Gregor Townsend on coming out of isolation and why Saturday is the last-chance saloon for wannabe Test Lions
In these Covid times and given the scale of the problem in South Africa, it was perhaps inevitable that the Lions tour would be affected and Townsend was relieved to be able to rejoin the squad on Wednesday along with full-back Stuart Hogg, who was also forced to isolate.
The two Borderers return for the business end of the tour, with Saturday’s match against the Stormers the final game before the Test series begins.
It’s the last chance saloon for those wishing to stake a claim for a place in the squad to play South Africa in Cape Town on July 24 and Townsend is adamant that the coaching team remains open to persuasion, even if Wednesday night’s defeat by South Africa A was a better barometer for judging credentials.
“I don’t think we have to remind them,” said the Lions attack coach. “They know this is a big opportunity. The players who played on Wednesday I would imagine would have realised that it was an even bigger opportunity for them because we were playing against the shadow Springbok team.
“But what’s freshest in a coach’s mind obviously has influence, so how well the players perform tomorrow will add to what they’ve already done on tour. It’s an opportunity for people to grab.”
Rory Sutherland and Duhan van der Merwe, the other two Scots starting against the Stormers, may have done enough already to have booked their place in the Test squad.
“We know the Test series will be a different level of intensity,” acknowledged Townsend.
“This is an opportunity for players to play a game - some that didn’t play last week and some that haven’t played yet on tour, so it’s a massive game for everyone involved. And it’s obviously a huge game for selection. We haven’t discussed Test selection at all and we know that’s going to occupy our minds on Sunday and this is the last chance for players to put their hands up.”
Hogg’s situation is particularly intriguing. His time in isolation means he has not played since the tour opener against the Sigma Lions. Liam Williams would be many people’s favourite to be the starting full-back in the first Test but the Welshman suffered a head injury on Wednesday.
A big performance from Hogg on Saturday could open the door to the Test squad. Similarly, the Stormers game presents a huge opportunity for Robbie Henshaw, the Irish inside centre who has not played at all in South Africa because of a hamstring injury.
“They’ve had less games so it’s about what they’ve done in the games and where we see them fitting in with the game we want to play,” Townsend said.
“Both of them have an opportunity against the Stormers. It would have been much tougher for them if they hadn’t been available for this game.”
Townsend returned to the coaches’ box for the match against South Africa A and found the evening invaluable despite the result.
“Our players have learnt what it’s like to come up against the Springboks,” he said.
“Not many people have that opportunity and when you do it’s a one-off game. It’s a World Cup semi-final for the Welsh guys or a final for the English guys.
“Now they’ve had that experience of what they’re about, the way they’re going to play. The Springboks aren’t going to change, we know that. They will be better for the hit-out.
“We felt that seeing where they are strong, maybe where there are opportunities, that’s hugely valuable for the group that played, but also for those of us who were in the stadium watching.”
Townsend spent his week in isolation immersing himself in footage of the Springboks, plotting a way to get the upper hand over Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus. He said being removed from the daily grind of the tour helped him take a step back.
“I’ve watched a lot of their games over the last few months but when you go from Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, the focus is on helping prepare the team.
"Not being with the team, I was able to look back at games they’ve played recently, as far back as 2018 when the current coaches took over.
"I'm more aware of what we’re expecting in defence from them, the game on Wednesday was great for us to learn more about what they want to do and for the players to feel that during the 80 minutes.”
With Chris Harris and Zander Fagerson on the bench, there will be seven Scots in total involved against the Stormers, with the injured Finn Russell the only absentee from north of the border.
As national coach, Townsend takes pride in the way his charges have performed on tour but will approach Test selection from a neutral perspective.
“I believe they’ve played very well,” he said of the Scots contingent. “They’ve been consistent with their performances. I’m obviously coaching the whole group but I have been delighted with how well the Scots guys have integrated and how they’ve thrived in this environment.
“So many players have taken opportunities. It’s going to be a very tough selection. When we get to the 15 and the 23 I’m sure we’ll be delighted with who we’ve selected.
“We also know that if we pick up injuries during the Test series we’ll still have a really strong team. That’s a credit to all the players in the squad.”
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