Scotland’s mental toughness has been questioned by British Lions coach Warren Gatland this week – and in the past – ahead of this week’s delayed final Six Nations game against Wales in Llanelli.
With a storm expected in West Wales on Saturday, this game could be an illustrative test of character, believes head coach Gregor Townsend.
“I only know I see the team go through experiences and get stronger from them,” said the head coach, after naming a team with five changes from last week’s game against Georgia notably restoring Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray and especially Finn Russell to the starting line-up.
“The most relevant experiences for us are the ones we’ve just had,” he continued. “I saw the performance out in Ireland, which was close to our potential and then half-time against England, I saw a real test of character having played with the wind behind us and been 3-0 down to then have to go into extreme conditions, fight back and have a chance to win.
“We’ve got to make sure we do that more often. We talked a lot today about our experiences against England because we didn’t win that game, and the conditions could be similar this weekend.
“What did we learn that day to make us ready to win this weekend? We’ll have those tests in the future, I’m sure Gats will be looking at that this season.
“It’ll be this season’s team he’ll be picking from, not past years.”
The other major issues addressed by the head coach going into Saturday’s game were:
Finn is fully back on board
Perhaps at last the squad can stop rolling their eyes when asked about Finn Russell, as his return to the 10 jersey finally ends the unfortunate episode of his self-imposed exile from the team.
“I can’t predict the future with any player, all I can report is that Finn has grown into the squad the longer he has been here,” said Townsend, admitting Adam Hastings had been unlucky.
“I think Hoggy coming back too and bringing energy and them bouncing ideas off each other on the field is good.
“Finn’s form has been really good for his club on a consistent basis in some high-level games. We were certainly satisfied by his performance against Georgia and by what he is doing in training.”
Hoggy, Jonny and Sam Skinner expected to continue to “ride the wave”
Despite their two big final victories, Townsend said his Exeter trio brought a huge positivity into camp, and he doesn’t expect any physical or emotional backlash.
“Because of the way the season has unfolded I don’t think the physical toll is that much of a factor,” said the head coach. “You could argue they’ve played in games close to test match rugby more than some of our other players.
“They will get a break next week, I’m sure they’ll put everything into emptying the tank, physically and emotionally, against Wales.
“This is the ultimate for us, it’s Six Nations rugby. They’re in shape and they look sharp.”
Blade Thomson has been injured a lot but is very good
Thomson was released to Scarlets to play last week, but did so well there that when the unlucky Matt Fagerson wasn’t able to play – although he should have recovered for the opening Nations Cup game – he leapfrogged both Cornell du Preez and Nick Haining.
“Blade really impressed us when he was last with us,” said Townsend.
“He’s been unfortunate with injuries over the last two or three years, but when he’s been fit he brings so much in terms of his skill, his lineout, his passion as well.
“Seeing him play 80 minutes against Treviso was enough for us to say he’s ready. We feel his lineout presence can add another weapon to the way we’re going to play this weekend.”
Sean Maitland will be back, but he’s been a very naughty boy
The Saracens wing was a possible starter, you’d think, but that dinner and drinks with his Barbarian team-mates causing their game against England to be cancelled – a game he was specifically released to play in by Scotland – means he’s not in camp.
While personally disappointed, Townsend still sees great value in a player who scored two tries in his last international, is two caps from 50, and played so well for his club in Dublin and Paris during the end of the Heineken Cup. He’ll be back in the camp, probably after the fallow week before the start of the Autumn Nations Cup.
“The circumstances were foolish, but it’s a lesson for our players based up here and for other people in sport,” said Townsend. “A thing they think is minor in normal times can have a huge effect during this Covid period.”
No George North, but Wales have depth there
Townsend said the omission of North from Wayne Pivac’s team was “surprising” but he pointed out who had come in.
“Liam Williams is a Lion and obviously a fantastic player, Josh Adams has been outstanding this last couple of seasons and you’ve got a Lions full back there in Leigh Halfpenny,” said Gregor.
“They have made changes this week, other players who haven’t played much – Shane Lewis-Hughes hasn’t played at all – but we can’t focus too much by this time of the week: we want to do our own work and make sure our game’s in place.”
And some Toonie miscellany…
Sam Johnson needs more games before being considered for a return to inside centre, although James Lang is a good fit there; Blair Kinghorn keeps a place on the wing ahead of Duhan van der Merwe as a reward for his Six Nations form; Sam Steele is on the bench instead of George Horne for tactical reasons mostly related to defence.
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter, capt); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), James Lang (Harlequins), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow), Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow); Scott Cummings (Glasgow), Jonny Gray (Exeter); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Blade Thomson (Scarlets).
Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Oli Kebble (Glasgow), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh, Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Cornell du Preez (Worcester), Scott Steele (Harlequins), Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Duhan van der Merwe (Edinburgh).