by ALAN LORIMER
YOU can’t help feeling sometimes that Scotland’s head coach Gregor Townsend would love to be playing in the team he currently coaches. The former national team stand-off enjoyed several champagne matches during his international career, most notably that 1999 win in Paris that ultimately secured what was to be the last ever five nations trophy, but these occasions were rarely the norm.
To an extent the 1997 Lions tour afforded the gifted Townsend the chance to showcase his talents, albeit the 2-1 test series win was built on the ability of the tourists’ forward pack to match the mighty Springbok front eight, a feat for which the self-effacing Tom Smith, a man never known to blow his own trumpet above pianissimo, must take some credit.
For much of his international career Townsend played in Scotland sides that were coached much more conservatively than his effervescent style required. In his early internationals, critics at the time were quick to pounce on his mistakes: misadventure rather than adventure was the verdict. So much so that you were left with the feeling that his skills were never fully appreciated at the time.
They were certainly not wanted by the former Scotland coach, Matt Williams, during the Australian’s ill-fated tenure in charge of the national team. Townsend’s response was to take his skills to where they would be applauded and not least in Durban where, as a player/mentor he flourished.
If there was a sense of unfulfilled ambition lurking within the former Scotland stand-off/centre, then that has been redirected into coaching, first at Glasgow Warriors and now with the Scotland team. And certainly the results over the three autumn internationals provide ample evidence that Townsend has struck the right note in devising a game plan for a country unblessed with a surfeit of bulldozing forwards.
Of course, a change in playing style requires players to buy into the new credo. And that can the make-up of the international squad. For the autumn tests that composition was already affected by injuries to the likes of Richie Gray, Greig Laidlaw and Ross Ford but, as Townsend stated in the press conference after Scotland’s 53-24 win over the Wallabies on Saturday, each such absence “provides an opportunity to see someone else.”
And players, such as recent debutants Byron McGuigan and Jamie Bhatti certainly grasped the opportunities presented to them. “A few have changed our view of where they are in the pecking order,” suggested the Scotland coach, who then informed pressmen interested in quantitative discourse that: “Thirty-one players have been used in the autumn tests.”
If to that number you add in the players who, through injury, could not be considered for the autumn tests then it gives a healthy picture of Scotland’s strength in depth. Crucially then, that allows Townsend to choose players on current form rather than on past reputation or indeed the number of caps, and to select players who fit into his style of play
Which brings us back to Townsend himself. With Christmas only four weeks away and some Black Friday bargains still to be had, a time machine could be ordered to bring the 1997 Townsend twenty years forward. Then, assuming Finn would allow his boss game time, we would see Scotland’s current coach enjoying the type of rugby he now espouses and doing so amongst a group of players who really can deliver.