Opinion: Gregor Townsend should look across the Irish Sea for lessons in man-management

Scotland head coach must resist his instinct to control and allow the team to flourish in their own right during pivotal Six Nations campaign

Joe Schmidt's attention to detail became a burden to the Ireland team, and the same thing seems to be happening with Gregor Townsend in Scotland. Image: Steve Haag / Fotosport
Joe Schmidt's attention to detail became a burden to the Ireland team, and the same thing seems to be happening with Gregor Townsend in Scotland. Image: Steve Haag / Fotosport

NOT long after Gregor Townsend was handed the keys to the family car, I was chatting to a member of ‘Stern’ Vern’s crew who was about to be jettisoned to make way for the Scot. The character in question predicted an unhappy future for a Scotland squad under the new management. 

I put this down to sour grapes at the time but his reasoning took me by surprise and it resonates today in light of the Finn Russell affair. Townsend, and the rest of his management team, the insider explained, were a tad too serious, humourless even, and too inexperienced to understand the crucial need for downtime when the players are simultaneously under the microscope and under the cosh in high profile tournaments like the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup.

In contrast, Cotter had enough ‘old school’ coursing through his veins to cut them some slack, to ensure the players could kick back at the appropriate time and leaven a diet of unrelenting pressure.


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This conclusion came back to haunt me in Japan during RWC’19 when I bumped into one player’s parent after Scotland had exited the tournament. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the results not being great but expressed the wish that Junior had still enjoyed his World Cup experience?

The answer only came after some contemplation… no, on balance the parent thought, probably not. Enjoyment was not on the menu and Stuart “I didn’t want to think about rugby ever again” McInally may even concur.

One player does not amount to a statistical hill of beans but I mentioned this anecdote to another Scottish Rugby insider who had been in Japan. I got a wry smile and the admission that “it was a pretty stressful environment” by way of reply.

It might be worth picking at this particular scab because Scotland travel to Dublin for the opening match in the Six Nations come the first weekend of February and the Irish have been conducting their own post mortem on (yet) another disappointing World Cup quarter-final exit.

The Irish skipper Rory Best, who is a canny communicator, has spoken about Joe Schmidt and the relentless regime the fastidious Kiwi coach, dubbed “Schmidtler”, fostered.

While lavishing praise on Schmidt for that astonishing annus mirabilis 2018, Best also conceded that the Irish coach had started to commandeer space, on the morning of a Test match especially, that was traditionally given over to the players.

“Too much detail, too much tension,” was the most memorable of Best’s quotes that day and you can almost hear Scottish heads nodding in sympathy.

“We started to just let Joe do everything,” said Best. “The great thing about ’18 was we had our own voice, our own mind. And we had that freedom at the end of the week to step into the space, to lead, that allowed us to lead. You can’t just turn up at the Aviva Stadium at five o’clock and say: ‘Right, it’s our turn to lead’….In ’19, that end of the week space was starting to be filled a bit much with coaches.”

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Townsend makes much of his willingness to learn from other coaches, not least the charismatic Pep Guardiola but he could look a little closer to home and pick up some tips from across the Irish Sea, if only on what not to do.

As a player, the fly-half would always wanted to run the show, make every call, and nothing much appears to have changed just because Townsend has swapped his lead violin for the conductor’s baton.

Just as Schmidt failed to trust his players the mumble emerging from the Scotland camp post World Cup was that Townsend was making (or attempting to make) every call from the bleachers. Just as Schmidt side-lined his coaching team, the exact same charge has been aimed at Townsend although we will see if the new recruits, Steve Tandy and Pieter de Villiers, have a happier experience.

It is a devilish difficult thing for a coach to do, cede control back to the players, especially when your feet are being held to the fire, results are hard to come by and your team were operating at 63% capacity the last time they met the men in green in that embarrassing World Cup opener.

Every fibre of coach in your body is screaming ‘get a grip’ when, counterintuitively, the only solution is to let go; to give the players ownership of what they are doing as well as the time and space to breathe, to trust your on-field leaders to lead and the decision-makers to decide, because every study shows that people take better care of things they own.

The very best coaches in top class sport somehow lessen the burden on their charges, allowing the players to make decisions on the field and express their full range of talents to play their game to the best of their ability.

The rest of them act as a transformer that only multiplies the psychological stresses and strains until they become an overwhelming burden … with the inevitable effect that has on the players and their performance.


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Iain Morrison
About Iain Morrison 25 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

17 Comments

  1. This situation needs to be resolved asap!
    I read the very interesting article from Ian Morrison and feel I should give this some support.
    Now, I am not a rugby coach but I have looked after National sports teams at major events including the Commonwealth Games. So, I do have something to offer, and would like to add some comments to support Ian’s perspective.
    First let me state that in Scotland we appear to have a never-ending abundance of sports experts! Well actually we don’t! What we actually have is an endless list of people with opinions! Many of the opinions are well thought out and constructive Most but not all (my opinion) journalists fit into this group. However, many opinions by the supporters are based on bias, previous good or bad experiences, little actual knowledge or the perceived accredited acceptance that they have the best opinion because they have been an athlete/player/competitor in a particular sport. Some readers may feel that I also come into the group? However, what I am offering is an insight from another coach who as the phrase states ………. and has the T-shirt..

