Rugby Union: Runner Townsend to blunt the blade

The Lions' attacking genius faces a Springbok made of granite in today's First Test. Chris Hewett talked to him
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Henry Honiball versus Gregor Townsend, the Blade against the Runner. Two very different outside-halves will stare into the whites of each other's eyes across the half-way line in Cape Town today and embark on a private, personal battle that stands head and shoulders above any other as a microcosm of the Springbok-Lion conflict.

Honiball is lean and mean, a leggy 800-metre type armed with a granite physique and a passion for tackling that borders on the sado-masochistic. Townsend possesses a sprinter's pace linked directly to a generous supply of grey matter. It will be one or the other today, for Newlands is nowhere near big enough for both of them.

Fully aware of Honiball's ultra-direct approach to the stand-off's art, the Lions are backing Townsend's delicate soft-shoe-shuffle style to the hilt. In a sense, the tourists' entire game plan is built around the Scotsman's attacking gifts - the sharp wits and broad vision that give him an instinctive appreciation of where and how an opposition defensive line can be breached. As Eastern Province, Western Province, Natal and even Northern Transvaal, the sole conquerors of the Lions thus far, have discovered to their cost, Townsend can pick locks and pockets simultaneously.

Yet when the force is not with him, he can disappear up the blindest of alleys, the most obvious of cul-de-sacs. An exhilarating success with Scotland in the 1996 Five Nations' Championship, when his shimmering brilliance took them to within 80 minutes of a wholly unexpected Grand Slam, Townsend suffered all manner of trials and tribulations in this year's tournament, notably against England at Twickenham.

"It was the only Five Nations game I played at stand-off last season and, looking back, I think all the chopping and changing was part of my problem," said the 24-year-old from Edinburgh. "In '96 I had the perfect arrangement: although I was playing at centre for Northampton and outside- half for Scotland, the two positions were fairly constant and I knew what was expected of me from week to week.

"Last season I played three different positions and was moved around at the drop of a hat and it had a negative effect. My form dipped - in fact, it went up and down like a yo-yo - and I ended up trying to force a few things in big matches that perhaps I should have left alone."

For all that, Townsend was never anything other than a stone-cold certainty for this tour; indeed, the Lions' management were so determined to see him in the red No 10 shirt that they were prepared to perform all manner of selectorial somersaults on the goalkicking front to accommodate him. So far their efforts have paid rich dividends.

Townsend's electric midfield partnership with Jeremy Guscott has been the primary shock to the Springbok system over the past five weeks and with the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill also beginning to play off his unorthodox lines of running, the quietly spoken Scot has emerged as a string-puller of breathtaking dexterity.

Sadly, the premature departure of Rob Howley after last week's game in Durban deprived the Lions of their optimum half-back axis. Townsend renews relations today with his Northampton clubmate Matt Dawson, and his ability to weave those inimitable patterns outside a functionally effective scrum- half rather than one touched with genius will be fundamental to the outcome of the opening Test.

"I feel desperately sorry for Rob because I know how hard he worked and how much this tour meant to him, but I'm very familiar with Matt's style and I'm sure we can make it happen," Townsend said. "Matt is a very different player to Rob. He is direct, physical, puts in more than his fair share of tackles, sees gaps very tight in and is prepared to go right through the opposition forwards in pursuit of those gaps. Rob prefers to break off the fringes while Matt takes the shortest route. It will be a matter of adjustment, that's all.

"When you come to think of it, adjustments have been going on all tour because in many ways we're playing a game that was entirely alien to us when we first met up. We still kick the ball an awful lot back home, but there is absolutely no point in doing that here because Super 12 rugby and the various law alterations have changed things. Kick the ball away against South African sides and you simply find their deep-lying wings running it back at you.

"If people are still waiting for us to revert to old habits, they'll wait a long time. We have thrashed out a game plan and we're sticking to it, even in the Tests. We'll need skill and patience to make it work - we may need to recycle the ball nine or 10 times before we can break down the Springbok defence - but those are the demands we've put on ourselves."

So what of Honiball, the "Blade"? Townsend smiles. "I've seen a lot of him on video over the last few days - an awful lot, actually - and he's a formidable player, as are all the Springboks. South Africa probably possess the best back-line defence in world rugby and Honiball is a big part of that. "I've seen him tackle Jonah Lomu and tackle him fairly easily so he obviously means it when he hits you, but there is more to him than that. He's a good ball-player, too. It should be interesting."

Interesting? Compelling, more like. As Honiball himself said yesterday: "Our defence will be critical to the outcome and I won't be doing anything different to the way I usually play the game. I don't think the management would want me to. They selected me for the Test; there was no proviso, simply a vote of confidence in what I do best." As Townsend has a similar brief and an equally firm vote of confidence from the Lions, something has to give.