Rugby Union: Townsend shifts the accent

Paul Trow finds that a desire for foreign development is behind a surprise move
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The Independent Online
THE NEWS came like a bolt from the red, white and blue - Gregor Townsend is off to the land of the Tricolores. Last week's annoucement that the Scotland and Lions fly-half is to switch allegiance from Northampton, the club he joined after leaving Gala in 1995, to Brive in the south of France caught many rugby folk unaware.

But 25-year-old Townsend insists the decision was not only logical at this stage in his career, but one he had planned for some time. "I always fancied playing in France. Spending two seasons in Australia - 1993 and 1995 - gave me a taste for life in a different country," said Townsend, currently with the Scotland squad whose southern-hemisphere tour kicks off on Tuesday with a Test against Fiji.

"My contract with Northampton was up at the end of last season and moving to France fitted in with my plans. I'd been thinking about it for a while and felt I needed a new challenge. I went there three weeks ago to finalise the deal but I hadn't really met their players before.

"Brive is a great club, very professional. Even though it looks as though they haven't qualified for Europe - they should certainly be there after being runners-up this season - the ultimate reason for going is to improve my game.

"But it also gives me an opportunity to learn a different language and culture. I understand quite a bit of French but my accent's horrendous. I shared a flat with Abdel Benazzi when we played for the same Australian club in 1995 so I can speak a little. I should pick it up fairly quickly at Brive - they reckon it will only take two months of training and living there."

Since delivering the inspirational flip-pass which famously released Gavin Hastings for Scotland's match-winning try against France in Paris three years ago, Townsend has been regarded almost as an honorary Frenchman by Gallic rugby enthusiasts.

The admiration is mutual. "The angles and lines which French backs run are very imaginative," Townsend said. "The Australians are the slickest handlers in the game and the French are very similar. They like to use all 15 men and play really exciting rugby."

Townsend, who has been capped 32 times by Scotland since making his debut while still a teenager in 1993, and now jointly owns an Edinburgh sports cafe named, appropriately, "Threequarters" with his fellow Scottish internationals Rowen Shepherd and Derrick Stark, is particularly excited about the prospect of becoming a first-choice club fly-half after playing outside Paul Grayson for most of his time at Franklins Gardens.

"Alain Penaud has left Brive for Saracens and they are keen for me to play stand-off. That's where I want to play and I think it's my best position. I've been there most of my career and only recently played at centre or full-back. I asked myself what position I am and the answer, especially after six or seven games for the Lions, was fly-half. I missed the World Cup in 1995 [with a cruciate ligament injury] but the Lions tour last year was a great experience. It has made me hungry for next year's World Cup."

With Christophe Lamaison likely to continue shouldering the place-kicking duties at Brive, the possibility still exists that Scotland will again select him at centre next season to accommodate Craig Chalmers or another specialist hoofer at No. 10. "The ball's in my court - I'll have to play so well for Brive at fly-half that it will be impossible to keep me out."

Despite his obvious reservations about their use of him, Townsend, who marries his law student fiancee, Claire, in July, has a soft spot for the Saints. "I had an enjoyable time at Northampton," he said. "They tried to stop me from going, but when they realised I'd made my mind up they were very good about it. I think they always knew I'd go eventually, but they wanted me to stay for one more season. My last game for them was quite emotional.

"We finished eighth in the League, the same as last season, but we played a lot better this time. Losing our cup semi-final knocked the stuffing out of us - we lost our next four league games. The players' minds were on other things. Once we'd heard that the top four teams wouldn't be playing in next season's European Cup, that took away some of the incentive.

"But Ian McGeechan is the best coach I've ever worked with and I go to France with his blessing. I spoke to Jim Telfer [Scotland's director of rugby] about what I wanted to do before our Five Nations match against Ireland in February, and he encouraged me to go for it."