For the first time since the days of Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, Scotland have a coach leading them into battle at Twickenham with personal experience of the trials that come with wearing the dark blue at a place which for the last 36 years has been an indubitable house of pain.
The now 45-year-old won his first Scotland cap in west London back in 1993, ten years on from that last triumph and went on to endure the stifling cavernous atmosphere of the most unhappy of hunting grounds on four Calcutta Cup occasions in the remainder of his sparkling career.
He crossed the line in 1999 as a brace from Alan Tait saw the Scots outscore the hosts 3-2 on the try count but slip to an agonising narrow defeat which ultimately cost them a Grand Slam but not the last-ever Five Nations championship title.
“I don’t have great memories [of Twickenham], because as you know we’ve not won there for a number of years,” said the coach with a rueful smile yesterday after naming his team for the 126th staging of the oldest trophy in international rugby.
“I got my first cap there so that was I suppose a good memory, but you remember the losses rather than the fact that you maybe had a good game or you had things like your first cap.
“It’s ultimately how you feel in the changing room afterwards. Did the team win? We’ve got to turn the memories of Twickenham into more positive ones.”
Townsend knows that a number of his players carry scars from two years ago when the run without a victory at Twickenham stretched to 34 years in traumatic fashion as the Triple Crown-chasing Scots were demolished by a record 61-21 scoreline.
“Any experience you have whether positive or negative you have to turn into a way of getting better, of being stronger, of using that experience to improve,” said Townsend of that 2017 flogging in Vern Cotter’s final tournament.
“The team followed up with a win the following week against Italy, they went on the summer tour to Australia and won in Sydney for the first time so it had the immediate effect of producing wins after it.”
This Six Nations has not gone the way Scotland would have liked, with successive defeats by Ireland, France and Wales, but Townsend takes a squad in possession of the Calcutta Cup and a personal 100 per cent record over the Auld Enemy following last year’s storming 25-13 win at BT Murrayfield.
England coach Eddie Jones has been ratcheting up the pre-match banter but Townsend refused to bite on that.
“I think that he’s out to make sure his players have a focus on the game,” said Townsend.
“Having had a big win the previous week [against Italy], being back at home, I’m sure he wants to remind the players of what happened [in Edinburgh] last year – and get them motivated for that game.”
The Scotland coach said he wasn’t surprised by England’s team selection, which sees wing Jack Nowell come in for Joe Cokanasiga and Henry Slade replacing Ben Te’o in the midfield.
“We felt they were going to pick their strongest team, which is the one that’s played in every game of the Championship until last week,” said Townsend.
“They’ve got so many wingers they can pick from and Jack Nowell’s a quality player, so we felt he was always going to come back in. They have powerful players, but they have players who can kick, too, so Henry Slade at 13 allows them to have that second receiver, more from a kicking option than a passing option, which allows them to do something different, rather than just be direct. But we know the power game is at the heart of what they do.”
That said, Townsend admitted that England could switch to the fast-tempo game which caught the Scots out early doors two years ago and saw them build an unstoppable momentum.
“We don’t know what game England are going to play this week,” admitted the coach.
“They played a power game in their first three games, they’ve kicked it more than any other team in the Championship, so if that’s the basis of their game we have to be ready for that.
“But two years ago they played quickly, they moved the ball wide and they took us on in the outside channels, especially around 13 and wing.”
Townsend no doubt sees a bit of himself in wing Darcy Graham, a young Borderer heading for his first taste of Twickenham in a maiden away Test start following his try-scoring heroics in his home debut against Wales.
He said: “Playing away from home in a different environment is a test for any player, any young player, but Darcy has come off the bench in Cardiff in November and the Stade de France a couple of weeks ago and really took the game to the opposition and that is what we expect and look for from him this weekend.”