Gregor Townsend: Return of senior backs was key to Scotland win
Much has been made of Scotland's improving strength in depth but coach Gregor Townsend had to admit that the injection of a quartet boasting 200 caps between them had led to a big difference in performance from the limp loss in Wales seven days previously.
This rousing 54-17 rout of a spirited Fijian side could easily have gone wrong as the dynamic islanders threatened to go in ahead at the break, but the maturity of returning skipper Greig Laidlaw, who linked back seamlessly with Finn Russell at half-back, along with contributions from full-back Stuart Hogg on his injury comeback and Sean Maitland, who added a try to the hat-trick by opposite wing Tommy Seymour, saw the Scots take an increasingly vice-like grip on proceedings.
After having to use just home-based players in Cardiff, Townsend made no bones about the impact of the returning cavalry.
“It’s down to players like Greig and our experienced players. Our backline had maybe 100-150 more caps than last week.
“We bring Greig, Finn and Sean Maitland in, Stuart Hogg there, players who’ve played the last five years for Scotland. The discussions they’ve had on the field are on the money; ‘this is what we need to do to win this game’.”
It wasn’t all about the backs, although it was they who caught the eye as they cut loose in the second half. Pushover tries from front-rowers Allan Dell and Fraser Brown set the foundations before Seymour’s first try in a Scotland jersey since March 2017 regained the interval lead after a thrilling Fijian response.
Explosive scores from Edinburgh favourite Bill Mata and Semi Radradra had edged them in front but from that 17-14 lead they wouldn’t trouble the scoreboard again as Scotland went on to dominate, Seymour bagging the hat-trick, excellent young back-rower Jamie Ritchie rewarded from close in and substitute Adam Hastings putting the icing on the cake with a thrilling link-up with Russell in the last play of the match.
That prompted Townsend to be questioned again on the possibility, which he has tentatively floated himself, of the exciting attacking No 10s starting in the same team, with one at inside centre, the slot Hastings filled on Saturday when he came on.
The coach’s response seemed to emphatically rule that out this weekend against the Springboks.
“Probably not because both play stand-off for their clubs,” he said. “The game is changing and players can switch positions much more readily on the field.
“We’re looking for our 12s and 13s to get on the ball more the way we play our game and, if that 12 happens to be someone who plays regularly at 10, then that could be an option.
“But we have really good centres. A couple are injured at the moment but it’s probably not going to be something we look at from the start of the game. Who knows?”
Fiji were no walkovers. Scotland had to battle for control before putting them to the sword, but Townsend knows that South Africa, fresh from their 29-26 win over France in Paris, present a huge step up in quality.
The Scots will take the confidence of an increasingly impressive home record – only the All Blacks have won at BT Murrayfield in two years and this was the second eight-try home win in 12 months following last year’s hammering of Australia.
“You know what’s coming from South Africa,” said Townsend. “They’ll put huge pressure on your scrum, excellent lineout defence and a huge lineout drive. What they do in open play, there’s more nuances to it but the fundamental is them coming round the corner and running hard.
“They’ve done that since they were teenagers, it’s the way they play in South Africa and they have the biggest men in world rugby.
“It was a good test [against Fiji] in some ways. There was some huge men in the Fijian team and we put in some really good tackles, double tackles that knocked the Fijians back. We just have to do that time and again next week.”
Centre Pete Horne said that the players were under no illusions about the severity of the test against a Boks side who have improved out of sight this year, beating the All Blacks once and coming close to doing it again in the Rugby Championship. “Absolutely. South Africa will bring a massive physical challenge from the first minute to the 80th,” said Horne.
“We saw their game against England last week was really close. It’ll be a massive challenge. Fiji were physical and we knew we had to step up and we need to do that again next week.”
Horne was praised for his performance by Townsend and he later laughed off the moment where he was stopped on the line and couldn’t quite get the pass out to Seymour, who was free to his right.
“It would have been rude to have scored four tries. He’ll have to settle for three,” said Horne with a smile.
It was a first Test at home playing alongside his scrum-half brother George Horne, who came on as a replacement in the second half.
“I was buzzing for him,” said the older Horne brother. “He’s been champing at the bit for a game at Murrayfield. At the anthem we were standing together and it got a wee bit emotional. I’m really proud of him. Every carrot he’s had he’s taken on and done really well.
“Every opportunity he gets he makes the most of, so I’m delighted.
“It’s something before the game you don’t think too much about. Mum and dad can enjoy it and our friends and family, but you’re just focusing on a game. It’s one of those that when we look back… even after the game I was delighted we got a couple of photos and mum and dad were really proud. I’m sure when our careers are finished it’s something we’ll look back on very fondly.”
Horne also enjoyed reuniting with his former Warriors team-mate Russell.
“He’s just a class act. He’s on form with Racing 92, he’s loving his rugby, so it sounds like [moving] has been a good decision for him.
“There were times in that second half when it could have got a bit harum scarum in the first half, but he made really good decisions and it was a really polished performance.”