A No 10 who has it figured

Jonathan Davies assesses the talents of an outstanding stand-off exponent
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The Independent Online
I MIGHT be accused of bias but I think the Five Nations' Championship is already focused firmly on the outside-halves; a problem position for France, Ireland and England but not so for Wales and certainly not for Scotland. Indeed, the destination of the title, if not the Grand Slam, depends on the answer to one simple question: Can anyone stop Gregor Townsend?

I wouldn't insult Scotland by suggesting they are a one-man team. They are obviously far more than that. But when it comes to assessing the force that has made them the dominant team so far, the eye inevitably stops on the solid shape of their number 10.

It is incredible that Northampton, a second division Courage team, should be providing so many key people to England and Scotland and that Townsend, one of their centres, should be the most effective outside-half of the championship so far.

It seems that playing inside centre for his club gives him the edge. The art of being a successful outside-half at that level is to be able to live off the good players around you and allow them to live off you. That is precisely the strength of Scotland. Gregor has an excellent scrum- half in Bryan Redpath and a very good back row. He gets good, quick ball and he makes the most of it. He is a strong and quick runner and makes terrific breaks that his pack, in turn, can benefit from. If you analyse Scotland's tries, most of them come from the pack making the most of Gregor's ability to get beyond the gain line.

What makes Scotland hard to beat now is that their confidence is so high through knowing exactly what they are doing. The only way Wales or England willstop them is to prevent Townsend spearheading their attacks.

It isn't odd that England's outside-half Paul Grayson plays there in the Northampton team because he is the sort of player the English like in that position. He is first and foremost a kicker and a much better kicker out of his hand than Townsend. But if his kicking touch deserts him he is not a strong or creative enough runner to be able to make the most of other options. If England come out of their post-Twickenham huddle intent on being more expansive they'll have to look elsewhere for a stand-off who can produce a variety of plays.

Arwel Thomas has no trouble providing variety and in bewildering amounts. It is more than likely he'll keep his place for Wales against Scotland. Some might be tempted to bring the steadiness of Neil Jenkins back but I think Neil would be on a hiding to nothing if that happened and he doesn't deserve that. Everyone is so full of Arwel's performance against England that he has to be given another opportunity. He might even give Townsend something to worry about and the Scots have admitted that they don't know what to expect in Cardiff. Who does?

This is a new Welsh team feeling their way with a fresh and appealing attitude. Arwel's imagination will be essential again but sooner or later he'll be required to dictate matters more and keep the pressure on. I'd be the last to curb his instincts but he has to learn when to run and when not to. As I know only too well: everyone loves an arrogant fly-half but they soon belly-acheif you don't produce points.

The outside-half position in Ireland and France is far less promising. Thierry Lacroix was obviously uncomfortable at Murrayfield. He plays centre for his club and because he found it difficult to re-adjust the team struggled. Now the French have moved him back into the centre and pushed the Toulouse centre Thomas Castaignede to No 10. As they have also picked a new scrum- half in Guy Accoceberry, an immediate solution is unlikely.

Whether Ireland can take advantage in Paris depends on their own changes at stand-off. Eric Elwood has lost his place to the newcomer David Humphreys. Elwood is a good kicker who can run given the opportunity. He hasn't got blistering pace but he is very strong. One reason he didn't do very well against Scotland was that his pack didn't play up to expectations.

Humphreys, the London Irish outside-half, gets his chance after a good game for Ulster against New South Wales. He is another of the adventurous, quicksilver type and probably got the vote over Elwood because the Irish caught the "Arwel" bug. Whatever happens, the fortunes of the four 10s will have the main bearing on Saturday's outcomes.