Gregor Townsend savours Rome win as Scotland look to build up steam for French test

“The sun will rise again” is a valuable motto for anyone going through a gloomy patch and it certainly did in Rome as around 10,000 Scotland fans escaped the dreadful winter back home to enjoy the delights of the incomparable Italian capital and, to boot, a much-craved win.

Scotland captain Stuart Hogg scores the game's first try in his side's 17-0 victory over Italy. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Scotland captain Stuart Hogg scores the game's first try in his side's 17-0 victory over Italy. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

It may not have been a climb into sunlit uplands for Gregor Townsend’s men, it was a helluva struggle at times, but after a winless and tryless tournament so far, and not a victory in the Six Nations at all to their name since the beginning of last February, it’s a start.

Nobody would argue with Townsend’s assessment of skipper Stuart Hogg’s opening try as “world class” as the full-back blazed over from just inside his own half to puncture the confidence of a home team who had started with gusto.

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But that was the brightest moment in what was a helter-skelter and error-strewn 80 minutes battled out by two teams desperate to find a way to break out of shackles.

Italy’s new style of more width under interim coach Franco Smith was there to see but less so was anyway the Azzurri can end a championship losing run which now stretches to 25 games.

For Scotland, it is now on to the infinitely more testing assignments against resurgent France and bruised Wales.

But there were positives. The defence has come on leaps and bounds under new specialist assistant coach Steve Tandy. Only two tries and 32 points conceded in the three games so far.

Scotland’s scrum also looks solid after Pieter de Villiers was brought in to oversee that department and on Saturday the bossing of the breakdown was key to the eventual success.

“It was a plan,” said Townsend, 
pictured, of that area. “When you play against a team that moves the ball wide they bring a lot of threats, but there are more opportunities to get at them in the breakdown if there is a window of opportunity, with support players not being there.

“We didn’t have many opportunities against England because they didn’t move the ball that much.”

“It [Italy on Saturday] was one of those games. The referee has to allow a genuine contest for possession. Adam Hastings is celebrating his first jackal turnover in international rugby. It was certainly one for anyone, not just the back-rowers, to get in there and win ball.”

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Townsend believed the third quarter of the match just after half-time was his team’s best period. It was certainly when they displayed most focus and accuracy, with a long series of phases setting up the crucial second try for Chris Harris.

“We have a theme of staying in the fight this year. We don’t want to give the opposition easy chances to get in the game. If that means more kicking then that’s the decision the 9 and 10 have to make.

“I just felt at half-time that we weren’t as decisive in our actions, whether that was passing or kicking or running, as we could have been. We were really decisive for that ten-minute [ie 40-50] period.”

The main negative was blindingly obvious, yet more failures to convert clear tryscoring opportunities. Aside for ensuring the good points from Rome remain solid, that will be the main work-on ahead of the French visit.

“A lot of it is dependent on what the defence gives you. If the defence is narrower then it is easier to go wide against them,” explained Townsend.

“Italy have a wider defence so it was easier, or certainly more effective, for us to go between defenders.

“As long as we’re decisive in our actions and we’re producing quick ball – which wasn’t always the case today – then it’s up to the half-backs to play for where we will get space and opportunities. France have a new defence coach [Shaun Edwards] who is pretty good. They are a very dangerous team. They can add a defensive edge to their undoubted attacking brilliance and they can be a complete team,” said Townsend of Les Bleus.

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“They have young players as well who have played really well at age-grade level and have come into international rugby and played fantastically well. We saw a few of them in the game in Nice [a 32-3 World Cup warm-up loss in August].

“They are a really dangerous side. After winning in Wales and on the back of the two home games, they are going to be full of confidence, 
believing they can win a championship or a Grand Slam with two games to go.”

Back on the theme of Scotland’s own defensive improvement, Townsend said of Saturday’s shutout win: “The nothing is the most important thing for us. When you come away from home against any team and don’t concede a try, you don’t concede a point, you know you have put in a good defensive performance.

“The way the game was played, there were mistakes from both teams, so a huge encouragement is how we got back and scrambled in defence. So that effort and togetherness, and to get the turnovers as well, was very pleasing.”