Scotland Six Nations: Pride and frustration for Gregor Townsend but has there been progress?

Dublin display restored pride but questions remain over another mixed Six Nations tournament

Pride and frustration were the overriding emotions for Gregor Townsend as he reflected on a Six Nations campaign in which Scotland were placed fourth, eight points adrift of champions Ireland, three behind France and two off England.

The bald facts are the Scots won a game fewer and finished one position lower than last year and only ended up above Italy by virtue of bonus points. By that measure alone, it’s hard to make the case for progress, although Townsend tried. The coach wanted to give his team a harder edge after the World Cup and there is certainly evidence of that. The performance in Saturday’s final Six Nations game against Ireland may have ended in a 17-13 defeat but it was streets ahead of what the Scots served up against the same opponents in their final pool game in Paris in October.

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If the Italians were the break-out stars of this season's championship, then Townsend’s side were the maddeningly inconsistent popinjays who could never be wholly relied upon to deliver the goods, except against England of course, who they beat for the fourth year on the bounce.

Jack Dempsey on the attack for Scotland during the Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The hosts won 17-13.  (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)Jack Dempsey on the attack for Scotland during the Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The hosts won 17-13.  (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Jack Dempsey on the attack for Scotland during the Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The hosts won 17-13. (Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

Mercurial was a word that was lazily tossed around to describe Townsend’s stellar playing career but it’s hard to think of a better one to sum up his team’s performances over the last seven weeks.

They set off like a train, racing into a 27-0 lead after 43 minutes of the opening game against Wales as they chased a first win in Cardiff for 22 years, only to be hauled back to 27-26 during a tortuous second half.

The Scottish supporters were put through the ringer again in round two when an out-of-sorts France scraped a victory at Murrayfield off the back of a controversial TMO call which denied Sam Skinner a match-winning try. It was a game Scotland should have won regardless.

Townsend’s side then came from behind to defeat England and give the coach a record of five wins and a draw in his seven Calcutta Cup games as boss. It’s a remarkable achievement and one that is in danger of being taken for granted given Scotland's recent dominance of the fixture, but England's improvement over the course of this season, and in particular their win over Ireland, demands that the coach be given due credit.

The low point of Scotland's championship was the loss to Italy via the tossing away of a 22-10 lead. That put the pressure on Townsend like never before and while they couldn't bounce back with a win over Ireland, Scotland showed enough in Dublin to take the heat off their coach.

“We knew we needed a big response from last week, and the guys showed it,” said Townsend. “Italy are a very good team. They won away from home on Saturday [against Wales], they drew away to France, so when you don’t get it right, you won’t get the results.

“It’s the great thing about the Six Nations – it's not a great thing for the teams who don’t get it right, but we know we have to be better than that [Italy] game. Over the five games, that’s the one that I felt we dropped our performance in the third quarter. In the other games I felt our performance was really strong."

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Scotland’s mission in Dublin was about double atonement. Rome needed to be expunged from the system but so too did the World Cup trouncing by Ireland in Paris.

Saturday's performance at the Aviva was certainly more edifying as Scotland defended with something akin to heroism against the champions. The visitors gifted Dan Sheehan the opening try from a lineout overthrow then conceded a second to Andrew Porter in the midst of a second-half barrage. But the Scots finished strongly and scored a fine try through Huw Jones when Ireland were reduced to 14 men by Harry Byrne’s yellow card.

"Frustration would be the overriding feeling," said Townsend when asked to sum up. "A lot of pride on Saturday. We went into this Six Nations on the back of a painful defeat against Ireland. A lot of what we’ve worked on since that game was about making sure we’d improved by the last game of the championship, specifically things around our gameplan, around our mindset and around an edge we can bring, the physicality.

"I felt we brought that through a lot of the tournament, in particular on Saturday. The frustrations are – we didn’t get the win against France, which was partly a decision, partly us being behind in the last few minutes, but we’re all frustrated with the performance against Italy in that third quarter.

"We’ve played five games, and we’ve either won or we’ve come within a score. I think that shows the competitiveness of the team, and also the expectations we have of ourselves. We were frustrated we weren’t playing for the title on Saturday."

Finn Russell, Scotland’s co-captain, said that the team need to be mentally stronger and Townsend agreed but the coach knows there’s no magic solution.

“That’s sport,” he said. “Mental errors, whether it’s a lack of focus or someone not recovering well after a mistake, that’s sport. It happens to the best teams. I’m sure Ireland will be disappointed with how they did things against England last week. England would’ve been disappointed with how they played against us.

“We’ve been working really hard on it, and it’s still a work-on, like all aspects of our game will be. When you look back, you can say we lost our focus in Italy, or our intensity and togetherness in that third quarter, but you look at the England game after going behind how together they were and how mentally strong they were.

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“Look at Saturday and how mentally strong we were. Errors will happen, skill or focus errors, it’s about how you recover that’s key. Against Italy we didn’t recover quickly enough, on Saturday we did.”



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