    By now I will have enraged a large number of readers. Why? In this case because I am not recognised as having any standing in Rugby! Probably comments along the lines of “What does he know about rugby!” will have been said out loud or thought internally with the possible addition of a stream of expletives?
    I am not going to give you an answer to the Russell V Townsend incident or advise anyone exactly on how to play or coach rugby. However, as stated previously I would offer some support to Ian’s article.
    I was lucky enough to gain some of my coaching and man management skills from one of the best. That was Frank Dick, a former GB Olympic coach, PE teacher, Educator, Author and Motivational Speaker to name just a few of his skills and expertise. For those with knowledge of Frank you will be aware that he coached one of the world’s greatest sporting talents, decathlete, Daley Thomson, CBE. Daley won the decathlon gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, and broke the world record for the event four times and the list goes on…………………
    A Times reporter once wrote of Daley Thompson, “Objectionable, charmless and rude,”
    “this is not a man destined to become a sports diplomate.”
    How then did Frank Dick, as Daley’s coach get the best from him? Was he authoritarian?
    or was he a coach who let the ‘Gorilla’ behave and train as he wished as he was impossible to manage?
    What then is the ultimate objective of a good coach? It is simple to learn but tough to do. It is to let people (Athletes, Players Competitors) go, and not hold on to them for your own selfish reasons.
    At present this ‘holding on’ has become more common. Coaches are under more and more pressure from many sources and their job is reliant on success. In that situation there is a tendency to become the ‘main man’. The more you control the more comfortable you feel. When there is a period of success your instinct is to control even more. Your confidence is boosted and you tend to ignore other views as ‘your way’ has brought so much success in the past, in your own eyes it is the only way!
    What happens then when the success diminishes? The obvious answer to the coach is that something else must be at fault and the cycle of more and more control becomes so detailed and intense that the stress affecting the athlete diminishes their ability to do what they do best. Performance, technique and probably more damaging is that the athlete’s decision making is affected. The brain doesn’t function as well under stress!
    So let’s return to the ultimate objective of the coach. “To let the athlete, go!” What exactly do we mean by this statement? The analogy is (of the coach) being a brightly lit torch that guides the athlete along a dark and difficult path/route. Where at the end of the path is success or where some form of goal is achieved. They guide the athlete and help them to develop the skills etc required so that the athlete will eventually be able to make the journey when the coach turns the light off. This is a process where the aim of the coach is to guide the athlete to a point where the athlete becomes self-sufficient. The coach then assumes the role of consultant. The coach is there when the athlete seeks advice, reassurance or remedial assistance. The ultimate role of the coach therefore is to take the athlete to a point where they (the coach) become almost redundant.
    Could this explain the alleged/perceived conflict between Russell and Townsend? The former is a very talented individual who now acts almost instinctively in his play and is frustrated with the previous playmaker who still wants to be the playmaker/controller?
    Should Townsend cut Russell some slack? I don’t mean let him drink as much alcohol as he likes (allegedly). Maybe he needs to allow the flair player to express himself more in his own way rather than be dictated too? (If that is the conflict). I have not forgotten that we are dealing with an individual who participates as part of a team. There will be instructions/tactics from the coach as to how the team will play but this must not be confused with the various skills of any team member. Micro management to this level can be very destructive!

    • I gave up after the first few lines of the second paragraph wishing you had learnt some humility I’m afraid.

  2. A very interesting article from Ian Morrison!
    Now, I am not a rugby coach but I have looked after National sports teams at major events including the Commonwealth Games. So, I do have something to offer, and would like to add some comments to support Ian’s perspective.
    First let me state that in Scotland we appear to have a never-ending abundance of sports experts! Well actually we don’t! What we actually have is an endless list of people with opinions! Many of the opinions are well thought out and constructive Most but not all (my opinion) journalists fit into this group. However, many opinions by the supporters are based on bias, previous good or bad experiences, little actual knowledge or the perceived accredited acceptance that they have the best opinion because they have been an athlete/player/competitor in a particular sport.

