Tour gives Scots a sense of direction under Gregor Townsend
There are probably 19 games to go before the World Cup warm-up matches start. That's a touch more than 1,500 minutes of action for '¨Gregor Townsend, the new Scotland'¨head coach, to hone his squad, identify and pick the winners, discard the losers and work out how to turn wins against the likes of Australia from special triumphs into routine events.
In that respect, Townsend said, the triple-S tour – Singapore, Sydney and Suva – did its job. “We have learnt a lot about our players – what they are capable of and the areas where they need to improve – and where we need to improve as a coaching group,” said Townsend, pictured above.
“The players should know, from the tour and three weeks [of training in Scotland] before we left, what will make us a successful team.
“They had rewards and tangible evidence of that success in the Australia game, but we also got the painful kick up the backside [against Fiji] and a reminder that when you don’t get that right, for whatever reason, there are some really good teams out there.”
He set off with 34 players and invited Lewis Carmichael, the Edinburgh lock on loan to the Western Force, in for training. Of the original group, he had a look at four uncapped players in training but asked only one to play.
Part of that may have been issues with the Lions. “The players who didn’t get called up to the Lions included a hooker and a prop,” he said – which suggests he expected to lose Fraser Brown and WP Nel, and brought George Turner and D’Arcy Rae to cover their departure.
“We used 31 of the 34 players on tour. That’s a big number for a three-Test series – 29 of them started matches,” he added. “We now have a clearer picture of where we are with the guys who fronted up and the guys who have things to work on.
“There are obviously another ten or so who weren’t available – either with the Lions or injured – so maybe the total number is around 40. What is important is that the team builds experience of international rugby. This tour was a good opportunity to do that.”
Whatever size it is, it is clear that Townsend now has a good idea of the core squad he expects to take to Japan in two years.
The youngsters from the Under-20s will challenge a few of them, but the party that goes into the World Cup training camp in June 2019 will largely be based on the information Townsend has gleaned over the last month.
The tour did underline that he has a problem at fly-half, where Finn Russell is so far ahead of his competition that the worry about what happens if he gets injured must keep Townsend awake.
Part of the problem is that there are hardly any Scots playing the position. Peter Horne, who started against Fiji, was Russell’s understudy at Glasgow Warriors but will have to share the duties with Adam Hastings next season.
Ruaridh Jackson has not played much for Harlequins, and has been used a lot at full-back; Duncan Weir did not even make the tour, with Jason Tovey winning the starting spot at the end of the Edinburgh season.
“Finn has shown in a number of games that he is a quality player, and that’s the reason he got called up for the Lions,” Townsend said. “There are other tens and two of them got opportunities against Fiji. They will have to keep on working and improving, just as Finn has to.
“We weren’t able to play as well as we did last week. There were a number of reasons for that. If you list 20 of them then Finn not being there would be quite low down. Our one-on-one tackles and our inability to hold on to the ball were the main reasons.”
For the players, the tour seemed to be an overall success. They got to experiment with the changes that Townsend wants to bring in and proved they can work. “I think we should focus on what we did over the past six weeks and not just the three weeks away,” said Tim Swinson, the lock.
“Those gave us a good baseline for what we are trying to do with Gregor and we can only move forward from here.
“We’ve added some new things; we’ve added direction as a team. I think the cultural challenges we’ve come through in the last three weeks, experiencing Singapore and Australia and Fiji – which is a fantastic place to visit – has been really good to bring us together as a team.
“This has a good opportunity to put us in better shape for the future.”