There’s little time to lick wounds with a six-day turnaround before Michael Cheika’s team rock up at Murrayfield and Townsend knows he needs to try to lift his players after the bitter disappointment of the All Blacks game. Scotland held a nine-point lead going into the final quarter having come from 14-0 down to score 23 unanswered points but saw the game slip away as the visitors scored tries in the 65th and 74th minutes to win 31-23 and make the Scots pay for missed opportunities.
Scotland have now let leads slip in three of their last four matches, with the New Zealand game added to their failure to see out the final Test against Argentina in Santiago del Estero in the summer and the home clash with Australia a fortnight ago.
It is the All Blacks match that will hurt most for the Scotland coach on an afternoon when Murrayfield was at its rousing best and Doddie Weir’s presence added a poignancy to the occasion. Scotland went close in 2017 but the All Blacks managed to hang on to win 22-17. This was different because Townsend’s team took control of the match and the coach fears this group won’t have such an opportunity again.
“We talked a lot about winning, and the emotion with Doddie there as well,” said Townsend. “The win was there for us. I played New Zealand six times and we were nowhere near winning. The game five years ago was a great performance but we were trailing going into the last minute and we almost won. This was our great opportunity. I’m sure there will be opportunities in the future but for this group of players and coaches, we probably won’t be there for that, and that’s what hurts.
“When we arrived in the stadium you felt the atmosphere was special. More people waiting for us than ever before, the noise and the supporters getting behind the team. It’s great to know these supporters are there with us, we have to give them those special wins and we weren’t able to do that.
“Next week is a different game, and we don’t get to play New Zealand. We should have won that game, that’s the feeling that I have and the players have as well. We played really well, yes, but we knew that was an opportunity to win and we didn’t take it.
“Disappointment has to fuel them, what we did has to motivate that we can deliver a better performance next week. There was so much positive around the atmosphere and the connection of our players and the crowd, things our wingers were doing, kick-chase or running from deep, scoring tries. These are huge positives for the motivation for next week. But this game is done and we’ve got a tough challenge for next week. A six-day turnaround, we have to make sure we’re right physically and play better.”
Scotland have unfinished business with Argentina, having lost the summer Test series 2-1 when Emiliano Boffelli scored in the final play of the final Test to drive Argentina to a 34-31 win. Scotland were 15 points ahead with half an hour left on that occasion. Against Australia last month, they were 15-6 up in the second half only to lose 16-15 and the failure to see out big matches will be a huge source of concern for Townsend.
“People expect us to lose to New Zealand and they expect us to beat Argentina,” he said. “But we expect to win every game we play, if we play well we beat the opposition. So we’re as disappointed now as we were in Argentina, against Australia, that has to be our next level of growth. When we’re ahead, as we were in those three games, and we’ve played the better rugby, we close them out and win.”
With Richie Gray cited for an incident against New Zealand, Townsend has called the uncapped Saracens lock Callum Hunter-Hill into his squad to prepare for the Argentina game. Gray will appear before a disciplinary hearing during the next few days. Hamish Watson (concussion) and Rory Sutherland (knee injury) have already been ruled out for this weekend and Townsend will scale back the amount of training given the quick turnaround.
“You have to do less, and assess what the bodies are like,” said the coach. “We invest a lot of time and effort into recovery, so sauna, pool access, cryotherapy... the players drive it themselves. [It’s about] physically getting back ready, but it’ll have an influence on the team for next week. If it was just on form a lot of players would get another chance.”
The performance against New Zealand was Scotland’s best of the autumn by some distance, with Jamie Ritchie, Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham and Fraser Brown particularly impressive. Finn Russell produced a controlled showing at stand-off, his slick delivery allowing the Scotland outside backs to show their potency.
The trick now is to pick themselves up and try to end the series on a high by beating Argentina, but the All Blacks game will gnaw away at Townsend for a long, long time. “We’re capable of winning against New Zealand,” he said. “I know the history more than anyone, and that was our opportunity. We’re not going to get it for another three or four years and that’s what will hurt.”