Why Townsend is a godsend

Chris Hewett predicts the Lions' share for Scotland's dashing young hero
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GREGOR TOWNSEND is far too preoccupied with Grand Slams and Triple Crowns to waste valuable time thinking about next year's British Lions' tour of South Africa. But the Springboks may well be thinking about him.

Two Five Nations' performances of breathtaking dash and adventure in the space of a fortnight have established Scotland's self-assured young maestro as a clear favourite to succeed his countrymen John Rutherford and Craig Chalmers as a Test Lion. But while his fly-half predecessors slipped in through the side entrance - Rutherford faced New Zealand as a centre in 1983 while Chalmers's big moment against Australia six years later came as a direct result of an injury to Ireland's Paul Dean - Townsend is marching straight up the garden path and kicking down the front door.

The way the current championship is panning out, it will be a real turn- up if Townsend does not drag his scrum-half partner, Bryan Redpath, along with him. Their imaginative partnership at the heels of a spirited but far from vintage Scottish pack is already the talk of Edinburgh. On Saturday, it may be the talk of Cardiff, too.

"I'd say Bryan's service is as good as any scrum-half's in the world at the moment," Townsend said. "It's as fast as it is long and it gives me all the time I need. In terms of international rugby, time means options. No fly-half could ask for more.

"We go back quite a way - we played together at various representative levels - yet funnily enough, I think this is the first time we've ever done ourselves justice as a partnership. I can remember us playing against France at Murrayfield in 1994 and making a bit of a hash of things, but we are more mature operators now and we have a much clearer idea of what we're trying to achieve.

"At the moment I'm playing very flat indeed, right up there in the firing line. Bryan's quick pass enables me to do it and I'd like to think we'll continue in that fashion. There are people who think I should drop back a couple of yards but until some big flanker hits me for six and I come a cropper, I'm keen to keep asking hard questions of myself and the opposition."

There speaks a confident playmaker on a hot streak, yet the injury-prone 22-year-old started the season with acres of ground to make up. Damaged knee ligaments had ruled him out of last summer's World Cup in South Africa and left the vastly more experienced Chalmers in pole position for yet another run in Scotland's No 10 shirt. In addition, there were new club surroundings for Townsend to get used to following his decision to leave Gala for Ian McGeechan's Northampton.

"Missing the World Cup was a pretty savage disappointment," he explained, "but I compensated to a certain extent by flying to Australia to play for Warring, the Sydney side. That was a tremendous experience all round, but in a strict rugby sense it helped me sharpen myself up and put an edge of my game in advance of the league season at Northampton.

"That in turn has been of real benefit. People look at our results in League Two and rightly say that we are playing weakish opposition, but it's also been very demanding in the sense that we've tried to play flat out for 80 minutes and try every move and trick in the book. Again, it's helped me develop an edge. Playing such expansive rugby week in, week out has been good for the soul."

When that brand of expansive rugby failed to manifest itself as Scotland scrambled their way to a draw against Western Samoa in the pre-Christmas Test at Murrayfield, Chalmers's grip on the No 10 jersey was loosened. Townsend got the nod for the warm-up international in Italy and although the Scots contrived to lose that game, thereby establishing themselves as a sound bet for the wooden spoon, feelings inside the camp were far more positive.

"People misunderstood what happened in Italy. Sure, it was a poor result, but our approach was deliberately experimental; some tried and trusted moves were ruled out of bounds in favour of a number of new and different ideas, many of which worked pretty well.

"That is not to say that we are now feeling smug about our form in the victories over Ireland and France. Quite the reverse, in fact. As a side we are extremely self-critical: we'd be crazy if we weren't because when all is said and done, the difference between winning and losing a championship match is often very fine indeed and both the matches that we have played so far have been seat-of-the-pants affairs.

"It would be wonderful to beat Wales next week and then go for the Slam against England in front of a really passionate Murrayfield crowd. Things have been quite quiet since the stadium was rebuilt, probably because we've played poorly there on a number of recent occasions. Against the French, though, the noise was phenomenal. That support is priceless, so it's up to us to give the spectators something to shout about."

Townsend would be the perfect cheer-leader.