After losing their opening match to world champions South Africa, the Scots know they will almost certainly require three wins from their remaining pool B matches against the Tongans, Romania and Ireland.
Bonus points are also likely to be a factor in deciding which sides progress to the quarter-finals from a section containing three of the world’s five highest-ranked teams.
Two weeks on from their demoralising 18-3 defeat in Marseille, Townsend has called on his team – who touched down in the south of France at the start of September with high hopes – to belatedly signal their arrival at the tournament by turning on the style against Tonga this weekend.
“We need to get our World Cup started,” he said on Friday morning. “You can get your World Cup started with your first game but also your first win. This is obviously a crucial game for us.
“It’s our knockout stage now. If we lose a game, we’re out the tournament, and every game now ahead of us we have to approach it with that mentality.”
Townsend has made four changes to the side that started against South Africa, with forwards Rory Sutherland and Scott Cummings replacing Pierre Schoeman and Grant Gilchrist and backs Kyle Steyn and Chris Harris taking over from Darcy Graham and Huw Jones.
Schoeman, Graham and Jones are on the bench alongside George Horne and Ewan Ashman, both of whom are back in the mix after missing out against South Africa due to concussion. Gilchrist drops out of the 23 altogether.
“We know this is a really important game for us so we’ve put out as strong a team as we can to win it,” said Townsend. “We feel the last 20 minutes are going to be important so to have players like Darcy Graham, Huw Jones and George Horne coming off the bench to give something different for the Tongan defence could be as important as the guys who get to start.”
Gloucester centre Harris – a member of the British and Irish Lions squad in 2021 – is preparing to make only his second start of 2023 after losing the number 13 jersey to the resurgent Jones since the start of the Six Nations.
“Chris has done really well in training and I thought he played really well against Georgia (in the last warm-up match) when he came on,” said Townsend.
“There’s competition in every position and Sione (Tuipulotu) and Huw have been two of our best players in this calendar year.
“Chris will bring his own game, which is based on work-rate and his defence is always at a high level. We will have times where it will be tough for us defensively – especially in the wide channels – so having Chris in there can bring out his strengths.”
Another 2021 Lions squad member coming in from the fringes for Scotland this weekend is Sutherland, who will be making only his second international start in 19 months. The 31-year-old is currently without a club after a turbulent couple of years with Worcester and then Ulster.
“It’s been an interesting and challenging time for Rory with going down south and then the club that he joined going bust,” said Townsend. “He then did very well over in Ulster but I know it was a tough time for his family to make one move and then to come back to Scotland while he was over in Ulster.
“And he’s without a club just now. But I have to say, even with those challenges in the background on and off the field, Rory is the same person and he trains really well.
“He’s had other challenges with injuries and selection. He wasn’t in our 23 for the game against South Africa and he just applies himself so well in training.
“He’s obviously been competing with Pierre the last couple of seasons as well and Pierre has been playing really well for us but he’s now got an opportunity to start and it’s a great opportunity for him to go ‘right, this is what I can do from a starting perspective’.”