The Rugby World Cup: Creative splendour on the grass

The Playmaker: Gregor Townsend of Scotland; Chris Rea hails the visionary talents of a reborn outside-half
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The Independent Online
THE SCOTTISH nation breathed a little more easily on Tuesday when the news came through that Gregor Townsend had survived his comeback match, and had scored a couple of tries into the bargain. If there is a Scotsman likely to make the composite team, so beloved of commentators, at the end of the World Cup it will be Townsend, whose full splendour as a player and whose wholehearted acceptance by public and selectors alike have been a long time in coming.

Before last season's Five Nations championship, there were those who would not have entertained him within 100 miles of the Scottish dressing- room. Full-back was as near to the action as he was allowed for the World Cup qualifying matches, and it was only because of a serious injury to Duncan Hodge that he was moved up to fly-half alongside the centre John Leslie. The meeting of minds was instantaneous.

In any design specification for the ideal fly-half, there have to be at least two basic requirements - consummate footballing skill and a brain that qualifies for rugby's equivalent of Mensa. This is the player, remember, responsible for shaping the game and dictating the play. No other individual on the field has such an opportunity to mould events to his own per- sonality. But the perfect 10 requires more than the coordination of hand, foot and eye and tactical awareness. Speed off the mark, courage, a whiff of arrogance and an acute understanding of others are equally desirable. While Townsend has all the ability he needs, it is the appreciation of those around him which has been hardest to learn. It is all very well to have vision, but if others are not able to share it it can never be realised.

Townsend, in common with the very best practitioners in sport, has always given the impression of having time and space to perform his art no matter how close to the gun barrel he operates. But too often he became isolated in a rarefied world of his own, and to the unpractised eye his boldness in running as close to the defensive ramparts as common sense and the opposition would permit was seen as reckless stupidity. Passes skimmed into thin air, kicks were a cock-eyed embarrassment, ground and points were lost.

During his three-year spell with Northampton there were two distinct Townsend camps - those who thought that he walked on water and those who wished that he would disappear under it. Ian McGeechan, his coach, stood four-square at the head of the group above the waterline.

He had recognised from an early stage in Townsend's development that he played the game on a higher plane than most, and that mistakes as much as miracles were always going to be part of the package. McGeechan encouraged him. "I told Gregor if he didn't make mistakes he wasn't making opportunities, that he was in the side to create chances." Admittedly, there were times when the error count reached epidemic proportions, causing apoplexy amongst those unable to share the same dimension of time and space.

All the while, however, Townsend's unorthodoxy and his powers of improvisation were testing and challenging his team-mates at Northampton, and although Townsend dep- arted for France before the full realisation of McGeechan's dream, the pieces were falling into place. By the time he left, Townsend was, in McGeechan's estimation, close to being the finished article. "He had reached maturity as a player and as a person in that his awareness of others was much sharper. By trying too much on his own he had not only opened himself up to criticism but put those around him in jeopardy, not through selfishness but as a result of his physical and mental agility."

The final polish to Townsend's game was applied during the Lions' tour to South Africa in 1997 when, for the first time, he was surrounded by players whose thought processes were, by and large, in tune with his own. With Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs completing the Lions' midfield it was a fusion of perception, pace and power, and yet it was the alliance, sadly short-lived, of Town-send and Will Greenwood which set McGeechan's pulse racing. "They played together in the first game of the tour against Eastern Province and I could see that there was an immediate rapport," he said.

This blend so early in the tour was unusual, and for McGeechan who, in addition to Guscott and Gibbs also had Allan Bateman at his disposal, it was a mighty bonus. Greenwood's tour was cruelly cut short by injury, and with it went the opportunity to develop the partnership. But Mc-Geechan saw the massive potential still to be released from Townsend.

Townsend is a player of his time, and whereas in the past the No 10 was seen as the outside partner to the scrum-half, the more natural alignment for the fly-half in the modern game is with his centres. When Hodge broke his leg in the match against Wales last season, Townsend moved up alongside Leslie and, as with Greenwood, fell into step with his centre from the start. If Townsend was the recipient of the awards and the most lavish praise for Scotland's champagne moments last season, it was Leslie who uncorked the bottle. For the first time Townsend had someone alongside who could help manage his game, and although Leslie perhaps couldn't act as quickly as his partner he could undoubtedly think at the same speed.

Furthermore, he was every bit as clear in his vision, with the result that the sublime moment when Town-send released Gavin Hastings up the middle of Parc des Princes with that sumptuously veiled pass for the winning try against France two years ago very nearly became commonplace last season.

Townsend could relax. Opponents could no longer afford to concentrate their fire on a lone target. Now the Scots must hope that, released from the burden of expectancy and refreshed by his break, Townsend will continue in the World Cup where he left off last season.

He will first have to resist the temptation to try everything at once. Having missed the last World Cup through injury he has waited a long time for this. Understandably he will be impatient to show off his shimmering skills, and he could wish for no better stage on which to do it.