GREGOR TOWNSEND has spent a lot of time during the last eight weeks looking beyond his own sport for advice and inspiration on how he and his fellow Scotland coaching team can do their jobs better.
“It has been a good opportunity for us to learn as coaches,” he explains. “It is a unique opportunity in that almost every coach around the world is available to do a Zoom session or Skype or whatever. And people from other walks of life as well. The session we had with the Belgium [football] coaches was excellent – Roberto Martinez led that but he had others there as well so we got the wider learning than just head coach to head coach.
“We’ve had numerous opportunities and have been trying to fill days with more. Last night we were with Toronto Blue Jays and their staff, we had about 30 on that call.
“Probably the most interesting one because it was different was with the Red Arrows last week. It was about three days before they did the fly past over London. Their leader and another member of the crew talked about what they do in training, how they debrief training, and that was fascinating.
“They have a process that has worked for them for over 50 years. If they get something wrong in the process it could mean life or death so they have to make sure in the review sessions that the detail and collaboration of the group being able to speak.
“Their performance is a lot about people following exact routines. Our game at times can be like that, whether it’s a lineout or scrum, but our game also has to be about decision-making and people making their own calls on things. While there were a lot of things we could take from them but we also know that our sport is different.”
Townsend has always styled himself as a blue-sky thinker, but sometimes the most ancient principles of rugby hold true – such as big, fast and aggressive runners being very difficult to stop – which helps explain why he is so disposed towards handing South African-born Duhan van der Merwe a Scotland cap at the earliest opportunity.
The 24-year-old signed for Edinburgh three years ago on Saturday and will be qualified on residency grounds to tour with Scotland this summer, in the unlikely event of that trip to his native South Africa and New Zealand going ahead as planned.
While it is far more likely that he will have to wait until the Autumn, or even into 2021, for that opportunity to wear the thistle, one thing is clear: barring a serious injury or a cataclysmic loss of form, van Der Merwe will have a prominent place in Townsend’s thought process as he selects his next Scotland line-up.
“I have spoken with Duhan at various points this season and in the last couple of weeks, and we obviously see him as someone who would have been in the mix for the summer tour,” acknowledged the coach. “That is unlikely to go ahead but we will keep watching how he plays for Edinburgh.
The powerful winger’s development had been hindered by a chronic hip injury for 14 months before he arrived in the Scottish capital back in the summer of 2017, and he actually failed a medical ahead of putting pen to paper on a contract with Edinburgh, but head coach Richard Cockerill backed the player anyway. Van der Merwe has more than repaid that faith by not only battling back to match fitness, but also developing his pace, power and game-smarts to become one of the most potent strike-men in European club rugby.
He has scored 31 tries in 57 competitive matches for the club, including seven tries in 12 appearances during the 2019-20 PRO14 season up until lockdown. Perhaps more tellingly, he dominated the attack stats in the league with 27 line-breaks (nine more than his nearest rival), 61 defenders beaten (12 more than his nearest rival) and 765 metres gained (23 more than his nearest rival).
“He is an excellent player,” added Townsend. “He has shown this season a different level of play as well. His work off the ball has been excellent and his defence has been up there as well. He is quick, he’s strong, he makes a lot of line breaks and tackle breaks and he is a young player who will get better the more he plays.
“It is a position where we have competition. Sean Maitland, Blair Kinghorn did very well for us this year, Darcy Graham missed out due to injury, and we’ve also got Kyle Steyn, Ratu Tagive and Byron McGuigan.
“With Tommy Seymour retiring from international rugby, Duhan can certainly be in the mix for our next international.”
Van der Merwe is not the only potential ‘Jock-Bok’ on Townsend’s radar, with Glasgow Warriors prop Oli Kebble and Edinburgh stand-off Jaco van der Walt also set to pass the residency requirement before the turn on the year.
“Duhan is available now, Oli is October and Jaco is the middle of November,” confirmed Townsend. “Those are three players we know are going to be eligible later this year and they are playing very well for their clubs. Oli has been a regular in the team at Glasgow and Jaco will be competing hard for a place at 10, so they will add to our depth and are three players that could certainly play international rugby.”
Continuing the theme of utilising South African spawned experience and expertise, Townsend indicated that an announcement on the permanent recruitment of scrum guru Pieter de Villiers is imminent.
“We have been so pleased with the scrum performance and also with the work that Pieter has done [on a consultant basis during the recent Six Nations],” said Townsend. “So, there’s some really good foundations for us to build on. Looking at some of the stats in the scrum, I believe we were the best scrum in the competition because we won the most penalties.
“In the difference between won and lost we were on a positive of eight; the next best was England with five. That’s a huge advantage if your scrum is winning penalties, and also you can attack with scrum ball. So, there’s lots to be encouraged about there.
“And we’re doing all we can to make sure that Pieter is going to be with us in the long term. There’s been nothing announced yet, but there’s certainly a commitment from both parties.”
Lions a long way away
With so much uncertainty about the future of the sport at the moment, the Lions tour in 2021 seems like a million years away, but that didn’t stop Townsend being asked about the prospect of him assisting Warren Gatland in South Africa. The Scotsman famously declined an offer to be part of the 2017 tour to New Zealand but hinted that he would be better placed for this one.
“It would be a huge privilege and honour to be involved with the Lions,” he said. “I’m not sure if I’ll get asked this time after saying no last time, but it was different circumstances then, with it being my first opportunity to coach Scotland.
“I think everybody in rugby will be excited about the Lions this time next year – let’s hope we’ve had a full season of international rugby and everything is back to normal so we can have a good Lions series.”
An opportunity for positive change
In the meantime, the issue of when any sort of rugby can resume is a far more pressing concern, and while Townsend is highly doubtful that there will be any action this summer, he is fairly upbeat about the possibility of the global calendar and the overall priorities of professional/international rugby ultimately benefitting from this crisis.
“It’s unlikely we will be playing in July on the summer tour given that our players haven’t trained for two months and won’t be back in training in the next several days or weeks,” he said. “Let’s hope they get to play as club players as soon as possible and international rugby whenever that is possible.
“I’m more of an optimist on all these things. The tough thing will be the financial hit that every industry and every sport is going to face and what that means for future planning. The exciting thing is you’re seeing more collaboration around potential competition which could mean that we have a much more competitive November/October window, summer rugby and so on. All these things are getting discussed just now.
“What we want to ensure is that the sport builds on the recent successes of World Cups and Six Nations, a real growth sport, and if we can align it more with a global season, I think that will be a good thing for rugby.
“I think all these things were perhaps discussed in the past, but because the club and international seasons were ongoing, and tours were already arranged for the summer, maybe they never got agreed. Whereas this gap allows people to reset and change seasons.”
- Meanwhile, EPCR, the organisers of the European Champions and Challenge Cups, are considering a number of tournament formats to accommodate the extraordinary circumstances in which the 2020-21 season will play out under.
Discussions have included the possibility of a 24-club Heineken Champions Cup with eight representatives from each of Europe’s leading league competitions, played over eight weekends. If adopted, any new format would apply to next season’s tournament only on an exceptional basis.
In the meantime, EPCR remains committed to making every effort to conclude the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup season subject to official advice and with the health and welfare of players, club staff, match officials, supporters and the wider rugby community in mind. It is hoped that the 2020 finals could be staged on 16 and 17 October.