After we finished studying Gregor Townsend’s statement on Monday for release, there were other interesting things to find there.
The statement was a replica of the Finn Times Sunday Times interview, and we went through it all. Both parties are entrenched for the moment, without any possibility of compromise.
What fascinated me was Townsend’s detailed assessment of what changed in the preparation of the team between the Rugby World Cup and the initial Six Nations rally.
Townsend said he had consulted with other coaches, players and support staff for their views on how Japan left. The conclusion was “we clearly did not perform on the field as well as we had expected and, outside the field, certain standards of behavior sometimes slipped.”
The reason I was interested was because I was looking for clues to any adjustment to Scotland’s style of play in 2019, which had produced only two wins in nine games against a top opponent during the year, including one during a friendly warm-up match.
A simple change is evident by just looking – Scotland’s defensive structure is more aggressive, consistent and effective. So far, it’s a tribute to new defensive coach Steve Tandy, who has had less than a month to work on modifications to a system that had been developed for seven years with Matt Taylor.
But we haven’t seen any real adjustments to Townsend’s plan of attack. He always tends towards a pressure style, which contributes to Russell’s general frustration.
And it still doesn’t work. At least, the “fastest rugby in the world”, which received too much publicity, was great to watch. Scotland has been drunk since the summer of 2018.
A maverick, emotionless at the time, Townsend caught a terrible wave of conservatism as a national coach, and it could cost him his job.
I suspect that he developed in order to overthrow the appalling form of Scotland, but has infiltrated home games.
After losing to England, Scotland have lost three straight Six Nations games at home and have not won in their last six league games.
Does Townsend’s play style make the most of Scotland’s talent? I’m not the only one who thinks he has the best talent pool since rugby became professional, and two wins in 11 against quality teams are not enough.
Why has it not changed? Why did he actually blame a drop in “out of scope standards” for poor performance in Japan? I was there for the duration and saw no one acting out of order – at least there were fewer high jinks than what young men get bored on a long tour.
In addition to defense, Townsend’s approach to change is to double – both on and off the field, which was seen by many to be a bit too strict at the start.
But the results catch up with the coach. Obviously, a defeat in Rome next week – a delicate task, although the Scots have won their last seven games against Italy – will make his position untenable.
I would go further, however. A victory in Italy is not enough. Two victories in this Six Nations remains the absolute minimum objective. If Townsend can’t get them, it’s time for a new voice and new thinking.
What has Finn really done for Scotland?
I love Finn Russell with a Scottish jersey and the advantage it gives to the team. If given the choice, I would rather take a few risks by playing freelance than Townsend’s conservative and unsuccessful game plan.
But an important question for those who support Finn in this dispute is; what difference has he really made?
A few months ago, this column detailed Greig Laidlaw’s career and all the games he had saved with his goalkicking in Scotland. Despite this, and his leadership on the field – and also, clearly, his influence on his teammates – Laidlaw had a 43% win rate as a Scottish player.
In his 49 tests, Finn is better – 28 wins, 20 losses and a draw. At Six Nations, his record is less impressive: nine wins, 12 losses and the same draw.
In how many of these matches was Finn the main difference? The two 2017 home wins against Ireland and Wales, perhaps, but it was really Stuart Hogg’s matches, at least in my mind.
Italy in Singapore and Australia in Sydney during the 2017 tour, Townsend’s first matches in charge, okay. Perhaps the second game against Australia that same November, although the 50-point landslide was a more collective effort.
England at Murrayfield in 2018 of course, but it was the only decent match he played in this championship; it was hooked at the start of victories over France and Italy, and the hooks were crucial, allowing Laidlaw to drop to 10 to lead a narrower path to victory.
There was Italy at Murrayfield last year – big deal – and Twickenham last March. But it was only in the second half, and Scotland did not win.
I readily agree that Townsend’s tactical plan did not make the most of Finn. But it underwent 49 tests.
If he was so super talented, so many points of difference, so demanding special treatment – that’s what he requires – shouldn’t he have been a little better?