Rugby Union: Townsend stands out as Scots' first choice

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NOT SINCE the halcyon era of Jim Renwick (1972-84) has a rugby talent such as that possessed by Gregor Townsend so captured the imagination north of the border.

Pundits are claiming that Townsend possesses the same instinctive flair that earned Renwick an unprecedented 52 Scotland caps and a global reputation in a team who won little except global praise for imaginative, off-the-cuff, back play. There is a touch of irony in the fact that Renwick played for Hawick whereas Townsend is a product of their border rivals, Gala.

Nevertheless at Murrayfield today such rivalries will be buried while the annual Scotland trial takes place with Townsend playing at stand-off in the senior Blues opposite the demoted Craig Chalmers. That Chalmers, widely regarded as less than match fit for Scotland against the All Blacks, is under pressure, there is no doubt, especially with the team manager, Duncan Paterson, calling for more vision and fewer up-and-unders in '94.

Townsend, 20, started 1993 as a great hope but after gaining a replacement cap against England, his confidence had disintegrated by the end of Scotland's disastrous World Sevens campaign. Rehabilitation came on the summer tour of the South Seas where one of the more appealing features was improved tackling, which Chalmers, among the bravest Scottish stand-offs in recent years, will presumably be keen to test out today.

Townsend's real renaissance, however, can be traced to a spell of club rugby in Australia, which concluded with the Warringah coach, Steve Lidbury, enthusing: 'Our style is based on running the ball and counter-attacking. Gregor took the bull by the horns and gained a string of man-of-the-match awards with his vision and smart ball skills. Scots will see a more complete player.'

Now recovered from a broken wrist which sidelined him during the All Blacks tour, Townsend returned to representative rugby for Scotland A against Ireland A last week and although he missed five penalty attempts, he made a good impression, not least on Paterson.

Afterwards, Paterson pointed to the fact that Townsend had not allowed kicking lapses to affect his overall display and the manager was particularly appreciative of the player's restraint. Paterson said: 'Gregor has stopped trying to break for the sake of breaking - he is a better player for responding to situations as they arise rather than trying to force it.'

Compared in the past with Jonathan Davies and Barry John, the level-headed Townsend is now 80 minutes away from inheriting the midfield mantle of Renwick. With due respect to Davies and John, in Scotland there is surely no higher praise than being considered worthy of filling Renwick's boots.