Speed the essence as Gregor Townsend’s reign starts in earnest

Scotland's Ryan Wilson during a training session ahead of the first autumn Test against Samoa. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS/SRU
Scotland's Ryan Wilson during a training session ahead of the first autumn Test against Samoa. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS/SRU
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It may be well under way with a splendid win over Australia in Sydney already in the credit ledger but there is a feeling that the Gregor Townsend era truly begins today as Scotland face Samoa at BT Murrayfield in the first of an autumn Test series which will move on to tussles with the All Blacks and Wallabies.

It will be Townsend’s fourth match in charge but his first time as head coach of his country in the stadium he so often lit up during a decade-long Test career which cemented his reputation as one of Scotland’s greatest flair players.

The near full house that pitches up today for the visit of the enigmatic and unpredictable Pacific islanders will be hoping for the kind of thrills Townsend regularly dispensed as a player and during his successful stint leading the Glasgow Warriors, who provide nine of the home starting XV.

Word has filtered out that Townsend’s grand aim for his tenure is to make Scotland the international team who play the fastest-tempo rugby in the world, heading towards the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Of course, you can’t play at any kind of tempo, fast or otherwise, without the ball and there will have to be abrasiveness to facilitate the alacrity against the always physical Samoans.

That is a job tailor-made for Warriors skipper and No 8 Ryan Wilson who, along with Stuart Hogg, will be John Barclay’s dual vice-captains this afternoon.

“To play quick rugby, you’ve got to be brutal and aggressive. The contact area is what makes you play quick rugby,” said the man who will win his 31st cap.

“If you’ve got slow ball and you’re not brutal and aggressive at the contact area, you aren’t going to get quick ball. With players like [Glasgow scrum-halves] Ali Price and Henry Pyrgos behind those rucks, looking to play, we want to get that quick ball.

“We can get better at that. But there are plenty of players in this group who have that edge to them. We’ll be looking for that tomorrow.”

When a new coach comes in to lead the national team, the supporters are often crying out for change and some hope to cling to.

“Such was the satisfying trajectory of improvement under Vern Cotter that, in this unusual case, it is a sense of “more of the same, please”.

Cotter has provided Townsend with a solid platform but the possibilities for further improvement are boundless and it is hoped that this series exemplifies that progress is continuing to be made.

Wilson knows both coaches well, having worked under Townsend for so long at Scotstoun and he believes the Scotland fans can expect continuity with a fresh twist.

“I love Vern. I thought he was brilliant,” said the Aldershot-born forward.

“Vern would go out with a plan and then change it halfway through training, whereas Gregor is meticulous with his planning. He’ll have everything down to the smallest detail.

“Vern was a really passionate guy. He wasn’t from Scotland, but he bought into it. You would think he was 
Scottish when he spoke about Scotland.”

Wilson got on the wrong end of that passion when he was sin-binned during the last meeting with Samoa – a tense 36-33 win. “That made it tougher, knowing what Vern was going to do to me afterwards. He was pretty peed off with that,” he recalled.

The flanker continued: “Gregor, having played for Scotland, knows what it’s like to be out on that pitch and buys into it a bit more in knowing what we’re doing and how hard it is to perform. Gregor is good at looking at other teams and picking up the smallest details. He’s clever in what he does.

“They are very different coaches. But the style of rugby is quite similar.

“There is not a huge amount of change there, just differences in the way we coach. We are looking to carry on the momentum from last year. And I know it’s a long way away. But we really want to start building that momentum for the next World Cup. That starts this autumn and then rolling into the Six Nations.”

There has been a regular drumbeat of injury blows in the lead-up but, in both a negative and positive away, they have mainly been localised around one area – loosehead and hooker. Nobody, including Townsend as he admitted on Thursday, could have foreseen Edinburgh’s Darryl Marfo starting the first international of the season, and there is an untested trio on the bench.

Elsewhere, Price, pictured, has made a fantastic impact for both club and country at scrum-half and could make it difficult for injured captain Greig 
Laidlaw to get the jersey back come the Six Nations.

Stuart McInally has been Scotland’s form hooker this term and might well have been winning his ninth cap today even if Ross Ford and Fraser Brown had been fit.

Lock Ben Toolis has impressed on the summer tour and at the start of the club campaign and would have pushed the injured Richie Gray hard for selection.

Generally, this is the basis of a team that looks to have legs. This afternoon we hope to witness it come flying out of the blocks.