Scotland have been drawn in Pool B alongside South Africa, the holders, Ireland, the world No 1 ranked side, Tonga and Romania. It’s as tough as you could wish for and the reality is that Townsend’s team will need to beat either the Springboks or the Irish if they are to avoid the ignominy of becoming the first Scotland side to be knocked out in the pool stage in consecutive tournaments.
The coach, who has swung the axe by dropping Finn Russell and relieving Stuart Hogg of the captaincy, will have a better idea of where his squad are after a tough four-match series which begins with the visits of the Wallabies and continues over the first three November weekends against Fiji, New Zealand and Argentina, the side who pipped Scotland 2-1 during the three-Test summer tour.
Scotland won three out of four last autumn, with victories over Australia, Tonga and Japan balanced by a defeat against South Africa. You suspect Townsend would but bite your hand off for a similar return this time around from what looks like a tougher programme, especially as they will go into the opener against Australia on Saturday with a team made up entirely of home-based players. Scotland have won three in a row against the Wallabies under Townsend, an impressive haul, and he will be using the next four weeks to gauge his squad in the context of the 2023 World Cup.
“I certainly judge our performances by ‘would that be good enough to beat South Africa? Or what do we need to do differently within that performance to beat South Africa and Ireland?’” said Townsend. “We’re going to have two cracks at Ireland next year – one at Murrayfield [in the Six Nations], one at Stade de France [in the World Cup] - they’re both equally important.”
Scotland went down 30-15 to South Africa last November and were beaten 26-5 by Ireland in Dublin in the final match of the Six Nations in March. There were aspects of both games which pleased Townsend even though they both ended in defeat and the coach felt there was plenty of important information to be gleaned. He noted that maul defence has to be really good against South Africa. Similarly, the agonising last-gasp loss to Argentina in the decisive third Test of the summer has given him plenty to chew over.
“We learnt so much in that South Africa game,” said Townsend. “We did a lot of things really well but didn’t play as well in the last 20 minutes and they won. Ireland was one of our best performances of the last 12 months, although I’m not sure if it was reported like that at the time. We had double the line breaks they had that day, which says your attack has done well, as well as your defence. So there are things we learnt from that game too. But we didn’t win either game, so it’s about finding a way to win, and finding a way of playing with our group of players.
“It’s not just on their physical and technical and tactical ability, but also handling the big moments better, because World Cups are usually about tight games and you have to deliver as a team in those moments. That’s why the summer tour, while it was so frustrating to be scored against in the last play of the game and lose the Test series after a game in which we had played our best rugby of the season, is going to be a huge learning for us when it comes to playing South Africa and Ireland at the World Cup, and obviously the games up ahead in the next 12 months.”
Australia go into this weekend’s match in Edinburgh on the back of a disappointing Rugby Championship which yielded just two wins from six for Dave Rennie’s side. They won their opener against Argentina in Mendoza but lost the rematch heavily against the Pumas seven days later. Honours were also even against South Africa but the Wallabies ended the competition with back-to-back defeats against a supposedly off colour All Blacks.
Scotland enjoyed a 15-13 win over the Aussies last year, with Ewan Ashman stealing the headlines with a spectacular debut try, but Townsend knows Rennie’s squad will be battle-hardened when they arrive in Scotland for the first match of their five-Test tour. “We obviously had a very tight game against them last year,” said Townsend. “I didn’t think we played that well but we just did enough to win. Australia will come into it with more match hardness after the Rugby Championship and we have got to hit the ground running. We have had a training camp this week, which is credit to the relationship we have with Edinburgh and Glasgow. That is going to be really helpful .
“Australia are a really good attacking side, they are very dangerous and they know each other really well. I was over watching them play New Zealand a few weeks ago. It’s a team that has been playing together for a long time, and playing against some really good teams. They have strengths throughout their game but I think their attack is their biggest strength.”