by SIMON TURNBULL
TIMES have changed since a Scotland fly-half of mercurial quality was obliged to drive a slegehammer through stonemasonry to earn his keep while spreading his playing wings overseas.
Twenty-four years on, we have a Scotland number ten of similar stock – although he actually spent his formative working days as a stonemason– about to relocate abroad to expand his playing horizons and pocket a tidy ₤700,000 or so a season in the process.
It just so happens that the former is not so keen on the latter leaving home soil. But, then, Gregor Townsend now has to look after his playing assets as Scotland head coach. And Finn Russell is as precious as he is pivotal to the bright new Caledonian era that Townsend has ushered in at Murrayfield.
“The best thing for the national team is to have more people playing in Scotland,” Townsend asserted after news broke hat Russell would be leaving Glasgow at the end of season for a new challenge oversea – believed to be with Racing 92 in Paris for ₤700,000 or ₤750,000 a year, depending on which newspaper you happen to read.
“It helps with coaching time and game management,” Townsend added. “A lot of players got rested from Edinburgh and Glasgow the week before the Samoa game. If more and more players left Scotland, that’s going to be tougher.”
It was different when Townsend spent the summer of 1993 playing for Warringah in Sydney. He was 20 at the time and had just broken into the Scotland team, collecting his first cap as a replacement for the stricken Craig Chalmers in a Calcutta Cup defeat that featured one of Twickenham’s all-time great tries, finished by Rory Underwood and launched with a blinding break from deep by Stuart Barnes.
Townsend was a callow Borderer, a first year student of history and politics at the University of Edinburgh. He was keen to develop his game with a three-month summer stint in the country whose brand of fast and loose rugby he admired even more than New Zealand’s. The game was also still amateur. Hence the need for himself and fellow-Borderer Stuart Bennett, a flanker from Kelso, to have day jobs while playing for Warringah – initially as demolition men, then as groundsmen.
Russell is 25 and Scotland’s established playmaker. Against Australia tomorrow, he will earn his 32nd cap in a Townsend-coached team seeking to back up both the thrilling 17-22 near-miss against the All Blacks last Saturday and June’s 24-19 win against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in Sydney.
The former apprentice stonemason is a hugely valued playing commodity, two decades into rugby union’s professional era. Hence the SRU’s pushing of the financial envelope in an attempt to keep him in Scotland.
Still, the Scottish national team will benefit from a honing of Russell’s all-round game if he benefits from his French experience as greatly as Townsend did by expanding his horizons beyond his native Galashiels – initially with Warringah, whom he rejoined for a summer in 1995, the year the top-end of the game went pro. The Gala fly-half went on to play in three other countries – with Northampton in England, Brive, Castres and Montpellier in France and Natal Sharks in South Africa – before ending his glittering career back where he started, at Netherdale with the Border Reivers.
Sitting in the stand at Netherdale a week before his final game ten years ago, Townsend spoke of how his time in Australia was the key to the silky, assured, risk taking genius of a player he became in his 82-cap career.
“The Warringah move was the catalyst for my thinking, for going to all those different countries,” he reflected. “I became a different player overnight. I improved my handling,my alignment, all my skills. I was like a sponge, soaking everything up.
“It was the same when I went to England and to France. I used all of those opportunities to improve myself as a rugby player by exposing myself to different environments and different approaches to the game.
“There was more of a contrast back then – in the mid-1990s, just before and just after the game went professional – between how Scotland played and how England played and how the game was played in France and in Australia. It would be different for a player now. Most of the teams these days play a pretty similar style.”
Orthodoxy was never a Townsend trait on the international stage. At times he was a supreme improviser,most famously when executing the celebrated ‘Toony Flip’: the sublime reverse pass that unlocked the French defence for Gavin Hastings to claim the last-minute score which secured victory for Scotland at Paris des Princes in 1995.
On other occasions, he was prone to play on a different wavelength to some of his Scotland colleagues. As a consequence, he was periodically shunted out into the centres, on to the bench, or even out of the selection frame altogether.
Toony was at his best for Scotland in 1996, when he dined out on Bryan Redpath’s silver-platter service, and in 1999, when John Leslie was at his sharpest as a second five-eighth foil. He also purred for the Lions, playing in between Matt Dawson and Scott Gibbs in the two winning Tests in South Africa in 1997.
Intriguingly, though, it was Australia – with whose national side he locks horns at a sold-out Murrayfield tomorrow – that had the greatest outside influence on the cerebral Borderer.
When he set out with Gala minis at the age of five, Townsend’s dream was to emulate his idol, David Campese. He even wanted to name his first son after the goose-stepping Wallaby wizard of a winger.
His second game for Warringah was against a Randwick side featuring Campo. His debut was against a Sydney University XV led by Nick Farr-Jones, captain of the Wallaby team who had bagged the World Cup at Twickenham two years previously.
The young Borderer prospered in such elevated company, liberated from the shackles of being typecast back home as an error-prone maverick who was falling short of fulfilling his promise as ‘Scotland’s Barry John’ – a tag administered by the Daily Telegraph he broke into the Scotland B team as an 18-year-old.
“Warringah became a home from home,” Townsend wrote in his brilliantly-penned un-ghosted autobiography, ‘Talk of the Toony.’ “My game was suited to Australian rugby.”
In his second spell down under, Townsend was picked to play for the Australian Barbarians against the Wallabies in Melbourne, partnering an emerging Sydney scrum-half by the name of George Gregan. With Warringah in the play-offs, however, his club coach Steve Lidbury pulled the plug on his selection.
By then, Townsend had moved on from demolition and grounds-keeping work to earn his keep as a political researcher for Bronwyn Bishop, Minister of the Commonwealth in the Australian Government.
He was so well thought of in Australia that Rod Macqueen offered him ₤20,000 a year to start the professional era with the ACT Brumbies. He declined the offer not just because he had already given a verbal agreement to join Ian McGeechan’s Northampton but also because he didn’t want to interrupt his Scotland career.
As a Scotland player, the well-travelled Townsend never managed to get the better of the Wallabies. His record was ‘played six, lost six,’ as it was against the All Blacks.
Against Australia as a head coach, however, he goes into tomorrow’s intriguing Murrayfield clash boasting a 100% record of ‘played one, won one’ – thanks to the Sydney success in June that came courtesy of a defensive tour de force, and a Finn Russell masterclass.