Before a humbling defeat to Ireland on Sunday, Gregor Townsend was statistically Scotland’s most successful national rugby coach. Now, having lost that status in the most ignominious fashion in Yokohama, he faces Samoa on Monday in a tie that could decide his side’s progress in the Rugby World Cup and perhaps even his future in the job.
Scotland were not favoured against Ireland but the 27-3 drubbing not only dealt a blow to Townsend’s record but reinforced fears his single-minded focus on attack has backfired.
“Scotland’s obsession with trying to play champagne rugby every time they get the ball, especially off first phase, is not working,” said former Scottish centre and pundit Scott Hastings.
“Teams know what is coming.”
While there have been rumblings that Townsend’s ‘fastest brand of rugby in the world’ has come at the expense of much-needed defensive improvement since he replaced Vern Cotter in 2017, his approach has largely paid off.
Before Sunday, Townsend had been victorious in 15 of 27 matches, a 56% win ratio.
That bettered even Ian McGeechan’s 54% record in his first spell as coach between 1988 and 1993 when Scotland reached a World Cup semi-final and won the Five Nations Championship unbeaten.
Townsend has now lost that crown and, what’s more, his side’s average points per match has slipped to 25, the same as his predecessor Cotter.
In terms of average points conceded, Townsend also matches Cotter on 22, showing little progress from the side that experienced quarter-final heartbreak at the 2015 World Cup.
Townsend said his team lacked energy and aggression against Ireland, but some have laid the blame squarely at his feet.
“Scotland paid the price for Gregor Townsend ignoring rugby’s two unwritten rules,” former Scotland flanker Iain Morrison wrote in The Scotsman newspaper, explaining they were allowing the opposition to bully them and trying to move the ball wide too early.
There is little sign Townsend is planning major changes against Samoa, a side who also favour a high-tempo, loose game.
“We play a specific brand of rugby that is high-skilled,” Scotland assistant coach Danny Wilson said on Monday.
“Our game is very reliant on speed of ball. If we don’t produce that speed of ball, we are under pressure.”
Townsend survived a 44-38 scare when his side last played Samoa in 2017 and he has also tasted defeat against Pacific islanders, losing 27-22 to Fiji earlier that year.