Gregor Townsend: Scotland coach on course midway through World Cup build-up

Gregor Townsend has won nine of 14 Tests as Scotland head coach

It’s been 14 months since Gregor Townsend began his new life as Scotland coach.

In that time, his team has played 14 Test matches. It’s 14 weeks until the next one. In 14 months, he’s going to be in Japan at the World Cup, first in a training camp in Nagasaki and then in Yokohama for the big business of an opening match against Ireland, the second best team in the world.

We meet in Edinburgh on 14 July at 14:14 BST at No.14 George Street. Actually, we don’t. That’s stretching it, isn’t it? And, really, there’s no need to exaggerate this story, not when studying Townsend’s record as Scotland coach.

There have been majestic highs and desperate lows. There have been records broken one way and records broken the other way. There have been games that brought Scotland fans to their feet in acclamation and others that have brought then to their knees in disappointment.

There have been nine wins and five losses, one of which was one of the most memorable days of them all – the narrow and coronary-inducing defeat by the All Blacks.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far. And it’s time to reflect.

Scotland back from the brink

Townsend’s first set of games might seem like a decent place to start, but he’s looking at a wider picture. He wants to go back further, way back into the darkness.

Back to 2007, his last season as a player, when his Border Reivers team were shut down after finishing bottom of the Celtic League. Glasgow were seventh and Edinburgh eighth.

“When you step back and look at it, we’ve come a long way,” he says. “Everyone thought that there was no future for professional rugby in Scotland. That was a genuine fear.

“When I retired, the culture was so far removed from today. You weren’t encouraged to stay in the game, there was no support.

“I had to do my coaching badges down in England. I was coaching in Australia because there was no opportunity for me at home. There was a fear about people with different opinions.

“We thought we were going to go under, financially. We thought we weren’t going to be able to survive in the professional game. There was frustration and sadness. It was a closed shop.”

Townsend is pointing all of this out just in case people forget it. He calls what’s happened in the Scottish game in recent years a “sea-change”.

“The pro teams, with world-class coaches, up there competing. Sell-outs at Murrayfield in every game over the last 12 months. Homegrown coaches being given a pathway. A rebuilding of the connection with the supporters.

“Our under-18s beat Ireland, England and France last season. I played two seasons at under-18 level. Do you know how many wins I had out of 10? No wins.

Gregor Townsend (right) in action for Border Reivers

“I was in tears after a 6-5 loss to Wales at Hughenden. I was captain and we were winning for most of the game. We lost, but that was normal.

“As a people, we like to keep our feet on the ground and look at things that are not going so well instead of looking at the things that are, but I know where we’ve come from. To me, it’s amazing to see where we are now.”

That’s heartfelt stuff from a man who lived through it.

Nobody is saying that Scottish Rugby is the template for corporate governance – Exhibit A in the prosecution, the damning judgement of the union in the Keith Russell unfair dismissal case – but in the professional game things have improved dramatically since the fatalistic days that Townsend talks about.

He’s right about the vibe then – it was utterly without hope for years – and he’s right about it now.

As Glasgow coach, he sparked the recovery. Vern Cotter then became a hugely important figure with the national team.

Now, Dave Rennie and Richard Cockerill, two stellar operators, are doing their thing at the pro teams. These are good appointments that are helping to inch the Scottish game further forward.

Logging lessons on his travels

Townsend has travelled some amount of ground in 14 months. Singapore, Sydney and Suva on his first tour and Vancouver, Edmonton, Houston and Resistencia in northern Argentina in his second.

What was the most memorable trip?

“Fiji, even though we lost,” he says. “There were a few hard weeks and months afterwards looking at that game and figuring out the things we could have done differently, but the experience of being there was humbling. On the bus going to training and people coming out of schools and shops to wave at us.

“I was really proud of how the players represented the country in building a connection with the locals. There’s a lot of humility in Scots and I think that’s part of the reason why there was a such a good connection. We embraced the fact that we were somewhere different.”

