WITH two matches to be played before the Calcutta Cup encounter it was a measure of Scotland’s elevated standing in the eyes of their rivals that Eddie Jones, England’s coach, devoted attention yesterday to attempting to play mind games with Gregor Townsend as the Scotland coach prepares for his first Six Nations Championship in charge.
The pugnacious little Australian seemed to be at his most facetious
as he assessed the prospects of the team that helped his side move up the world rankings with their defeat of his Wallaby compatriots in the autumn during yesterday’s official tournament launch.
“They’re big darlings aren’t they?” he said. “How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland? Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people.”
However, he suggested that the Scots might, as they have often done in recent years, once again turn the seasons on their head in watching hope nurtured in the autumn, wilt as winter gives way to spring.
“To play that under the pressure of expectation is a different question put to the team. They’ve got a great young coach. Bright guy Gregor, eh? Makes me feel like it might be time to retire when you’ve got a good young coach like that coming through and he’s got them playing well, but again it’s different when you go in as underdogs than when you go in expected to win and play with that panache.”
If anything, however, Jones was playing into the hands of a man who believes in talking his players up rather than playing down their chances and Townsend duly seized the opportunity to treat the comments of a man who watched his side rattle in seven tries and 61 points when the teams met at Twickenham last year as a compliment to his squad.
“We have high expectations of our playing group and we have to because we’re playing the best teams in the world,” he responded. “We took on the No.1 team and the No.3 team in the world in our last two games. England and Ireland are now the second- and third-ranked teams in the world, so we want to create a belief within our group that we can win those games.”
Taking part in the tournament’s official launch in London, along with the head coaches and captains of all six teams, Townsend acknowledged that they are by no means alone in having reason to enter this year’s contest full of confidence.
“There’s obviously expectation for other teams to perform well,”
he observed. “I think it’s a great tournament this year with so many teams having performed well in the November series. It showed the Northern Hemisphere in a really good light, but it makes the Championship more difficult for each competing team and more competitive.”
With every squad suffering from injuries, England must go into the competition as favourites having won it in each of the last two seasons and lost just one championship match in their two seasons under Jones, a defeat registered in Dublin after they had secured the title last year.
However, that overall uplift in the performance of Northern Hemisphere teams that has been reflected in the shift in the balance of power as reflected in those world rankings, means the outcome may come down to which team reacts best to whatever confronts them in the course of the next couple of months.
“You have to play the game that’s in front of you,” said Townsend. “We have a belief in how we play that brings the traditional strengths and current strengths of our players and we’ve got individuals that we want to see on the ball more. But if the game is dictated by other reasons and it’s not working, whether the weather means you have to play something differently, or any other circumstance, you’ve
got to be able to adapt and find a way to win.”
Ahead of their opening encounter with a Wales team that has its own injury issues to deal with, in particular at stand off, Dan Biggar having joined fellow stand off Rhys Priestland in being ruled out of the opening match, Townsend got a real lift last weekend as the three Scots who were shown most respect by Gatland when he was Lions coach last summer – Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Greig Laidlaw – timed their returns to action perfectly.
“I watched the [Glasgow] game with my fingers crossed for most of it and then by the end for Tommy and Stuart it was great,” he said. “It was great to see them not only play a game, but to play so well, to be confident against very good opposition. Two of the tries that were scored were world class, involving more than just those two players, so that was pleasing.
“And for Greig to get six minutes meant he’d trained fully with Clermont. He got the all clear on the Friday, so that’s probably unexpected News that he was then on the bench the next day, but that showed that not only was the specialist happy with his ankle, but the club were happy to put him on the bench. We believe he will play this weekend on Sunday against Montpellier.
“Tommy, Greig and Stuart have been key players for this team over the last few years and it’s great to see them available.”
The Scotland coach meanwhile promised that Scottish supporters can expect to see his side play in the grand traditions of the nation’s best teams.
“I grew up watching Scottish teams that created quick ball. They wouldn’t have talked about it that way at that time ‘creating quick ball,’ it was about being ruthless around the ruck area and making sure that ball comes out quickly, but there was a pace about the way Scotland played, a pace in the defence as well, so they went after teams and got turnovers,” he said.
“That showed that we were hard workers and we had players who were dynamic and we still have that today. We have players who have really good ability to move the ball into space, whether they are front five or back line players. So we want to see that come out.”
Source : HeraldScotland