Saturday 17 March 2018

Tony Ward: Townsend has shaped Scotland in his own image and that must be a worry for Ireland

Coach a risk-taker in his playing days at out-half and his team play in a similar way with Finn Russell pulling the strings

Gregor Townsend is a rarity - a legendary player who is developing into a world-class coach. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Gregor Townsend is a rarity - a legendary player who is developing into a world-class coach. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Given how the structure has developed in the respective countries since the game went professional, it is difficult for those of more tender years to comprehend that Ireland and Scotland were once joined at the hip.

The ability of the IRFU to embrace professionalism ahead of their counterparts in the SRU saw the game on this side of the Irish Sea surge forward at a rate of knots.

The provincial system was made to measure for the professional game here, while in Scotland they struggled in amalgamating clubs with the old District system. Even to this day I find it strange that the Borders (the heart of Scottish rugby and akin to the Valleys in Wales or Limerick here) still have no representative team alongside Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Against that has been the rise and rise of Glasgow Rugby. The city is still the Scottish hotbed of football but the oval-ball side is alongside the best in Europe.

World Rugby needs Scottish Rugby to be back where it was prior to professionalism and the signs are it is happening, even though it would be great to see a Borders Rugby presence to strengthen the game there even further.

If Ireland can sustain four professional entities as consistently competitive as they have been, then surely three Districts instead of two is an achievable aspiration for the Scots.

In Australia, they stretched themselves too far too soon with five Super Rugby franchises but that has now been pared back to four with the Melbourne Rebels chosen ahead of the Western Force to drive the pro game alongside the Waratahs, Reds and Brumbies.

The Welsh too have cut back to four the number of regions competing in PRO14 rugby but it would certainly seem from the outside that an increase in the Scottish professional presence from two to three would benefit the game in Scotland enormously and certainly at the highest level.

Of course at the helm in Scotland just now is Galashiels great Gregor Townsend. In combining Townsend the player with his time spent as former player-coach (to the Reivers) and coach to the Warriors culminating in the top post in Scottish rugby, you have to seriously respect his achievements.

As a player, I loved Townsend's laissez-faire, off-the-cuff approach. As an out-half, he was as unpredictable as they come. I can identify with that and no, irrespective of criticism from many quarters, I would never change it.

But where Townsend has taken it to another level is in harnessing that inventive style and creating teams in his own image. That is some achievement in today's game of minimal space and claustrophobic defending.

Glasgow Warriors didn't just win the Pro12 (as it was then) but did so in style. Their total rugby when eclipsing Munster in the final in Ravenhill was a joy to behold and paved the way for Connacht and the Scarlets to follow suit.

Bear in mind that, apart from the land of his birth, Townsend played club rugby in England, France, South Africa and Australia. You cannot put a value on that knowledge or on the sacrifices made along the way to achieve it.

The moment of magic when he manufactured that reverse pass to Gavin Hastings to seal a dramatic last-minute win against the French in Paris in '95 will live in Scottish minds forever and in many ways define his career for the intuitive genius he was and I use that superlative deliberately.

Four years later in the 1999 Five Nations, he scored a try against each of the other four countries becoming the first Scotsman in 75 years to achieve that feat. For Mark Ella read Gregor Townsend and vice versa.

Incidentally, on the back of that famous Parisian reverse pass, it and he acquired the moniker 'Toonie Flip'.

Joe Schmidt has many outstanding traits and preaches many constructive tactics through his players but when it comes to the Toonie Flip he and his Scottish counterparts occupy different planets.

High-risk rugby was once the French preserve but is now Scottish in its Six Nations rights and execution. And bear in mind the main man's on-field commander-in-chief right now is cut from the same cloth.

Finn Russell has his head coach's full support to play the opposition and the game but not the plan.

I love everything that Townsend stands for. I love the fact that like Schmidt he opted not to go to New Zealand as a Warren Gatland sidekick, irrespective of the honour involved. He is a rarity. A former player, make that legendary player, who in coaching terms is not making just good but great. Few former playing greats with top level coaching ambition succeed.

I don't know why but for whatever reason that is fact. There are exceptions but they are few and far between.

To that end, I would love Ronan O'Gara to succeed given his clear desire and the overseas route (like Townsend) he is taking to acquire the relevant knowledge.

With respect to Gatland, Graham Henry and coaches like Schmidt and Eddie Jones now in the mix, I wish every Lions coach was Saxon or Celtic born and raised. It is an idle dream. And if I'm honest, despite us having our best coach ever, I wish he was Irish.

Therein lies the challenge but for now how to dismantle Russell and Townsend is at the top of the Irish agenda.

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