Travelling enhances Townsend's reputation

Rugby World Cup: Scottish stand-off builds case for fast ball and sound discipline to create chances against erratic France

Gregor Townsend has been renewing old acquaintances while preparing for Scotland's intriguing encounter with France here today. To dismiss Townsend as a journeyman would be like describing Captain Cook as an old sea salt. He is one of rugby's great travellers.

At the age of 30, Townsend, Scotland's most capped player, makes his 80th appearance in an international career that started 10 years ago. For the past week here he could have given his younger team-mates a guided tour of the city.

Townsend, a graduate in history and politics, left his native Edinburgh to enhance his geography with spells at the Warringah club in Manley in 1993 and 1995. "It really improved my game,'' he said. "Small breaks like that every three or four years does you the world of good. I also had a good time socially. In a way it's a pity the game went professional. There again, we're getting paid. I've got some great memories of the place and I'm hoping to add to them.''

Townsend was as comfortable in Sydney talking to French journalists as he was to the Scottish press corps. After he was reunited with the Scotland coach, Ian McGeechan, at Northampton Saints, he again broadened his horizons, leaving the English Premiership for France where he joined Brive and then Castres.

"It was a fascinating experience,'' he said. "Apart from learning a new language, I discovered so much about France and French rugby. It just all added to the broader picture.'' Last year, he was enticed back home after being offered a contract with Scotland's third professional outfit, the Borders.

A gifted, unpredictable stand-off who was often switched to centre, Townsend was seen at his brilliant best when he played a leading role in the British Isles Test series victory, under the guiding hand of McGeechan, in South Africa in 1997.

When he took over Scotland's goal-kicking duty three years ago, he set a new individual record, scoring 33 points against the United States at Murrayfield. A notable milestone had already been achieved when he scored a try in each match of the 1999 international championship, only the second Scot to do so.

Townsend MBE, who missed out on the Lions' tour to Australia in 2001, is playing in his last World Cup and finds himself surrounded by a younger generation headed by Chris Paterson, perhaps the most exciting player to emerge from Scotland since Andy Irvine.

Paterson, like Townsend, is a product of Galashiels Academy. He started his rugby career as a No 10 but McGeechan plays him at full-back or wing, where his pace is a key ingredient in Scotland's attempt to play an expansive game. Paterson may yet find himself inheriting Townsend's jersey.

In the meantime, Townsend, who has made a remarkable recovery from a knee operation performed only a month ago, today finds himself opposite a player 10 years his junior in Frédéric Michalak. With 50 points, Michalak is the tournament's leading scorer, although Paterson's 34 points in two games has helped Scotland to match France in bonus points at the top of Pool B.

In their opening match against Japan in Townsville, the flower of Scotland was not entirely convincing against the Cherry Blossoms and the same can be said of last Monday's victory over the United States, but they remain on course for a place in the quarter-finals.

Neither Japan nor the Americans are pushovers in a competitive group that also included Fiji. "Japan caused us a lot of problems in the contact areas,'' Townsend said. "They stopped us at source, which surprised us. The thing is, we got maximum points, which is what we set out for. France had a reputation for giving away a lot of penalties. In French club rugby they would do silly things like the scrum-half falling offside at the scrum, but look at our disciplinary record in this tournament and, compared to the French, it doesn't look too great.''

Scotland, already depleted in the back row, lost the flanker Martin Leslie to a 12-week ban when the commissioner, John West, rejected his plea of not guilty to kneeing the United States centre Jason Keyter in the head. The Scots had already been deprived of Andrew Mower to injury and his replacement, Cameron Mather, steps up against France.

As for Townsend, McGeechan went out of his way to give him a vote of confidence. "Gregor's very focussed on his game. We've been working hard to try to make him a better player in certain areas and he's taken it on board. He's enjoying his responsibilities.''