Iain Morrison: Gregor Townsend must adapt to survive as Scotland coach

Scotland head coach watches on as his side are crushed 27-3 by Ireland in their Pool A clash. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty
Scotland head coach watches on as his side are crushed 27-3 by Ireland in their Pool A clash. Picture: Cameron Spencer/Getty
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I came to Japan to in the hope of catching two Scotland matches but, after seeing the Brave Blossoms systematically dismantle Ireland, after Ireland had done the same to Scotland, I was convinced Gregor Townsend’s squad would be going home after the pools and so it proved.

Andy Robinson is the only other Scotland coach to fail to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup in New Zealand in 2011. He clung on until the following November, when defeat by Tonga in Aberdeen saw SRU chief executive Mark Dodson wield the axe. In truth, the writing had been on the wall even before the world cup.

Italy had beaten Scotland in Rome the previous autumn in the Six Nations and, while the score was relatively close, the match was not. A decent Scotland team spent almost the entire second half camped deep inside their own half. They underperformed.

Townsend finds himself in a similar situation. He has fallen short at this world cup, having already weathered some testing times. None more so than at Twickenham last year, when his side found themselves 31-7 behind at the break and only dragged themselves back into contention by pointedly ignoring their coach’s instructions to kick the ball away.

Mistakes are being repeated, lessons ignored. Scotland kicked too much and too inaccurately that day in London and they did exactly the same in the first half against Japan. Scotland’s defence has been poor against tier one nations for several years. Against Ireland at this World Cup, we witnessed the same urgency to put width on the ball at all costs that scuppered Scotland in Cardiff on Townsend’s 2018 Six Nations’ debut.

The Scotland coach insists on picking his favourites, despite their form consistently falling short of the standards required, and Scotland’s frustrating habit of starting every game in first gear before winding things up in the second half with the match already lost is apparently a two-pipe conundrum that is beyond fixing.

Townsend has promised to learn from the experience of this World Cup but, while no one could call him stupid, he is undoubtedly stubborn and not the sort who likes to be challenged. There is at least a suspicion that his coaching staff are not strong enough characters to take the boss to task and keep him honest because the only way you can be sure of your rugby philosophy is on course is to have it questioned every day of the working week. All of Townsend’s assistants appear to be reading from the gospel according to Saint Gregor, which may be the root of the problem.

Townsend has often been likened to Ian McGeechan, a classy stand-off who nevertheless will be remembered for his coaching rather than his playing. An original thinker, McGeechan was at his most effective when paired with the ultimate pragmatist in fellow Scot Jim Telfer, notably during the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. Telfer offered ying to Geech’s yang.

Townsend has yet to find his modern day equivalent of Telfer, Dan McFarland, pictured, a long-term coaching partner whose strengths dovetail with his own weaknesses was in the frame before he jumped ship to Ulster. Townsend needs someone with the authority to question everything that the boss does, so bad habits and sloppy thinking are dispensed with before they become embedded. When the head coach is also the attack coach players will naturally pay more time/attention to his/her specialist subject and the results are there for all to see. Defence, set piece, discipline, and defence (it is worth mentioning twice), the nuts and bolts of the game all suffer, not necessarily from a lack of effort but rather from a lack of emphasis.

If you are looking to compare and contrast, Wales are the polar opposite to Scotland. Their basics are rock solid, the fancy stuff kept to a minimum.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this tournament was that Townsend had years to come up with a plan to counter Japan’s multi-phase play… and he failed. Brave Blossoms coach Jamie Joseph won the tactical battle hands down and you can’t help but wonder what the big Maori would do with all the underperforming potential in this Scotland squad.

And, contrary to what you will read, it isn’t about winning, it is about performing. A coach’s only task is to prepare and persuade their team to play at, or very close to, their full potential every time they take to the field. Japan do that, no one pretends Scotland come close.

Incidentally, I don’t know the whereabouts of South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus on Friday night but Joseph was catching with with some old mates such as “Smoking Joe” Stanley and Reiko Ioane’s father Eddie in a riotous restaurant in Ginza. The place was chock full of very drunk Kiwis plus one table of overly optimistic Scots. Japan’s former player and current coach was working the room without a care in the world ahead of today’s quarter final against the Springboks – the biggest match in Japan’s history – so deserves some sort of medal for nonchalance, if nothing else.

Like Robinson In 2011, Townsend will surely survive this set back but his challenge is now to ensure that his Scotland coaching career doesn’t end in the same sorry manner.

Townsend can salvage his reputation, and I do prefer a home grown coach to an imported one, but only if he changes his approach, evolving to survive.

It is not obvious, though, from what we have seen thus far that adaptability is in his DNA.