Rugby Union: Townsend the Brive rides again

Scotland's swashbuckling stand-off has heeded his French lessons and is hoping to turn them on the hosts at Stade de France. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
CONTRARY TO popular opinion in some of the more one-eyed rugby outposts of the British isles - Pontypridd springs instantly to mind, thanks to that notoriously lively night in Le Bar Toulzac some 19 months ago - the small French town of Brive is not a no-go area for those possessing a cell or two of Celtic blood in their veins. In fact, the respectable burghers of the Correze are really quite keen on the polite, quietly-spoken Scotsman who has taken possession of a tasty little pied-a-terre overlooking the market square for the duration of his stay with the local side.

Whether the Brivistes will still feel like clutching Gregor Townsend to the communal breast this time next week rather depends on what happens in St-Denis on Saturday. Should Scotland achieve a second springtime victory in Paris in the space of four years to complete an unexpectedly meaningful challenge for the Five Nations title, Townsend will no doubt be on the receiving end of the odd Gallic barb. Moreover, if the most imaginative British stand-off of the decade should add insult to injury by winning his one-on-one battle of wits with Thomas Castaignede, the bottle-blond darling of the Tricolore aristocracy, he could find his next helping of truffle soup spiked with something nasty.

On the other hand, it may well be that Townsend will continue to be lionised by all who spend their Sunday afternoons at the Parc Municipal des Sports, irrespective of events at the Stade de France. Brive, the 1997 European champions and beaten finalists a year later, have come alive again after a distinctly rough spell in domestic competition and, according to the locals, the resurrection is not unconnected to the fact that their Scottish import has started to play.

And when Townsend plays, fairly average back divisions tend to perform above their station. Not that the Brive back-line could be described as average - not with Philippe Carbonneau and Lisandro Arbizu sandwiching the outside-half from Edinburgh, and David Venditti, Pascal Bomati, Sebastien Carrat and Christophe Lamaison prowling the wide open prairies. No, it is Scotland's bread-and-butter back division that the maestro has pulled, pushed and prodded into the stratosphere over the past nine weeks or so. And to think, Jim Telfer was planning to make a full-back of him! People have been burned at the stake for lesser heresies.

Typically, Townsend deflects much of the praise in the direction of his new straight man, John Leslie, an apparently inexhaustible repository of New Zealand know-how who has tightened Scotland's midfield act to tourniquet level. "Oh yes, he's good," says the No 10 of his No 12. "John is the sort of player who makes a stand-off feel good about himself, just by being there outside him. He's always desperate for the ball, which suits me fine because I always want to do something with the ball once we've won it. He never hides and he never drops you in it. If something goes wrong, or you've made a bad call, he'll take the ball up, protect it in contact and give you the chance to start over. He's such a mature player and some of that maturity has rubbed off on me, I think."

If there is one allegation Townsend's critics have seldom hesitated to throw in his face, it is one of immaturity. Not, of course, immaturity in the Gazza sense - during the 1997 Lions tour, to which he contributed immeasurably more than he was given credit for, he did not touch a drop until the series was won - but in his reluctance to cut his coat to suit the available cloth. Too often, according to the nay-sayers, his ideas fizzle into nothing; there are no percentages to his play, no steady hand on the tiller, no discipline. In other words, he should be far more boring.

It will never be Townsend's way, thank the Lord. Ian McGeechan, who coached him at club level last season and also picked him ahead of Neil Jenkins as the Lions' stand-off in South Africa, is fond of saying that "Gregor's thought processes are a yard quicker than everyone else's". That should be read as praise, not criticism. McGeechan, a big Townsend supporter, did not get to coach three Lions parties by asking his best players to be less inspired.

Yet Townsend is not always so full of self-confidence as his brilliance would suggest. "That Lions tour was very important to me because I needed to prove to myself that I could play 10 at the very top level. It's where I most enjoy playing, always have done, but for various reasons, I haven't always been picked there. I find I need to convince myself over and over again, especially when I've spent a fair bit of time playing in a different position.

"When things went well for me on Scotland's tour of Australia last summer, I thought I might be in for the long run. But I popped a shoulder a few weeks after moving to Brive and when Scotland came to play the Maoris at Murrayfield before Christmas it was only my second game back. I had a rough afternoon and Jim dropped me for the Springbok Test. It happens. I was back for the start of the Five Nations, though, albeit at centre. That pleased me. I love being a part of the championship."

Duncan Hodge's injury midway through the opening game with Wales at Murrayfield forced Telfer into making policy on the hoof and the old curmudgeon's instincts proved sound. Townsend slotted into the fulcrum position, Alan Tait went from bench to outside centre, the Scots threequarter line started to crackle and, suddenly, heaven was a place on the outskirts of Edinburgh. They have barely taken a backward glance since; even though they allowed England to sneak a win at Twickenham a fortnight later, they claimed a moral victory.

"A missed opportunity, for sure," says Townsend, a try-scorer that day. "We had that English defence at sixes and sevens, especially after half- time, and I don't think anyone would have been too outraged had we gone on to win the match. We're still making the breaks - we made them against Italy and also against the Irish - but we're more confident now, more aware of our own ability. If we'd been that little bit more aware at Twickenham, we could be chasing a Slam this weekend.

"We'll take a good deal out of this tournament, though, regardless of the result this weekend; after all, we've had to play the whole thing without Bryan Redpath, our captain before Christmas, and a lot of it without Doddie Weir. When you add Jamie Mayer, Matt Proudfoot and Gordon Simpson to the unavailables, we look pretty strong going into the World Cup. Those of us who are in the starting line-up now are going to have to sweat for our places, which is ideal from Jim's point of view."

Quite where Townsend will play his rugby after this autumn's showpiece tournament remains unclear: he has an option for another season with Brive, but he may indulge his wanderlust once more and look to broaden his rugby education - and his life in general - elsewhere. "I'm loving Brive, now that I've found my feet and learned some of the language," he says. "Just as importantly, the domestic championship has really taken off these last few weeks. I found the club game here a little flat at first, but since we reached the last 16 stage, all the colour and buzz you associate with French rugby has appeared. The whole town came out for a recent game with Montferrand and it was exactly what I came to experience.

"Still, there are other things I want to do. Super 12 rugby down in the southern hemisphere fascinates me; I'd love to give that a whirl some day.

"At the same time, the Allied Dunbar Premiership is going from strength to strength and, with the English clubs back in Europe, there will be a lot going on at home next season. I don't really have any master plan. I want to be challenged and I want to try new things. That's all."

It is a stone cold certainty that Townsend will try new things at the Stade de France on Saturday afternoon and that his duel with Castaignede will tickle the fancy of every aficionado in town. If, as in 1996, Townsend makes this championship his own, the most adventurous rugby spirit of the age will surely win over all those critics who live their lives a yard off the pace.