Maverick and the rough diamond

Five Nations' Championship: Townsend's natural talent perplexes the Scots as England invest in Grayson's high promise
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The Independent Online
WE ARE reaching the time of year when that overused and terribly abused word, pressure, is being brought to bear on the country's coaches. For the fortunate few there will be the glamorously high-profile tilts at cups and championships, for others the grim and sometimes grisly business of avoiding relegation. For Ian McGeechan, however, coach of the all-con- quering Northampton side, there could be a very different kind of pressure in the weeks ahead.

Imagine if you will, the scene in McGeechan's office at Franklins Gardens as he prepares to take a call from his friend and erstwhile coaching colleague at Murrayfield, Jim Telfer.

"Compliments of the season, Jim. Terrific result in Dublin last Saturday, many congratulations."

"Aye, Geech - I dinna hold wi small talk. I'll come straight to the point. For the sake of Scotland I want you to play Gregor Townsend at stand-off. And while you are at it, can you promote Michael Dods to first-choice goal-kicker. He needs all the competitive match practice he can get."

"But Jim, I've got a stand-off and a front-line goal-kicker in Paul Grayson."

"Aye, Geech - as I was sayin', I dinna hold wi small talk. Cheerio, son."

If ever the day comes when McGeechan is confronted by that dilemma he will base his judgement on what is best for his club not his country. He has the greatest admiration for both Grayson and Townsend but is particularly proud of his achievements with Grayson who has emerged from a one-di- ensional hoofer into a thoroughly competent all-rounder. There are still rough edges and as yet there is scant evidence that he can launch his backs with any more panache than Rob Andrew. Nor as yet is his defence in the same class as his predecessor. But Grayson's was a mature and considered performance in Paris. The work of careful planning and diligent practice.

Townsend, on the other hand, is a natural, a complete stranger to coaching manuals and pre-deter- mined strategies. Magnificently entertaining one minute, maddening the next, which is why the Scots have for so long been thoroughly suspicious of him. Despite his contributions to the Scottish cause during the past couple of years many have yet to be convinced that he is unquestionably the brightest jewel in this year's championship. Splintered glass is more how they see him, a maverick and a liability.

But how the game yearns for more like him and how fortunate the Scots are to have unearthed yet another pair of high-class halves (Bryan Redpath is the other, of course) to follow Rutherford and Laidlaw, Chalmers and Armstrong. They have a decent back row too although not yet one to match the Leslie, Paxton and Jim Calder trio of 1984 or the Jeffrey, White and Finlay Calder combination of 1990.

Their problem against France at Murrayfield next Saturday will be the same one they had at Lansdowne Road but which they escaped without being punished for, namely the lack of genuine bulk up front. Unlike Ireland, France possess a beautifully balanced back row and none of the infuriating fickleness of Neil Francis at lock. It is fanciful perhaps but it would be nice to think that the Scots will give Townsend more creative support in midfield if only on the grounds that they cannot hope to compete in an attritional frontal battle with the French. But after last Saturday's result there will be fewer of us ready to write them off.

England's reaction to their defeat in Paris was as much one of relief as it was disappointment. There were indeed qualities to admire. Their defence both at close quarters and in the open was impregnable and seldom have the French failed so abjectly to manufacture scoring opportunities. Never did they seriously threaten England's try-line, hence the decision midway through the match to take pot-shots at goal from long range.

Much less satisfactory aspects of England's game were their line-out and scrummage, the two areas in which they have been the unchallenged masters of Europe. Not since the days of Roger Uttley, a one-man neighbourhood watch scheme, have England possessed a minder of world class stationed behind their principal jumper although they have fielded some fairly uncompromising characters. But last Saturday the French were given virtually free access to Martin Bayfield and without adequate line-out protection he was subjected to a fearful buffeting. If as seems likely, Steve Ojomoh is made the scapegoat for England's problem in that area one feels a certain sympathy for him. He is not a natural blind side and it is almost certain that Tim Rodber, irrespective of his current form but dependent on his recovery from injury, will be restored for the Welsh game.

At least the notion of the enterprise culture has finally bitten the dust. At Parc des Princes, England played down the narrowest of channels, their policy being one of containment from which they appear to have taken a large measure of contentment. They were aggrieved, justifiably, at the licence given to the French bovver boys in the line-out yet they themselves were guilty of blatant infringement of the offside law and every time Thierry Lacroix sent his spiralling kicks towards Mike Catt, England should have been penalised. Unashamedly, their retreating players formed an obstructive wall in front of the full-back although so unsure was Catt that, instead of being merely nuisance value in front of him, his colleagues should have been lining up behind him to clear up the spillage.

As for any verdict on England as an attacking force, it is not a case of the jury being out but of the jury not yet being selected. This, we are constantly being reminded, is a young team in transition and as such England have been consoling themselves that last Saturday represented a positive step forward rather than several negative steps backwards. Strange, isn't it, but the word transition is never one that is associated with New Zealand sides.

As for England's youthfulness, the average age of those who played in Paris was 26 which, coincidentally, was the same as the French, who are considered neither young nor in transition. Perhaps, to comply with the Trades Descriptions Act, that is why Jack Rowell has brought Paul Sampson into the squad. At least Sampson, unlike the other teenager in the news last week, has reached the age of consent.

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