Much has been made of the potential knock-on effect of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s success in reaching the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, but Scotland coach Gregor Townsend knows that two of the players playing outwith the country will be key to his side’s chances in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
Townsend expressed his delight with the form of half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell for big French clubs, with the scrum-half on fine form with Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne and the stand-off ripping it up at Racing 92 following his big-money move last summer.
“I’m happy they’re playing well and they’re playing at top clubs with good coaching and good players around them,” said Townsend, who had spells in France during his own playing career with Castres and Brive. “With my national team focus I’d prefer more players playing in Scotland, because at this time of the year players being managed is very important.
“Finn is off this weekend, which is great. Racing have rested him. Greig has been rested at other times over the past few weeks, but he’s going back to Clermont tonight.
“I’ll be watching closely this weekend and hope Greig makes it through. He’s been playing outside of Scotland for a while, he adapts very well, he picks up information really quickly and he really cares about playing for Scotland, which really helps us.
“So, in an ideal world we’d have most players playing in Scotland, but ideal world is a utopia because we only have two teams and players have to take opportunities and opportunities to play in some of the best clubs in Europe.”
Townsend and Laidlaw were at yesterday’s tournament launch at the Hurlingham Club in London as excitement builds ahead of the opening weekend, with Italy first up at BT Murrayfield a week on Saturday.
Townsend played down the fact that it is the first time in the Six Nations since the Scots have had the Italians on the opening weekend since 2000, when Diego Dominguez famously led the Azzurri to a shock win over the reigning champions of the last-ever Five Nations in their first game in the tournament.
That will be followed up with the visit of world No.2 side Ireland and Townsend was keen to stress that the history and importance of a Six Nations campaign meant the meeting with Joe Schmidt’s form side will be a huge occasion in its own right before the teams meet again at the World Cup in Japan.
“It’s stand alone. This is our World Cup every year,” said Townsend. “It’s the biggest tournament to be involved in with the history. You get two or three home games. It’s something that if we do really well in it’s the equivalent of what you could achieve in the World Cup, say reaching the semi-finals or a final.
“We’ve won three Grand Slams in our history and it’s something we always strive for,”
Scottish-Irish rivalry is set to be a running theme this year, with Edinburgh hosting Munster in their Champions Cup quarter-final and some big club clashes looming in the Guinness PRO14.
“Yes and it’s great for Irish rugby too to have them and ourselves with five teams out of the eight [in Champions Cup quarter-finals],” said the Scotland coach. “We have two games against Ireland in the next eight, nine months and hopefully there will be [Scotland v Ireland clashes] in the Pro14 play-offs too. It will be good to have players coming in to us with knowledge of having success.”
The first focus, however, is Italy, who proved tough nuts to crack in Rome last year and have enjoyed more success in the tournament against any of the other nations.
“Over the last two years the Italian teams have improved,” said Townsend. “More young players have come into the team and performed well. They are physical. They use the ball a lot. Of all the teams we play against they probably kick the least and so they will take us on with ball in hand.
“They always have a strong setpiece scrum, and one of the best ever players to play in the Six Nations.”
That was a reference to the great Sergio Parisse, who Townsend played against during his career, and could, at the age of 35, be embarking on his last hurrah in the Six Nations.
“He’s a talisman,” said Townsend of the Stade Francais No 8, who is Italy’s most-capped player with 134 appearances.
“He’s a player that everyone says would walk into any other nation’s team. He’d be in a World XV. He is a player people look at for his skill, his handling ability, skill in the air, setpiece presence.
“He’s an excellent lineout forward in attack and defence. He’s very experienced and has played a lot of games in the Six Nations. He’s won at BT Murrayfield. Those young players who are coming into the team will want to play for him and also listen to him for directions. With him available they’re a more dangerous team.”