Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has tasked his players with restoring the badly wounded pride of the nation’s rugby supporters following Saturday’s calamitous start to the Six Nations in Cardiff.
Townsend’s much-vaunted team were dismantled and humiliated by an injury-ravaged but more streetwise Wales, losing 34-7 and leaving fans who were viewing this year’s tournament with optimism feeling embarrassed and hugely let down. Scotland, who had been tipped as title contenders following an encouraging autumn, were a shambolic mess from start to finish at the Principality Stadium and received the kind of hiding which has the potential to leave the rest of the campaign in tatters.
Townsend’s job now is to ensure that doesn’t happen. The squad are back at the Oriam training base in Edinburgh and will be enduring an X-rated match review, while the coaching staff are tasked with working out what went wrong and how to fix things ahead of France’s visit to BT Murrayfield on Sunday. It will be a return to home comforts but now with a heavy load of pressure following yet another capitulation on the road. “We don’t have a great away record, there’s no getting away from that,” said a shellshocked Townsend.
“I read the stats like you guys on the Six Nations and we have to get better, we have to realise that teams will have moments when they’re doing well, when the crowd’s behind them and when they maybe score a try, so we’ve got to handle that, we’ve got to be better.
“We’ve got to find solutions when we go to Dublin and Rome, two very tough places to win, but our focus over the next two games is playing at home and making sure that we put in a performance that makes our supporters proud and if that gets us to wins then brilliant, but we’ve got to make sure we perform much better, first of all.”
France will arrive in Edinburgh with their own points to prove after also losing their opening match, albeit in much less abject fashion. The French, largely written off due to recent poor form and internal political discord, came within a whisker of beating the much-fancied Ireland in Paris, undone by a majestic match-winning drop goal by Johnny Sexton at the death.
The pivotal status attributed to Cardiff on Saturday, when it was hoped Scotland could prove they had what it took to win a big away game, now switches to Sunday’s home game. Lose it and next up comes the visit of champions England before an evermore daunting trip to Dublin.
Thoughts that the final weekend in Rome could come with dreams of a title could swiftly be replaced with another wooden-spoon avoidance expedition.
Townsend was composed but clearly stunned in the aftermath of Saturday’s thumping and agreed the players had let the coaching staff down with an error-strewn showing which belied the intense preparation which had gone into the game.
“Yes and it’s frustrating for us all,” he said. “Because we’ve seen the players execute under pressure at training, execute in games previous, so just that little bit of accuracy that’s out at this level will mean you have to defend for a number of phases, or your momentum is stalled.”
Momentum stalled is putting it mildly for the Scotland team heading into the second round of the championship. A number of changes are likely to be made to the starting line-up and a host of areas of play require major surgery this week.
Ironically, the scrum, which was an area of concern, held up well but everywhere else made for sorry viewing. Close to the top of the list was a lineout which disintegrated and hooker Stuart McInally admitted the whole afternoon was “a bitter pill to swallow”.
“We spoke so much during the week about coming down and winning,” Scotland hooker McInally said.
“A lot of the points they scored were our doing, our errors, so that is something we need to look at ourselves – how do we get better on that front. It was 14-0 after 12 minutes but the tries they got were two errors from us. They didn’t have to work too hard for them.”
Scotland prevented any further Wales points before half-time, but two quick-fire Leigh Halfpenny penalties shortly after the break left Scotland 20 points adrift with no hope of a comeback.
“We didn’t seem able to string more than a few phases together and their defence was excellent,” McInally added. “They just played better than us.”