The first year of Gregor Townsend’s tenure as Scotland boss has entered its third, most challenging phase and he admitted yesterday that he can’t wait for the “tribal” extravaganza that is the Six Nations to get under way.
The first outing as head coach of the country he played for on 82 occasions came in the unlikely setting of Singapore as Italy were beaten at the start of the summer tour. Then came his first home game in charge against Samoa in the first of a thrilling autumn Test series, which also included a record-busting thumping of Australia and a performance to be proud off against the world champion All Blacks.
Now looms the chance to test himself in the world’s oldest tournament, which remains the highlight of the northern hemisphere rugby year.
“Yes and yes,” was Townsend’s response when asked if expectations were higher than they have been going into the tournament since his own playing days and whether that brought some pressure.
It is a pressure that the coach said he expects the players to embrace, while acknowledging the difficulty of a competition in which each game will require a monumental effort to win.
The Six Nations remains special, said Townsend, because of the intense but mostly friendly local rivalries and the tradition of large travelling supports turning each match into a weekend event.
For Scotland supporters over much of the last 18 years since Five became Six, the delights offered by some of Europe’s great capital cities have provided much-needed antidotes to the often traumatic showings on the field of play.
Townsend’s predecessor Vern Cotter began the process of rebuilding Scotland’s reputation in the tournament and, after the joyous flair of November, there is a real belief that there could be a chance of challenging this year for prizes of the non-wooden variety.
Depleted front-row options are an obvious worry, along with concerns about the back-up to the attacking fulcrums of stand-off Finn Russell and full-back Stuart Hogg, but the big story of Scotland’s progress in the past few years has been the welcome development of genuine strength in depth.
That was hammered home in the autumn when Scotland shrugged off an injury list which, in years past, would have had them struggling badly to field a team.
Away from the pressure points there are key positions, such as scrum-half, second row and centre, where there is an embarrassment of riches.
Greig Laidlaw, pictured, not long ago the first, immovable name on the teamsheet and undisputed leader, returns to the squad but knows even if he proves his fitness he is likely to be behind Glasgow livewire Ali Price and that the captaincy, for now, remains with John Barclay.
Laidlaw is on the verge of a comeback following three months out with a broken ankle and Townsend explained: “The plan for Greig is if everything goes well and he gets the all-clear from seeing a specialist in London he’ll join up with us on Sunday and then [his club] Clermont will decide he’s fit to play against Montpellier the week before the Wales game.”
Townsend revealed that Laidlaw would have resumed the captaincy in the autumn if it had not been for the injury picked up in a European game at Ospreys on the eve of the series. “He was in great form leading into November,” said the coach. “We understood it would be difficult going into a new environment in France with a different language but I was pleased with how he was playing. He would have had an opportunity with us in November. He would have been our captain. We obviously don’t know where he is yet until he comes back and plays. Our expectations are it will be tough for him to begin with just to get that match fitness. He’s been training well this week and let’s hope he gets back to his pre-injury form quickly.”
Given the situation, keeping Barclay in place as skipper was an easy and obvious decision. “John’s been a great captain for the team just as Greig Laidlaw was a great captain for the team before that,” said Townsend. “Greig was going to be captain for the summer tour and then got called up to the British and Irish Lions tour, and was then in line to be captain in the November Test series before he got injured – he obviously hasn’t played for around three months now so that’s a big part of why he wasn’t named as captain, but also the fact that John has done such a good job.
“If and when Greig comes back to full fitness – and we really hope it will be next weekend – we’ll have two players in the squad who have captained the team very well in the last few years.”
Townsend said that it would be highly unlikely that anyone outwith the 40-man group named yesterday would come into the squad for the first two games away to Wales and then home to France the following weekend but that may change ahead of the Calcutta Cup crunch on 24 February. “There are a few that we know will be out for the Six Nations, like Ross Ford.[Loosehead] Allan Dell I would say is unlikely to appear and the same with [tighthead] WP Nel. There are a few we hope will be back during the tournament, [loosehead prop] Darryl Marfo being one, [locks] Scott Cummings and Tim Swinson.
“With [hooker] Fraser Brown [who has suffered several concussions this season] we wait and see. We hope so. He’s seeing a specialist today, so we’ll know more information.”
The front-row injuries have opened the door for some to make what recently would have seemed like unlikely returns. The calls for Newcastle tighthead Jon Welsh and London Irish loosehead Gordon Reid were expected, the selection of 36-year-old Newcastle hooker Scott Lawson less so.
Lawson, pictured below, won the last of his 46 caps against Argentina in November 2014 but has been Aa member of the Newcastle side enjoying their best season for years in the Aviva Premiership.
“You mention his age, we like to call that experience,” said Townsend of Lawson. “And given that we are missing at the moment two hookers in Fraser Brown and Ross Ford who have played a lot of rugby for Scotland, and a couple of guys on either side of the hooker position who have also got a lot of experience, Scott’s experience we believe will really help us. The way Scott has played this season really fits with what we want to do with our game – he’s dynamic, he’s a low tackler and he’s got excellent setpiece accuracy.”