There’s a point in any coach or manager’s career where the fans fall out of love with them.
It happened at Old Trafford in the late 1980s where Alex Ferguson almost lost his job before transforming Manchester United into the powerhouse of British football.
Thankfully, for the Scot, the great Bobby Charlton could discern the progress which Ferguson was achieving in changing the culture and creating a youth system which would bring future success. But it was touch and go, and the episode makes one wonder whether anybody is coming to Gregor Townsend’s rescue in the weeks ahead.
The Borderer did his best to accentuate the positives from his team’s 17-0 win over hapless, hopeless Italy in Rome. He claimed afterwards that the result had eased the pressure on the SRU brigade – himself included – and argued they can now look forward with confidence to the rest of the Six Nations Championship.
Yet the response of many of the fans was instructive. I met a group of them on Saturday night and nobody was enthused by the Scottish victory. “Turgid” and “tedious”, “dull” and “depressing” were just some of the descriptions used to disparage both sides, with many supporters wondering how much longer the Italians will be allowed a free pass for their incompetence after 25 consecutive defeats in the tournament, dating back to 2015.
With the exception of Stuart Hogg’s wonderful individualistic try and the unstinting brilliance of Hamish Watson, the verdict was damning. Indeed, the contrast between the fumbling, feckless action in Rome and the thunderously thrilling meeting of Wales and France in Cardiff later that day did nothing to diminish the sense that one of these games was a top-tier clash and the other belonged in the second division.
Some of this criticism is doubtless unfair. But if you look at the fashion in which Scotland triumphed three times under Townsend in the 2018 competition – the same as they recorded with Vern Cotter at the helm 12 months earlier – it’s clear they have lost their Wow factor in recent times and, if anything, are in reverse gear.
That’s why beating Italy won’t stem the speculation over his future. France, back at their magic, mercurial best and in search of their first Grand Slam in a decade, are next up for Townsend’s troops at Murrayfield on March 8, prior to the campaign concluding in Wales, who may well have lost three games in a row by that stage.
The French, thus far, have been a revelation and will arrive in Edinburgh as firm favourites. Under Fabien Galthie and Shaun Edwards, and with a string of bright young things such as Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, they have provided a feast of the old-style champagne rugby for which Les Bleus are rightly feted.
However, the last time they journeyed to Scotland, they ended up on the wrong end of a 32-26 score line, with the now-retired Greig Laidlaw kicking 22 points and being voted the man of the match; an accolade gained by Finn Russell a fortnight later when the Scots thumped England by 12 points. Quite rightly, there was a lot of celebratory talk.
It’s possible that Townsend can find a way of galvanising his men and orchestrating fresh heroics even without Russell. Possible, but not probable. The Scots need to win at least one of these next two fixtures or be condemned to another Six Nations flop.