After Scotland got their Rugby World Cup preparations back on track at the weekend with a welcome 17-14 win over France at BT Murrayfield, coach Gregor Townsend is well aware that the challenges keep on coming as they prepare for a step into the unknown this week.
Saturday’s historic trip to Georgia provides the emerging east Europeans with their first chance to host a Test match against a major rugby nation, which is an occasion they will look to maximise to the fullest.
It also gives the Scots the valuable test of playing against a fired-up home nation in hot conditions to replicate what could come down to a decisive final Pool A encounter with Rugby World Cup hosts Japan in Yokohama on 13 October.
The Georgians, with their famed grizzled physical pack, will provide a different kind of opposition from the buzzbomb Brave Blossoms but Townsend is hoping the intensity and emotion of the occasion for the home side provides a valuable learning experience.
Keeping winning momentum going, after the nightmare of Nice was put right with a battling comeback win over Les Bleus, is vital but Townsend knows this week’s third leg of a four-match warm-up series is a potential banana skin.
“Do you remember Italy’s first game of the Six Nations?” said Townsend, with a rueful smile, as he recalled that day in Rome in 2000 when he was part of a reigning Five Nations champions Scotland team who were humbled 34-20 by drop-goal demon Diego Dominquez and Co on the Azzurri’s first taste at the top table of European rugby almost 20 years ago.
Georgia have similar aspirations now and Townsend knows they will be bursting to boost their cause for entry to the Six Nations at some point soon.
“I remember for years we didn’t even call the Italy games cap games,” continued the coach. “‘But we played at Melrose when Gavin Hastings was captain, back in 1992, against Italy – and only won by two or three points.
“They beat us, they beat Wales, they beat Ireland, I think, before they got into the Six Nations. Georgia are a really good team. We’re obviously going to play them here as well and that will be a difficult enough match.
“To play them in Tbilisi, in the national [Dinamo] stadium, is one of the biggest challenges we’ll get. And we can’t wait to see our players get stuck in.”
We are not a rugby nation who can take any side lightly, with recent defeats under Townsend away to Fiji and the United States obvious reminders. It is a credit to Scotland, though, that they are the first “top-tier” nation to give the great strides the Georgians have made the respect it deserves by showing up to play them in a home Test, before welcoming them to BT Murrayfield the following Friday.
It will be a third meeting between the two nations, after Scotland edged a 2011 World Cup pool match 15-6 in New Zealand before a 43-16 win at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park in November 2016.
Following Saturday’s match in which there were injuries to Sam Skinner, Blade Thomson and Tommy Seymour, Townsend must now plan out the party he takes on the long trip to the Caucasus.
Last week his assistant backs coach Mike Blair hinted that there may only be a couple of decisions left to be made on the final 31 which will be named on the Tuesday after the arrival back from Georgia.
“Did he? Is that on the coaching panel?” said Townsend with a broad grin after a win over France which released a lot of tension that had built up in the days following the Nice meltdown.
“This game obviously clarified a few things because players performed well,” continued the coach. “Now, whether they were going to be closer to going on the plane or not, we’ll see.
“We’ve still got one more game [before naming the final World Cup squad], we’ve given ourselves this opportunity to go to Georgia with a strong team. There might be a couple of decisions we have to leave until after that game. We now have to factor in these injuries, whether they affect our squad selection. And the reality is we will get injuries after the squad is announced.
“We’ve played 30 different players [in these first two games] Blair Kinghorn has actually ended up playing a fair bit of rugby when he’s been on the bench on a few occasions. But that’s what we set out to do. We picked two balanced teams [in the first two against France], didn’t play as well in the first game as we could have, played better in the second game.
“Now we’re going to give players opportunities. Players who deserved the chance – or who are coming back from injury and we want to see them again.”