You’d think Townsend’s sweetest moment would have been the England game – one he says “the country deserved” for the passion and energy of their support – but it wasn’t.

Gregor Townsend has won the Calcutta Cup as a coach and a player

“With my coach’s hat on, there were better performances,” he says. “The two against Australia, and a lot of the New Zealand game, were right up there.

“And maybe, because it’s in the near past, the Argentina game in June because that was a young group that had lost the previous week against the USA coming back out and scoring five tries in the first half away from home against experienced opposition.

“It wasn’t a Six Nations or a World Cup, but you get a real buzz out of a game like that.”

The most recent losses to Wales and the United States bit hard, no doubt about it.

“A lot of the things that didn’t go right were down to me and how I prepared the team,” he says, candidly.

“Take the Wales game – we probably focused too much on what we’d done in November and the selection wasn’t right and that was on me.

“The USA game, we had a really poor week of preparation and couldn’t find a suitable pitch to train on. We ended up on half a baseball pitch. We should have done better.”

14-month marathon

Sixteen players have made their Scotland debuts under Gregor Townsend

Townsend misses the day-to-day coaching but says he is engrossed in what he’s doing and the responsibility that comes with it.

With four autumn Tests, a Six Nations, four World Cup warm-ups and then the World Cup proper to come in the next 14 months, what lies ahead is both a marathon and a sprint.

For the new season, the mantra will be a lot about work-rate off the ball. He wants his team to play fast rugby and out-working the opposition is key to that.

“We have players who are prepared to put their body on the line, to push the laws to the limit and get in the face of the opposition and be ruthless in the contact area,” he says.

“That’s what we’re looking for. We have a great mix, a togetherness, a ruthless edge, an in-your-face approach.”

Relaxed about Russell’s French switch

Finn Russell (centre) in action for Glasgow Warriors

Finn Russell will no longer be under his, or Glasgow’s, control now that he has moved to Racing 92.

If there is one person out there who understands the fly-half, it is Townsend – his coach and a player made in the same way who made the same decision to move to France many years earlier.

Townsend wanted Russell to stay in Scotland but acknowledges it is a “great opportunity” for him.

“It’s a move that he is going to embrace and relish,” he says. “He spoke to me a year before about it. Playing in France was always something he wanted to do and he wants to do it for the right reasons.

“External motivation is a big thing for Finn. Playing in a big game, facing a big challenge, he loves that.

“And it’s going to be a challenge. I played there for five years. It’s tough.

“He feels it will make him a better player and he’s been consistent about that. We’re hoping he stays fit and makes the most of it.”

Reading much into the future

The summer months give Townsend a chance to catch up with his reading, which is always interesting territory given the types of books he reads – Ego Is The Enemy; Endure and more tomes that give an insight to sporting culture – or any culture.

He has another one he wants to get to about the emotions involved in financial trading.

“A few others have been piling up this summer,” he says. “A biography of [Tottenham manager] Mauricio Pochettino is on my kindle and I have the latest Pep Guardiola book.

Belgium coach Thierry Henry and manager Roberto Martinez

“I find it brilliant to learn about different environments. I went to Brussels last year to talk to Roberto Martinez [manager of Belgium] and he was really generous with his time.

“He said the things he focused on when he went in first were a lot off-the-field things like cohesion and clarity of message and how could he get the players to bond more. He was excellent.

“It might not be about rugby, but it can be applied to rugby. The neural circuit in my brain goes, ‘Ah, I can use this…’ There’s a lot of information out there that can help you become a better coach.

“There are things that are common to successful teams and things that are common to unsuccessful teams. It’s interesting stuff.”

Now is the time to hit the books. He’s got a few months on his hands before the international scene starts to crank up again and the countdown to the Six Nations and the World Cup begins.

Fourteen weeks to the next Test. Fourteen months to Japan. Blink and it’ll be upon us.

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BBC Sport – Rugby Union

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