Record-breaker Gregor craves a place of his own

Scotland's most capped player still cannot nail down his position. Simon Turnbull speaks to him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was on 6 March 1993 that Gregor Townsend won his first cap for Scotland. "It feels like a long time ago, especially when I see it on tape," the Castres stand-off said, casting his mind back to the centenary Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham. "It doesn't feel like the same player."

The Tintin tuft of hair has long since gone, together with the callowness of youth, yet some things have never changed for the cause célèbre of Scottish rugby. Though he got his international break as a replacement for Craig Chalmers, it was into the inside-centre position that Townsend settled in that 26-12 defeat. At 19, he had already been hailed as Scotland's answer to Jonathan Davies, but it was Graham Shiel who assumed the reins at outside-half when Chalmers departed with a fractured arm midway through the first half. Nine years on, as he stands on the threshold of a record 66th cap for his country, Townsend is still trying to make the Scottish stand-off berth his own.

In the wake of Scotland's spirited but ultimately offensively blunt 22-10 defeat against the French at Murrayfield eight days ago, there have been renewed calls for the Galashiels man to vacate the No 10 jersey he reclaimed from Duncan Hodge just three games ago. One of the leading voices has been that of Gavin Hastings, whose brother's Scottish international appearance record Townsend equalled against France. He wants to see his old team-mate break Scott's Scotland record outright in Cardiff next Saturday – but as an inside-centre, playing outside Chris Paterson.

Townsend has heard it all before, of course – and so has Ian McGeechan. It was the Scotland coach who gave Townsend his debut as a teenager, in the final match of his first spell in charge of the Scottish national side. It was also McGeechan who picked him as the number one No 10 for the victorious British Lions in South Africa in 1997, and who picked him as a No 12, playing outside Paul Grayson, for Northampton the very same season. When announcing his squad for the Wales game, on Wednesday last week, McGeechan conceded that Townsend – whom he has always coveted as "a gem of a talent" – was not guaranteed to remain as Scotland's stand-off beyond the trip to Cardiff.

Townsend has always seen himself as an outside-half – "I've got no doubt I'm most effective there" – yet he has only won won 39 of his 65 caps in his favoured position. He has stood out most distinctively at stand-off when dining off Bryan Redpath's silver-platter service in 1996 and when John Leslie was at his sharpest as second five-eighth foil in Scotland's 1999 championship-winning season.

His finest moment in a Scotland shirt, however, has undoubtedly been the sublime flicked reverse pass which unlocked the French defence for Gavin Hastings' clinching try in Paris in 1995 – and he was playing at outside-centre that day, along the line from Chalmers and Ian Jardine.

Where Townsend might be playing next season is the subject of more than one debate. His two-year contract with Castres ends in the summer, and there have been reports that he will return to Northampton, and that he will return home to Galashiels, where the new Scottish Borders team will be based.

"I've honestly got nothing decided yet," Townsend insisted. "I'll hopefully decide by the middle of August."

In the meantime, the Borderer has a Heineken Cup semi-final to look forward to with Castres – against Munster in Beziers next month – and, of course, a 66th cap for Scotland in Cardiff. At just 28, he could possibly get close to a century of international appearances. Townsend, however, maintained: "I'm not thinking that at all. I don't know whether my body would stand up.

"I think all the players who have been playing for the past five or six years would love it if there were fewer games in a season. You simply can't play 10 internationals and 30 other games at that level. It's getting too much, and if it continues I can't see myself playing until I'm 32 or 33."

A month short of his 29th birthday, Gregor Peter John Townsend has, nevertheless, racked up considerably more international appearances than the outstanding outside-half who stole the show the day he made his bow in the senior Scotland side.

Stuart Barnes was winning his ninth cap in nine years when he made the blinding break from deep that set up Rory Underwood – via Jeremy Guscott – for one of Twickenham's all-time great tries. He only won one more before he was consigned to the international scrapheap for good.

At stand-off or at centre, at least Scotland have made better use of their own mercurial misfit.