Townsend takes over the torch

Tim Glover on the Scotland stand-off hailed as the 'next Jonathan Davies'
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The Independent Online
The debate north of the border centres on why Craig Chalmers, the World Cup stand-off, is replaced by Gregor Townsend, ostensibly a centre, for the difficult opening match against Ireland in Dublin. South of the border it is not a question that concerns either Townsend or his coach, Ian McGeechan.

In fact, Townsend has played most of his rugby at stand-off, it is his favourite position and he would be occupying it at Northampton but for the presence of Paul Grayson. In any case, Townsend does not believe in strict lines of demarcation. "If you're quick, you should be able to play in any position in the backs," he said. "The game should be more like football. You don't have to stick to one position."

The Saints will march straight back into the First Division this year and, under McGeechan, have been playing with such elan that the careers of Townsend, Grayson and others have been enhanced.

"When I joined Northampton," Townsend said, "I asked Ian where he thought I should be playing. He said it was up to me. I have no qualms about playing centre. I've enjoyed it and Paul and I share the decision making." It should make for an interesting stand off if Townsend faces Grayson in the Scotland-England match at Murrayfield.

Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists have come up with an interesting idea for the omission of Chalmers and the wing Kenny Logan - they both have newspaper columns in Scotland and, professional or no, the feeling is that such an enterprise goes against the grain of the Scottish Rugby Union.

The explanation from the coaches is: don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. The official line is that the midfield trio of Townsend, Scott Hastings and Ian Jardine provides a balance of attack and defence, a balance which would be upset if the midfield included both Chalmers and Townsend. As for Michael Dods, Logan's replacement, he can kick goals.

Full-back Rowen Shepherd (he has played stand-off and centre) missed a whole flock of kicks in the recent defeat against Italy, who outscored Scotland four to one in tries. "That was not as disappointing as the result suggests," Townsend said. "It was an experimental match for us. There were certain things we tried, others we didn't. I would have been very disappointed not to have been given another chance. We could have been 26-0 up had we kicked our goals. I think Italy are good enough to be in the championship but if we met them in that it would be a different story."

At the age of 22 Townsend has already run the gamut between triumph and despair. Last season, for example, he scored a try against France, contributed (by missing touch) to what appeared to be the winning score by Philippe Saint-Andre and then slipped a sublime pass to Gavin Hastings for Scotland's first win in Paris for 26 years.

In his final club game of the season Townsend, who has a history of injuries, tore the cruciate ligaments in his left knee and while Scotland were performing in the World Cup in South Africa he was undergoing 14 weeks of physiotherapy. He was in his final year studying politics at Edinburgh University and put the time to good use by passing his exams. He also confirmed his fitness by playing eight games in Australia for Warringah.

From the age of five Townsend, whose father Peter had been a useful centre, played mini rugby for Gala and by 17 was a fixture in the first XV. The last of the gala dinners came last year when he became part of a graduate training scheme with the Royal Bank of Scotland in London. He considered London Scottish but Northampton had McGeechan. When the clubs met earlier this season Townsend scored three tries against the Exiles.

"Whereas rugby in Scotland is based more on a quasi-New Zealand system," Townsend said, "England pump everything into the clubs. They are more professionally run, on the lines of a business and are geared to winning. It's enjoyable but I always see myself going back to Gala, perhaps in a year or two. I'm still learning and improving and when I go back it will be as a better player." Perhaps his father, to whom he sends a video of every match, will be the judge of that.

Two years ago, when Scotland drew 6-6 at Lansdowne Road, Townsend, at stand-off, kicked the ball 11 times, passed it seven and ran with it once. "Craig had been dropped for the first time and instead of thinking about playing my own game I was thinking about not making mistakes. I never tried things, I played safe. I'm glad I've gone through that experience."

Townsend, once described by John Rutherford as the next Jonathan Davies, has sharpened his skills at Northampton, albeit in the Second Division. "He has the ability to beat players at whatever level and in any space," McGeechan, who is still involved in coaching development with the SRU, said. "Like all good players he has time on the ball and can leave his decisions until very late. That poses problems for a defence. He is now very consistent, very focused and can manipulate a game. He is a real threat."