Rugby Union / Five Nations Countdown: Townsend's sprint into pole position: Scotland's new stand-off has already drawn flattering comparisons. Steve Bale reports

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IF EVER there was a hostage to fortune it was the ultimate compliment which John Rutherford paid Gregor Townsend a couple of years ago: 'the next Jonathan Davies'.

Davies's tries for Warrington last weekend showed what rugby union has lost and young Gregor from Galashiels has to live up to.

At 20, an age when Rutherford was still four years away from his first cap, Townsend is the new Scotland stand-off against England in Saturday's Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield and he is not at all overawed to be placed in the company of an angel such as Davies.

'That was in a newspaper article and, to be honest, I don't really pay much attention to the press and in any case when John said that, I wasn't playing very well at all,' said the quietly spoken Borderer. 'I felt really flattered but I didn't deserve it at the time. But I often think about Jonathan Davies's try against Scotland in 1988 when he chipped and chased. I'm always dreaming of scoring a try like that, and against England would be the perfect moment to do it.'

Davies was a fleeting Welsh talent who took the rugby league shilling in 1989 and would by then already have been one of the all- time union greats if he had been surrounded by players as good as those who accompanied the likes of Barry John and Phil Bennett. So Rutherford's praise is high.

And Rutherford is Scotland's most-capped outside-half, a definitive player of the Eighties who has seen, or even overseen, Townsend's development at close hand as coach of Scottish Students and the South district team. They used to have drop-kicking competitions after training and when Townsend won them, Rutherford would complain that his dodgy knee was playing up.

The very fact that Townsend has ousted the 1989 Lion, Craig Chalmers, from the team to play England speaks volumes. 'We shouldn't forget Craig, who is probably a more accomplished player than Gregor, but Gregor is more

exciting and the Scottish supporters need someone like him in the team and he has something Craig hasn't got,' Rutherford said. 'Things start happening. You have to accept he will make mistakes, but you will get two or three plays during every game that are real copybook.'

All of which means Rutherford has never for a moment regretted likening Townsend to Jonathan Davies. 'He has the potential, I can tell you,' Rutherford said. 'I played against Jonathan and I've worked with Gregor; there are a lot of similarities between them.

'They both have terrific acceleration. They are flair players, not content to go through the game just doing the basics. Gregor has skills you can never teach, he has a very good attitude and a real love of the game. What's more, he is much more physically developed than I was at his age and has obviously worked very hard.'

Townsend gave a rain-sodden glimpse of his potential after Chalmers had gone off in Scotland's heavy defeat by Wales last month. Ultimately it made no difference but, moved from centre to stand-off, for a while Townsend

injected pace and straightened the Scots back line in a way the struggling Chalmers had never managed.

A glimpse of things to come? 'The fact is that I feel a lot more comfortable when I get a lot more ball,' he said. 'Stand-off is where I always prefer to play but I don't mind as long as the ball comes my way. I spent last summer in Australia (with Warringah, a leading Sydney club) playing at centre and got it all the time.'

Trying to live up to Rutherford's prediction has not been made easier by the Scottish selectors' insistence on playing him out of position. Of Townsend's five A / B caps, four have been at centre, and when he

replaced Chalmers at Twickenham last season he went to centre while Graham Shiel moved to stand-off.

His second cap - in Cardiff - was at centre and if 20 seems a mite young to be assuming heavy responsibilities, Townsend is only too glad to do so if he is playing where he likes it best. Particularly since the return of Gary ('I'm not Superman') Armstrong unavoidably means some of the pressure is lifted from Townsend.

He said: 'The selection of Gary has taken the weight off my shoulders and they will expect good things from him rather than me.' This is debatable because, though it is undoubtedly true that Armstrong will be expected to perform, Townsend will not be excused expectation either.

'It will be marvellous to play with him on the big stage because if ever there was a scrum-half who protected his stand-off it's Gary. He doesn't give bad ball but takes the responsibility on himself if there's any doubt. I've never played with him before but it should be an experience to savour.'

Townsend is a student of politics and history at the University of Edinburgh, which may or may not give him an adequate perspective of his worth to Scotland. The autumn was difficult for him after breaking a wrist in Gala's second League match but even more so for the Scotland team, who were laid waste by the All Blacks.

The result - 51-15 - showed it to be a good one to miss and almost as soon as Townsend was fit for club rugby he was back in the Scotland A side, the trial and finally the team to play Wales. But if the England match marks the ultimate fulfilment, it is also the point at which the Chalmers fightback begins.

'Craig has been bothered by some injuries and it's affected his form,' the charitable Townsend recognised. 'He'll be fighting to get back in.' This, Rutherford adds, is a competitive situation the Scots would dearly like in every position.

'Gregor openly admits he's not the complete article yet but you can't take your eye off a player like that. You can't miss a tackle

because if you do with a guy with that sort of acceleration you're looking at a score against you.

'When Craig is back to fitness and form it is going to be a ticklish choice, but this is what you want really for all 15 positions because there is nothing makes you play like having someone breathing down your neck. An embarrassment of riches . . . I can only see it being for the good.'

Just as it apparently is for this game, England's odds may be short but Scots are infinitely happier with this selectorial choice than they were with the one who lost 29-6 to Wales. 'I feel everyone in our back division must offer a threat or else it's very easy to defend against,' Rutherford said.

'Now we have Gary and the English back row will have to watch him. Then we have Gregor and they have to watch him. That creates space for the guys outside, whereas in the last couple of games there's been nothing happening in that area.' Never mind England as favourites, this is even beginning to sound promising . . .

(Photograph omitted)