Townsend urges Scotland to ‘attack’ dangerous Tonga in must-win match

By the time Scotland run out at Stade de Nice to take on Tonga on Sunday, two weeks will have passed since their opening defeat by South Africa.

Gregor Townsend’s side have had extra time to recover – and extra time to reflect – since that 18-3 loss in Marseille when they struggled to put the world champions under sustained pressure. Announcing a team with four changes for their second match in a fiercely competitive Pool B, the head coach said his players are ready to attack the forthcoming fixtures.

“For the players, after a defeat, you want to be able to play again straight away,” Townsend said on Friday at the team base in Nice. “As coaches, maybe [a longer break is good]. We’ve been able to train hard, we’ve had social time with the families. We feel we’re further ahead having had those moments on and off the field to really attack the next few games.”

The prop Rory Sutherland comes into the front row and Scott Cummings is selected at lock, with Pierre Schoeman and Grant Gilchrist moving to the bench. In the backs, Chris Harris starts at outside-centre and Kyle Steyn is on the wing, with Huw Jones and Darcy Graham both retained in the 23.

After the defeat by the Springboks, Scotland realistically need to beat Tonga, Romania and Ireland to earn a last-eight place. The Boks and Ireland meet on Saturday night, a match that will make the task ahead for Scotland clearer.

Asked if he had a preferred result between their rivals, Townsend said: “I do, but I’m not going to say it. We’ll be watching Ireland to see the result, and know what it means for us in terms of the next three games.

“We’re now starting to analyse Ireland and as coaches it will be a very good game to see where their strengths are, and maybe any opportunities where we can impose our strengths.”

Not that Scotland are getting ahead of themselves. Townsend also talked up the ability of Tonga’s former New Zealand internationals, Salesi Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa in particular.

“They bring their own individual quality but also the experience of playing top-level Test matches and at World Cups – and that will spread throughout the team,” Townsend said. “They [Tonga] had opportunities against Ireland they might have taken. When you’ve got players like Piutau and Fekitoa on the field, they can score a try out of anything.”

Gregor Townsend directs training in Nice
Gregor Townsend has started analysing Ireland ahead of a potentially decisive Pool B match. Photograph: Michael Steele/World Rugby/Getty Images

The Gloucester centre Harris, meanwhile, revealed how difficult he found it to be overlooked for the match against South Africa.

“It’s been tough not being involved as much and just watching the boys playing,” he said. “It’s been a bit shit, to be honest. But I’ve just kept my head down and tried to be as professional as I can in terms of helping the rest of the boys. I’ve got my opportunity this weekend and I’m massively looking forward to it.”

skip past newsletter promotion

Scotland are effectively playing knockout rugby but Harris says the resulting pressure is welcome. “Of course there’s pressure,” he said. “There’s pressure in all games. It’s just a different type of pressure. You’ve got a choice when you’ve got pressure: you can either run away from it or embrace it.”

Like Townsend, Harris namechecked the same former All Blacks, Fekitoa and Piutau, as two players Scotland must keep a close eye on.

“I’ve had a few games against Malakai,” Harris said. “He’s a really canny player, and he’s experienced, so I’m looking forward to that battle. And I’ve played a lot against Piutau, who was one of Bristol’s best players and someone we talked up during the week. We’re fully aware of what these boys are about.”

As for the atmosphere in France, and the manner in which locals are embracing the tournament, Harris said it is “absolutely mint”.

He adds: “That’s what’s tough when you’re not involved … the crowd when the bus comes in, then you walk out for the warm-up, and you see the crowd [in the stadium]. It’s an immense atmosphere.”

Scotland are clearly keen to extend their stay, and have waited for a chance to atone for their opening loss. Beating Tonga is the first step.