Gregor Townsend hopes ‘cohesion’ can guide Scotland to victory over South Africa

Townsend named a starting line-up on Friday with key duo Darcy Graham and Zander Fagerson returning from injury and suspension respectively.

Anthony Brown
Friday 08 September 2023 17:51 BST
Gregor Townsend faces the media in Marseille on Friday (Mike Egerton/PA)
Gregor Townsend faces the media in Marseille on Friday (Mike Egerton/PA)

Gregor Townsend insisted the 15 players he has selected to face South Africa have “earned the right” to start together as he challenged his burgeoning Scotland team to deliver on the biggest stage of all.

The head coach named a starting line-up on Friday with no surprises as key duo Darcy Graham and Zander Fagerson returned from injury and suspension respectively for the World Cup Pool B opener against the world champions.

Townsend believes the sense of “cohesion” within the team he has picked will stand them in good stead for Sunday’s showdown in the late-summer heat of Marseille.

“It’s been the team that has played (together) in the main,” he said at a press conference at Stade Velodrome on Friday. “The majority of the players have played together all year. A couple of players missed the Six Nations, Rory Darge and Darcy Graham who are back fit and back with us.

“It’s a team that deserves to go out there. They have earned the right to start in such an important fixture because of the way they have played and the way they have trained.

“We have built a lot of cohesion over the last two or three months by training with certain combinations week after week. We’ve seen the benefits of doing that transfer into the warm-up games and now it’s about delivering the most complete game we have done this year.”

Scotland go into the World Cup as dark horses for the Webb Ellis Cup having emerged as best of the rest behind the heavyweight quartet of Ireland, South Africa, France and New Zealand.

Several players in Townsend’s team go into the global showpiece at the top of their game and the head coach is confident they can produce collectively when it matters most.

“It’s the biggest opportunity you’ll get: a World Cup game, playing the world champions,” he said ahead of Sunday’s showdown.

“We believe we’ve been building to our best performance – and I know that’s a continual journey and we’ll say it again as we go towards the Tonga game – but really this is where it’ll count for our players to deliver what they have been delivering in training and what they have been delivering in other games we’ve played this year, and we have every faith they will be able to do that.”

Townsend has no worries about his players’ temperament as they prepare for a huge occasion in front of 67,000 people in the Marseille heat.

“That’s the job for us as coaches, the senior players and the players who have been there before, to be calm and to calm others,” he said. “But there is an expectation that it’s going to be a very emotional and exciting build-up.

“I’m sure the players will feel the sense of adrenaline, nerves and excitement as we get closer to kick-off. But that can be turned into a real positive. It can narrow your focus, but also give you that extra energy boost that you need.”

Scotland trailed in all four of their summer warm-up matches and came back to win three of them, including a stirring 25-21 victory at home to France, while they also went close to pipping Les Bleus in the rematch in Saint-Etienne before eventually succumbing to a 30-27 defeat.

Townsend believes such experiences will give them reason for confidence if they find themselves trailing at any point on Sunday.

“We didn’t want to be 21-3 behind against France but this team have shown they are capable of coming back, whether it’s in Paris (in the Six Nations), or at Murrayfield when a man down, or Saint-Etienne with the crowd and momentum against us.

“It would be nice to be 15 points ahead, but we’ve got to deal with whatever situation is presented at any time in the game.

“We will be tested, no doubt. There will be times when South Africa have dominance, South Africa have points on the board.

“There will be times when we aren’t able to execute things as well as we like and that’s not because it’s the first game of the World Cup, it’s because of the opposition and what they bring with their pressure.

“But we’ve got to find a way to win and that’s what this World Cup is about, finding a way to win.”

The Scots were unable to include either scrum-half George Horne or hooker Ewan Ashman in the 23 after the pair suffered concussion in training.

Stuart McInally, who was cut from the squad last month, has flown out to France as cover until Ashman recovers.

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