If this was football, then Gregor Townsend would probably be sacked as Scotland head coach by now.
We should be glad it isn’t. One Scottish football club recently sacked their manager two weeks out from a major final.
It’s a different sport, and attitude. I don’t think there’s anything I’d want to take from Scottish football into rugby culture but neither does football probably want to take anything from rugby. That’s perfectly fine.
The RWC is now the game’s marking post
“Scotland on the charge” 💨
Hamish Watson finishes a breathless Scotland team try over Australia in Sydney on the 2017 Summer Tour. pic.twitter.com/xGeclGlsg4
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) July 24, 2020
In rugby, we’re exceptionally leery about changing coaches with 18 months to go for the next Rugby World Cup. England are probably more twitchy over Eddie Jones than Scotland are over Gregor, but they will probably both survive until it’s played.
Rugby’s calendar is now wholly in lockstep with the World Cup. It’s a clear marking post for moving on – whether from the coaches’ box or the pitch.
Is this a good thing? Or does it just kick a tricky decision down the road, to be dealt with later?
This is currently where we are with Gregor. As I often remind you in this column, he has the best record of any Scotland head coach since the game went pro.
It is a very low bar, however. Only Vern Cotter of the others also had a winning record, and he withstood a whitewash in his first Six Nations.
You can also convincingly argue that Townsend has had the best group of players available to him of any of his predecessors.
I’m not one of those who thinks he “inherited” a good team from Cotter. There was a foundation but the team that went on to beat Australia in Gregor’s first summer were definitely “his”. Townsend’s record against England, for example, is stratospherically better than Vern’s was.
But the current squad is well ahead of anything that Vern, or Andy Robinson, or Frank Hadden had. I wouldn’t call it a “golden generation” that’s being wasted as some do, but it is a quality group.
A perpetual rollercoaster
Scotland entered the 2022 #GuinnessSixNations with high hopes after three wins in 2021.
How do they feel coming away from this year's campaign?
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 29, 2022
Yet Scotland are still locked in a perpetual rollercoaster of advance and regression. For every encouraging performance under Townsend, there’s been an almost immediate lapse.
I think it’s fairly clear now that these perennial peaks and troughs will be the enduring history of his tenure.
It’s part if the reason we’re pressing on with him at the helm. We know Scotland can rise to certain occasions. It’s not unreasonable to suppose they’ll lift in form prior to France 2023.
But we’re probably also right to suspect the pattern will continue and it’ll be followed by disappointment. You can actually see, in full view, when – the two pool stage matches in France against South Africa and Townsend’s nemesis, Ireland.
Townsend might be a lame duck, but it appears we’re stuck with him. There’s no real or reasonable alternative candidate to lead the team. You’re tempting total chaos in a complete change of tack that could set Scotland back massively through the next World Cup cycle.
What can be done right now?
How does Steve Tandy get Scotland's defence ticking? 🤔
He discusses lessons from the Wales defeat, setting standards and planning for the likes of Antoine Dupont. pic.twitter.com/HqkSql2VKi
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) February 15, 2022
So what do we do? The first thing is to trim his wings again.
Prior to the 2019 World Cup, Townsend was a micromanager. After the failure in Japan, he was convinced to delegate more to specialists.
Steve Tandy was given time to work on defence with spectacular results, Pieter de Villiers was brought in to coach the scrum, MIke Blair got an expanded attack brief.
But the whispers and anecdotal evidence we’re getting from the Six Nations just passed is that Townsend has reverted to his pre-2019 style.
This has been underlined by the confusion over the “Edinburgh Six” group. We’ll probably never know for sure what happened there. But understanding the importance Stuart Hogg lends to his post as national captain, I find it impossible to believe he’d go rogue.
If he did, it surely says a group of senior players – including people like Ali Price and Darcy Graham, not noted rebels – at complete loggerheads with the hierarchy.
Whatever, Townsend being less hands-on with every aspect of the team worked for the two years Scotland were visibly improving (although still prone to setbacks).
More delegation worked before, and can do again
Rob Baxter insists that @Scotlandteam captain Stuart Hogg fell foul of "a little bit of ambiguity" and the @ExeterChiefs coach suggests there was no "clear breach" of national team rules during the Edinburgh bar incident after which Hogg and five other players were disciplined.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) March 24, 2022
There needs to be more delegation. I think Scotland’s greatest current need is a breakdown coach – perhaps re-hiring the super-specialist Richie Gray.
It should be a huge area of strength with the quality of Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie and Rory Darge. But they specifically need to deal with the unacceptable tide of penalties they’re giving away.
Townsend should give a broader attack brief to AB Zondagh, Blair’s successor. If the South African is one of the best young thinkers in European rugby, we need to see more evidence on the field.
Of course, perhaps Gregor has got it all worked out himself. He seemed super-confident about his future when he spoke to the media on the Sunday after the Ireland game.
He’ll make it to France, I have few doubts about that, even if there are many reservations. But after that tournament, we’ll be looking to turn the page to an entirely new era.
Scotland women’s advance is all relative without more investment
Saturday’s game against England was no time to judge the Scotland Women’s team and their prospects for the Six Nations. It was not remotely level playing field at the new Dam Health Stadium in the shadow of Murrayfield.
The Scots women have done superbly in the last 18 months to vastly improve. They’ve been given some support from Scottish Rugby in better off-field support structures like conditioning, specialist coaching and the like.
But they’re still paid by the Union like amateurs. England’s team are effectively professional. So are France, who are the next visitors in a couple of weeks.
The games against Italy, Ireland and Wales – all away – are a better place to see where the women actually are. Bridging the gap to England and France can only be done with serious investment.