    By now I will have enraged a large number of readers. Why? In this case because I am not recognised as having any standing in Rugby! Probably comments along the lines of “What does he know about rugby!” will have been said out loud or thought internally with the possible addition of a stream of expletives?
    I am not going to give you an answer to the Russell V Townsend incident or advise anyone exactly on how to play or coach rugby. However, as stated previously I would offer some support to Ian’s article.
    I was lucky enough to gain some of my coaching and man management skills from one of the best. That was Frank Dick, a former GB Olympic coach, PE teacher, Educator, Author and Motivational Speaker to name just a few of his skills and expertise. For those with knowledge of Frank you will be aware that he coached one of the world’s greatest sporting talents, decathlete, Daley Thomson, CBE. Daley won the decathlon gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, and broke the world record for the event four times and the list goes on…………………
    A Times reporter once wrote of Daley Thompson, “Objectionable, charmless and rude,”
    “this is not a man destined to become a sports diplomate.”
    How then did Frank Dick, as Daley’s coach get the best from him? Was he authoritarian?
    or was he a coach who let the ‘Gorilla’ behave and train as he wished as he was impossible to manage?
    What then is the ultimate objective of a good coach? It is simple to learn but tough to do. It is to let people (Athletes, Players Competitors) go and not hold on to them for your own selfish reasons.
    At present this ‘holding on’ has become more common. Coaches are under more and more pressure from many sources and their job is reliant on success. In that situation there is a tendency to become the ‘main man’. The more you control the more comfortable you feel. When there is a period of success your instinct is to control even more. Your confidence is boosted and you tend to ignore other views as ‘your way’ has brought so much success in the past, that in your own eyes it is the only way!
    What happens then when the success diminishes? The obvious answer to the coach is that something else must be at fault and the cycle of more and more control becomes so detailed and intense that the stress affecting the athlete diminishes their ability to do what they do best. Performance, technique and probably more damaging is the athlete’s decision making is affected. The brain doesn’t function as well under stress
    So let’s return to the ultimate objective of the coach. “To let the athlete, go!” What exactly a do we mean by this statement? The analogy (of the coach) being a brightly lit torch that guides the athlete along a dark and difficult path/route. Where at the end of the path is success or where some form of goal is achieved. They guide the athlete and help them to develop the skills etc required so that the athlete will eventually be able to make the journey when the coach turns the light off. This is a process where the aim of the coach is to guide the athlete to a point where the athlete becomes self-sufficient. The coach then assumes the role of consultant. The coach is there when the athlete seeks advice, reassurance or remedial assistance. The ultimate role of the coach therefore is to take the athlete to a point where they (the coach) become almost redundant.
    Could this explain the alleged/perceived conflict between Russell and Townsend? The former is a very talent individual who now acts almost instinctively in his play and is frustrated that the previous playmaker who still wants to be the playmaker/controller?
    Should Townsend cut Russell some slack? I don’t mean let him drink as much alcohol as he likes (allegedly). Maybe he needs to allow the flair player to express himself more in his own way rather than be dictated too? (If that is the conflict).

  3. Utter tosh. Townsend won the pro 12 with Glasgow and created a fantastic team spirit. He brought through many young players including Finn and Scotstoun has not been the same since he left. Russell has simply got too big for his boots.

    • Townsend did not win the Pro12 his team did. And if my memory serves me correctly two of the tries scored came from classic Nakarawa offloads.
      Townsends pre match instructions to Nakarawa?………………”Cut out those risky offloads”

  4. Rugby union is a hard game to play, and in these days of commercialism made harder by commitments added to the training and matches. It is no secret that Toony is not a polymath and has a very structured approach to how he wants things to be. I’m not a fan of his style but I admire any man that stands up and takes on a national coaching role. But progression as a coach means taking approaches that might not be comfortable for you…and I’m not sure he can, despite whats he says. Its what made Steve Hansen so successful in his own admission.

    I hope it gets sorted out and i hope that we have a good six nations to dispel a lot of rumour. However, I am not hopeful right now…

  5. Good observations – Scotland to me look like West Ham – mediocre results, struggling to avoid conceding points/goals, some unhappy campers, unpopular board/owners, dour – very dour – coach. The parallels are scary! That said the Murrayfield crowd and travelling support have it in them to lift the mood. The coaches really have their work cut out the next week or so and I wish them all the luck in the world. Fingers crossed for Saturday..

  6. I think very insightful peice. Especially re Finn with all his confidence, flare and spontinaity, clashing with townsend under pressure.

  7. Obviously the old-fashioned real rugby “one for all. all for one” team spirit is not in the current squad and coaching team…… So,so needed when the chips are down!

  8. For those of us who gave competed and coached at world class levels this is an excellent summation of the situation. Rambo cannot be managed in the same way as Finn and a squad of 23 is a challenge for any management team. This is simply bad man management no matter where the fault lies. This is an SRU issue across the structure not just a Townsend or Russell problem.

  9. “Townsend, and the rest of his management team, the insider explained, were a tad too serious, humourless even, and too inexperienced to understand the crucial need for downtime when the players are simultaneously under the microscope and under the cosh in high profile tournaments like the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup.”

    Quite possibly the most patronising tosh I’ve read anywhere on the internet ever mind on this site. Quite sure Townsend has been in more high pressure rugby situations than anyone in Scottish rugby and particularly this author whose over-inflated ego prevents him from penning and accurate sentence

    • “penning and accurate sentence”

      et tu Brute

      I thought it was an insightful and thoughtful article you haven’t made any constructive criticisms or counter arguments.

  10. Interesting point of view. The renaissance of Edinburgh under another coach with a good dose of “old school” and an apparent ability to establish strong foundations and then let the players play would support it too.

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