depth until they all started picking up injuries! It is something we will look at.
“At Murrayfield in the first 1872 Cup game last year, Finn started, Adam came off the bench and Finn moved to 12. They combined a couple of times really effectively. I would imagine that if it ever were to happen it would be a certain way we would want to play to have two first receivers.”