How Gregor became a single-handed hero : Gregor Townsend

Owen Slot meets a Scottish talent who became a centre of celebration
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WITH three minutes left on the clock at the Parc des Princes last Saturday, Gavin Hastings gathered his team together and delivered the following rallying cry: "Listen, all we need to do is score a try under the posts." And he then picked out the man most likely to answer his call: "OK, Gregor?"

Gregor Townsend, who had already scored a try, was distraught. Five minutes earlier he appeared to have handed France the match when he had kicked straight into the hands of Philippe Saint-Andr and seen the ball finish up over the Scottish try-line. "I was desperate to get my hands on the ball after that," he recalled. "But when we then won it, there was nothing much on. I managed to take out two defenders and I then heard Gavin screaming `Inside, inside'." With stunning dexterity, unsighted and falling mid- tackle, Townsend delivered what his captain had requested. A one-handed pass went to Hastings who was in under the posts.

Townsend, by all accounts, played a blinder at the post-match celebrations, too, so much so that he had to pull out of an appearance on Rugby Special the following day. This amused his team-mates among whom he is fondly regarded for his lateness, lack of common sense and, particularly, for forgetting his boots for the Wales match last year. "I've turned over a new leaf this season," he said. "I forgot my passport for France, but I at least gave myself enough time to go back for it."

He came back the toast of the nation, though there are those following his progress - Ian McGeechan and John Rutherford among them - who are surprised that, despite being only 21, it took him so long. Many carry a memory of the day they realised his potential. McGeechan: "It was early in his first senior season for Gala, against Boroughmuir. That broken- field running made him stand apart. He was just tearing his opponent apart." Rutherford: "Quarter-final of the Student World Cup in Italy in 1992.

He scored the most fantastic try from a set piece, 35 metres out, beat four players. Everybody who saw it just thought `Crikey'."

Rutherford has compared Townsend to Jonathan Davies in the past. "He hasn't got the same sidestep," he said. "But there's that same searing acceleration, a really good eye for the gap and he's fearless when going for it. That's what I like about him - he'll do it from anywhere." The trouble with Townsend, in his past internationals, is that he wouldn't. Last year, in his first full Five Nations season, he was all too aware of the possible consequences of his high-risk game and so he simply shackled it.

"I always took the safety-first option last year," he said. "I was maybe thinking `I have to do the right thing to stay in the team,' whereas at club level that never comes into it. At times there may have been a half opening, but I went on through with the pass." He reached his nadir in the first Test of the summer tour of Argentina after which he was singled out for public criticism by both coach and manager.

So how did he transform his game? He attributes it partly to a positional change: he has been moved this season from stand-off to centre where he is out of his natural position but is freed of the decision-making responsibilities that burdened him before. He also relates it to a transformation of the whole back division: "I don't think Scottish back play has been that great for two or three years. But now they've picked all these guys with pace [notably the wingers Kenny Logan and Craig Joiner] and we have the confidence to move it. On Saturday we ran it on most occasions and the gaps were there." The result is that Scotland are now unlikely Grand Slam contenders - "and we'd have been happy with two wins from four at the beginning".

All of which explains why Townsend has become such a sought-after commodity in England. This summer, he will complete his history and politics degree at Edinburgh University and will be looking for a job in corporate finance in London. London Scottish got wind of this first and recruited him; Ian McGeechan soon heard and persuaded him to go to Northampton instead; West Hartlepool were interested, but too late.

He will thus join what is becoming known in Scotland as "The Brawn Drain". West Hartlepool alone have signed Derek Stark, Shade Munro and Rowan Shepherd, and Michael Dods and Chris Dalgleish could follow Townsend south, depriving Gala of three of their best. "It is undoubtedly a higher level of rugby," he says. "Last year selectors refrained from discouraging people moving, but they are panicking a bit now. They realise that if a lot more go, the club system here will cease to work."

Townsend has misgivings about leaving Gala. His father was a prolific points-scorer for the club and he himself made his way through the junior teams. Even with him, Gala are struggling to stay in Division One. The Borders public expect loyalty from their players (he recently received a poem from a 13-year-old girl asking him not to go) and Peter Dods, the coach, has threatened to resign if players continue to desert him. However, having made numerous improvements to his game during a summer season in Australia in 1993, Townsend is convinced that a stint down south - especially with McGeechan - will have the same effect.

Meanwhile, there is the small matter of that degree. Last Monday, his health finally recovered, he sat down to do some reading for his dissertation, "Scotland's position in Europe". He may find himself playing an active role in the matter.