Rugby Union: Townsend returns with a broader vision

David Llewellyn hears how the Scots' playmaker is blossoming abroad

David Llewellyn
Sunday 08 November 1998 01:02

IT WAS not quite French leave; Gregor Townsend needed no one's permission - other than the support of his wife, Claire - to pack up his troubles in his sponsored kit bag and slip over to Brive immediately after his honeymoon in July; but all the same there was an element of independence, defiance even, as the Scotland international bade farewell to Blighty and more specifically, Northampton, in the summer.

There are those who would argue that finding himself playing second fiddle to Paul Grayson in the stand-off berth was what finally made up Townsend's mind, but the man himself is too generous, and wise, to stoop to giving credence to that kind of theory.

"I have done this because I am trying to improve myself as a rugby player," explained Townsend, who was last week named in Scotland's squad for the autumn internationals. "I am trying to broaden my rugby education. I want to strengthen the quality of my game."

Again there are those who would argue that his game is already of the highest quality. But Townsend, 25, disagrees. "The French club game tests your skills," he said. "They approach things differently."

But Townsend himself is unconventional, respected for his blistering pace off the mark, his startling angles that open up defences and leave defenders open-mouthed, as well as his breathtaking speed of thought and analysis, all attributes that any player, French or otherwise, would be glad to have.

And by the sound of it, Brive are getting that. Townsend admitted: "I am allowed to play my own game, but here they want me running on to the ball, moving it wide. But you can't always have the stand-off running on to the ball and so they also want me to take the ball up myself." It is, as Townsend explained, a matter of finding the balance, of making the right option at the right time.

Which brings us back to his footballing brain. So what improvements does he expect to see? "I cannot isolate any specific element of my game that has improved, but I feel that there has been a general improvement." And as each French lesson passes, and he has four of them a week, Townsend grows in confidence. "At first, with the language thing, it was quite hard. At the beginning I was playing stand-off but it was not easy. I had three games there and the problems were not just confined to communicating ideas and so on; I was not familiar with the way they played. In training you have time to go over things and break it all down, but in the heat of a match everything has to be done instantly, and in another language that is not easy."

So, with an edge of irony, he was moved out to centre where he had five matches. "It made things a lot easier," Townsend said. "I was able to watch what they did and how they approached the game and I was not having to call the shots."

He subsequently moved back to No 10 only to suffer a shoulder injury, which sidelined him for four weeks. But all the while he has been absorbing French rugby culture, beginning to put a shape to the way they think and play, which could be very useful for Scotland, although, as he stressed: "French club rugby is played completely differently from the way the national side approaches the game. At club level it is a power game, whereas the national team use the backs a lot more."

It should still stand Scotland in good stead. Townsend makes sure that he stays in touch with Scotland's director of rugby, Jim Telfer, and coach John Rutherford. "I do feel cut off at times, but I have made a few phone calls to Jim and John and they have seen me once this season as well," he said.

Whatever the pitfalls of playing abroad, Townsend is determined to enjoy himself. He has an option to leave Brive at the end of his first year, but it is far more likely he will stay on and perhaps even exercise the option that lies at the other end of the deal, which would see him playing for a third season.

Like music, sport transcends all barriers of race, creed and language. There is little doubt that however sophisticated and accomplished a rugby player Townsend is at present, by the end of his sojourn abroad he will have added a dash of French polish. After all that is what he is there for.

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