Stuart Bathgate: Why Gregor Townsend must be given more time with Scotland

Gregor Townsend’s insistence that he will not quit as Scotland coach all but ensures there will be no imminent change at the top.

Gregor Townsend is an 'intelligent, self-critical and conscientious man who will do everything in his power to put things right', says Stuart Bathgate. Picture: Getty Images
Gregor Townsend is an 'intelligent, self-critical and conscientious man who will do everything in his power to put things right', says Stuart Bathgate. Picture: Getty Images

For one thing, SRU chief executive Mark Dodson has attempted to claim so much credit for appointing the former Glasgow Warriors boss that he would lose a lot of face if he were to get rid of Townsend now.

For another, the coach is under contract until the end of next season, meaning parting company with him early would be a costly business for the governing body.

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If Townsend does indeed stay in his post, it will be to the irritation of many of those who were rightly disappointed by Scotland’s exit from the Rugby World Cup at the hands of Japan on Sunday.

SRU chief executive Mark Dodson

Not only did the national team fail to reach the last eight for just the second time since the tournament began in 1987, the defects they displayed have been on show sporadically for some time.

Add in the widely held belief that Vern Cotter was making real progress as Townsend’s predecessor before his services were discarded all too prematurely by Dodson, and it is wholly understandable that some people think the incumbent’s time is up.

But we can agree that Cotter was badly treated without thinking that Townsend should go now. In fact, there are several reasons why it is preferable for the current coach to remain in place at least for the rest of this season.

First, let’s not pretend that Scotland’s flaws did not exist before Townsend took up the post, or that Cotter presided over a Golden Age. The woeful inconsistency and the apparent inability to get up for big away games, for example, were both evident under the New Zealander long after he supposedly injected a hitherto unseen steeliness into the team. Exhibit A: England 61, Scotland 21, Twickenham, March 2017.

And, while Scotland demonstrably made progress under Cotter, winning all three of their home games in that 2017 Six Nations campaign, they did so from a low starting point.

Two seasons earlier, Cotter’s first at the helm, they lost all five matches. In 2016 they won only two.

The small player pool from which to select is one problem that any Scotland coach has to deal with, as is the relative lack of mental toughness in those players compared to many of their rivals from other leading nations.

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Those problems did not originate with Townsend, and there is only so much he can do to iron them out.

But, if it sounds like a half-hearted endorsement to say he should stay because some of Scotland’s problems were not of his making, well yes, it is. Who could be wholehearted in support of him after the last few weeks?

Because, whatever the raw material a coach is given to work with, his job is to turn it into the finished product, and too often Townsend’s team looks half-baked.

At least part of the reason for this may well be the coach’s inexperience at international level, especially when compared to his rivals in these islands, Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, who average out at around a decade older than the 46-year-old.

Having said that, Townsend is an intelligent, self-critical and conscientious man who will do everything in his power to put things right.

He remains the only coach this century to have won a major trophy with a Scotland team – the 2015 Pro12 with Glasgow – and has an insight into what makes our players tick that other coaches lack.

True, that insight meant nothing when it came to getting the players to perform at the top of their game in the World Cup opener against Ireland, and the squad’s woeful lack of mental preparedness for that match will remain a black mark on Townsend’s record whatever happens hereafter. 
But, while his reputation is damaged, overall his account remains in credit.

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Players will announce their retirement in the coming days and weeks, and the Scotland squad will undergo a gradual regeneration.

The current coach knows that squad better than anyone, and is therefore the right person to carry out the process.

Getting rid of Townsend now would be too hasty by half. He deserves more time to prove that he and the players can learn from recent mistakes, which means another Six Nations at least.