As the Scotland squad prepares to fly out to Japan tomorrow morning, Gregor Townsend and his coaching team can afford to feel relatively satisfied with the progress made over the four World Cup warm-up matches. There are still aspects of play to work on and injuries to worry about – not least the facial damage sustained by Jamie Ritchie against Georgia on Friday night – but the direction of travel is positive.
Granted, things could hardly have got much worse after that opening defeat in Nice, but three wins have followed that loss – one against the French and two against Georgia – wins in which the squad’s attacking prowess and increasing strength in depth have been demonstrated. And, just as significantly, in their two home victories Scotland have shown a reassuring strength of character which enabled them to work their way out of trouble even when playing below their best.
“If you compare last week’s game to our game two weeks ago [at home to France] there was huge improvement in the things we set out to do, whether it be our kicking game, our attack or our defensive structure,” Townsend, pictured inset, said after his team’s 36-9 defeat of Georgia. “Tonight wasn’t as accurate as last week but there was really good energy within the team.
“When I replay it in my mind I have pictures of George Turner, Scott Cummings, Blade Thomson, Jamie Ritchie running on to ball, getting behind the defence and creating quick ball so that was really pleasing.
“There are things to work on, and we probably guessed that tonight it wouldn’t be as cohesive because it’s a new team. Our training this week has been compromised pretty heavily coming back from a game on Saturday and a flight, brand new team, only one training session, so I thought to produce a result like that shows the players have worked hard and they know how to find a way to win.
“I was pleased with the energy the players brought and I firmly believe we’re the fittest team going to the World Cup. We’ve seen it in the numbers they produce in training, the fitness tests, and tonight showed examples of that.
“They looked sharp in the first half and were still working really hard in the second half. We’ll have to be as fit as possible to take on all the teams we’re playing against, especially the first one [Ireland] and the last one against Japan.”
One of the most reassuring aspects of Friday night for Townsend was the fact that Duncan Taylor got through 80 minutes. The Saracens player has been seen as Scotland’s most able and influential centre for several years now, but his ability and influence has often been merely theoretical due to an unfortunate run of injuries.
“Duncan worked very hard, and a real positive was he played 80 minutes and at the end of the game he was getting a turnover, putting a kick in and chasing after it,” Townsend continued.
“He’s not been able to train fully since his game in Nice because of an Achilles flare-up. He has been able to train fully this week, so to see him play 80 minutes which would have included high numbers in terms of sprints and metres run – because the flow of the game was back and forward – was a really good performance for him to get under his belt.
“He played well in Nice: there was an action just before half-time when he got up and made three tackles within 20 seconds, which was outstanding. We all looked heavy-legged in Nice and that was partly our preparation but also the pitch, and he’s looked really good in training and it was great he played the whole game tonight.”
Unlike Taylor, Darcy Graham is probably not pencilled in to start against Ireland, but his man-of-the-match display against Georgia provided further evidence of his value to the squad. If he does not take part in that first game, the winger from Hawick will still surely have a big role to play in the subsequent matches, be that off the bench or from the start.
“I love his attitude,” Townsend added. “With some players they need a dozen games to adjust to Test level, but Darcy, that’s not been the case for him.
“[In his] debut in Cardiff he was only on for seven or eight minutes and made two line breaks, then he came on in Paris and made a difference, got a start the next week, scored a try and the following week he got two tries at Twickenham.
“He’s got an energy about him, and an edge about wanting to get on the ball, but also wanting to defend and take the game to the opposition whether with or without the ball. And that’s great to have whether it’s starting, off the bench or in training to keep the other guys in that position on their toes.”