IT was the morning after the night before and Gregor Townsend was still clearly on a high. Bleary eyed and croaky voiced but with a broad smile on his face, the Scotland coach admitted that he doesn’t know what will come next for his squad – planning more than a few weeks in advance feels like an exercise in futility during these Covid blighted times – but as he reflected yesterday morning on his team’s performance against France just 12 hours earlier, he was able to assert with justified conviction that things are indeed moving in the right direction. 

That wasn’t always clear during this just ended Six Nations campaign. It started with a bang when Townsend’s boys outclassed England at Twickenham in round one, but frustrating defeats to Wales and Ireland indicated that consistency and being able to grind out results when things don’t quite click was still a problem. Beating Italy by a record margin was nice, but hardly a bellwether of progress against such lacklustre opposition. France on Friday night felt significant, with the team overcoming serious adversity before and during the match to still find a way to win in the fifth minute of injury time. That’s the kind of outcome Scotland is used to being on the wrong side of. My goodness, it felt good to be torturers rather than tortured. 

“It would be great to sit here and say we’ve won all our games, but you are going to get those times when you don’t win,” said Townsend, when asked to reflect on the championship as a whole. “As long as it doesn’t knock you off course, and we showed in the Wales game that it didn’t knock us off course because at the end we were a man down and created that opportunity which could have won the game. 

“The Ireland game was the most disappointing out of the five games, but even then, when we didn’t get a source of possession in the line-out and we lost a few turnovers, we still kept fighting and had a chance to win the game. 

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“At half time [last night] we talked about being here before, in the situation where we have lost a key player to a yellow card – the same happened at Twickenham with Finn getting yellow-carded – and we showed the same togetherness and control as we did then. 

“So, those are encouraging signs. It’s not always going to be perfect, there’s going to be times when the opposition have the upper hand, but to see the team adapting and learning together through these games is what you want to see from a coaching perspective.” 

Onwards and upwards, Scotland still finished fourth, so there is room for improvement, and with more players likely to be involved in the Lions tour this year than has been the case since Townsend was a player back in 1997, the summer should present an opportunity to blood a few more youngsters and grow the depth of the squad generally. 

“We don’t know yet who we are playing [in the summer],” said Townsend. “Georgia, Romania and Spain are options. Japan are playing the Lions so we may be able to do something around them. There are discussions around that. There are also discussions around playing England in a friendly, whether it is a development or an A game, so I am hoping that in the next two or three weeks we will be able to put some fixtures together. 

“It’s been great bringing young players into our training squad,” he added. “You’ve seen that Jamie Dobie and Rufus McLean were invited to train and now they’re full members. Seeing how they’ve progressed in this period for their clubs. We had two 18-year-old second-rows training with us in the past couple of weeks in Max Williamson and Alex Samuel. They’re very young but it shows there are players coming through. 

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“So, I’m sure there will be opportunities for those young players and it’s up to them now. They’ve got two or three months of the season left to play well for their clubs. 

“And there are also players down south. Cam Redpath has played one game for us and what a debut that was. Josh Bayliss came into our squad. We hope they are available and fit but ultimately playing well enough to get into our squad for the summer.” 

There is a strong suspicion that Townsend will be a member of Warren Gatland’s Lions coaching team. If that is the case, he doesn’t see his absence during that period as an impediment to the team continuing its progress. “If anybody is away during the summer, we have capable coaches that can step up and do that role,” he insisted. 

The one negative from Friday night’s match was the shoulder injury sustained by loose-head prop Rory Sutherland. “He was in hospital but came back into our camp late on Friday night,” explained Townsend. “He’s in a lot of pain. We won’t know until he has another scan if there’s any more damage.  

“I really feel for him. His performance last night on the back of the last two years in the Six Nations has put him in a very good position to go on the Lions, so let’s hope he’s not out for any length of time that puts that under pressure.”