Gregor Townsend, one of the finest of all Scottish midfield backs and currently assistant coach to the national team, used an unusually strong word in the aftermath of the painful defeat by Argentina four days ago. "We are grieving," he said. If his immediate boss, the head coach Andy Robinson, is in mourning about the way events unfolded in rain-lashed, windswept Wellington, there was no obvious sign of it as he arrived here for this weekend's win-or-bust meeting with England. Instead, he was wearing one of his wolfish expressions – the kind of look he wore during his playing days ahead of a really serious game of rugby in which defeat was unimaginable.
Robinson has always loved these moments. "They're the days you live for," he said. "Being involved in that match against the Pumas... that was a wonderful experience. We knew how important it was, and it was a great contest. Yes we lost, and we lost in a way I really didn't expect, which made it harder. I could see us losing 15-12 on penalties, but I couldn't see us conceding a try – especially not a try like the one they scored. It was a real shock to the system. But we're past that now. When I think of that game, it will serve as a reminder of why I want to be a coach and why the guys around me work so hard to be international players. And this game against England brings the same feeling with it."
England fear Robinson, and they are right to do so. A West Countryman to his core – when the tune, such as it is, of "Flower of Scotland" strikes up before a Test match, he remains steadfastly silent – he understands all there is to understand about red-rose rugby: its rhythm, its tempo, its methodology, its quirks and oddities. He is regarded by his peers, quite rightly, as a brilliant forwards coach, a strategist who knows his scrums and line-outs backwards and is even more learned when it comes to the tackle area: the art, the science and the alchemy of it.
With Bath and Edinburgh at club level, with England and the Lions on the biggest international stages, and now with Scotland... everywhere Robinson has worked, he has proved highly effective. When it comes to breaking down the breakdown, he is in the very top echelon.
The Scots flew into town yesterday after a 24-hour spell of wound-licking down in the capital. Against the South Americans, they had been within a few minutes of qualifying for the knock-out stage when Lucas Amorosino caught them with a sucker-punch tiptoe down the right touchline, beating tackles for a pastime and finishing sufficiently close to the sticks to give Felipe Contepomi an even-money shot at a match-winning conversion. Robinson pretty much knew that the Argentine midfielder would nail it, and he was proved correct.
"People deal with disappointment in their own ways," he said. "You know how inward I can get, and for me it's important to go there when we lose a game in the manner we lost that one. Others approach it differently, but by and large we've kept ourselves to ourselves and worked our way through it. There have been private conversations, of course: chats between coaches and individual players. We've also had a brief team meeting to discuss the things that need discussing. Now, it's about looking ahead. This is still in our control. We know what needs to be done."
What needs to be done is not as simple as all that. If Scotland lose to England, they will probably, but not certainly, find themselves on a flight back to Edinburgh early next week. (Argentina could help them avoid this fate by messing up against Georgia on Sunday – unlikely, but not impossible). If they beat England by seven points or less, their future will still be in the hands of the Pumas. If they score four tries or more in winning the game, they will definitely make it into the last eight. In that eventuality, England will be the ones left waiting on the South Americans.
Robinson, whose coaching record against the country of his birth is very decent – a drawn Six Nations game at Murrayfield last year, followed by a narrow and rather unfortunate championship defeat at Twickenham back in March – wants to keep this as simple as possible. "First things first, we need to win the game," he said. "England are a good side, a quality side, contrary to what some people write about them. They have an excellent blend: they have a forward pack capable of winning ball, they defend well, they're organised. We know their players and we know the emotional and physical level we'll need to reach in order to beat them. We're playing a team with a forward unit as tough as Argentina's, with the added threat of a highly-skilled back line.
"But of course, there are different scenarios and situations that might arise as the match unfolds, and we'll talk through them over the next couple of days. There will be a number of decisions to be made out on the field and we'll need to be aware. But as I say, we'll be going out to win the game first of all and to win it by asking questions of the England defence and scoring tries. My main task is to get everyone in my side fully loaded for what is going to be a cracking Test match."
Scotland have never failed to reach the quarter-final stage of a World Cup: indeed, they have the best record, by some considerable distance, of any Celtic country at these global gatherings. Robinson, who signed a fresh four-year deal with the national union earlier this year, is convinced the current side has the character, the belief, to maintain that record.
"Look at what happened last year," he pointed out. "We were heavily beaten by the All Blacks at Murrayfield, yet a week later we beat the Springboks with a comprehensive performance. These things can happen, because this is Test rugby. We can talk all we want over the next few days about what we're going to do and how we'll go about it, but ultimately, it's about being in the 80 minutes."
At one point during the conversation, he was interrupted by a broadcaster who wanted to know if he had shed a tear after the defeat by Argentina. "Did I cry? No," he asserted. Then, after a short pause, he added: "Of course, we cry sometimes." A hint of weakness, or the surest possible sign of a passionate rugby soul? As no one finding himself on the opposite side of the sporting argument has ever accused Robinson of being weak, the answer to that question is clear.Reuse content