Monday 25 March 2019

Master versus apprentice as Townsend looks to get one over on his former mentor Schmidt

Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

CIan Tracey

A half an hour in the company of Pep Guardiola was all Gregor Townsend needed to meticulously pick the brain of one of the most innovative coaches of a generation.

Having been granted access to the Manchester City set-up for two days, Townsend soaked up as much information as possible and was surprised to learn that Guardiola was deeply passionate about rugby and the mindset around the attacking philosophy.

The Spaniard was fixated by the idea that rugby players pass the ball backwards but are always scanning what is ahead of them while doing so.

That idea is central to Guardiola's tiki-taka style of play that brought so much success during his era-defining time in charge of Barcelona.

Philosophy

"That's my philosophy! I want the guys passing backwards to someone looking forward. I wish we could do more of that," he told Townsend.

The brief meeting between two coaches had all the hallmarks of two kindred spirits fascinated by each other.

Townsend has made a habit of bouncing ideas off respected coaches, including Joe Schmidt.

In 2012, when he began his journey as a head coach with Glasgow, he was always compelled by the model that Schmidt created at Leinster.

The pair struck up a good relationship and will share a beer after today's game, but for 80 minutes, that friendship will be put to one side.

When Townsend took over Glasgow, Schmidt was one of the first people he spoke to.

The Kiwi offered typically sage advice and it was little surprise to then see Glasgow go on and be successful under Townsend's guidance.

Having done so, it was even less of a shock when the Scottish Rugby Union came calling and parachuted one of the country's most forward thinkers into the national set-up.

Taking on the Scotland job in June 2017 came at an ideal time. You only have to look at the age profile of the explosive backs that Townsend has at his disposal, while the pack have also made improvements even if they are without a couple of key players today.

Take Finn Russell, for example. The Racing pivot is thriving under the ex-out-half, who played 82 times for Scotland as well as twice for the Lions.

Players are excited every time they come into camp and while the intensity levels are likely to be similar to what Schmidt creates, Scotland's progress speaks for itself.

During their time with Scotland, Chris Paterson captained Townsend and has also spent time working as a kicking coach with the national team, so he is well placed to judge the Townsend and Schmidt comparisons.

"Gregor is a brilliant person," Paterson says.

"He's hugely intelligent, always was as a player. He was always thinking ahead of the game and he's taken that into his coaching.

"Every time you talk to him or ask a question or get his opinion, he's thought of something else you haven't thought of. He spends so much time looking at the game and looking at individuals.

"I don't know Joe particularly well but by the understanding of him that I have, I think there are quite a lot of similarities between Gregor and Joe.

"Especially their love for the game, their interaction with their players, the respect they command and respect they get from their players and their attention to detail. I assume they would get on and have cracking rugby conversation.

"I'm not sure the best coaches in the world have a style of play or if they play the right style for who they have.

"I think both Joe and Gregor would be the latter. They will adapt their beliefs and their strengths in order to suit what the time needs to give them the best chance of success."

Nowadays Scotland pose a major threat from set-plays and are beginning to unleash clever power-plays that defences are struggling to cope with. Sound familiar?

Schmidt freely admits that his famed moves are often based on what he has seen from others, particularly back home in New Zealand, so he is not surprised to see the wily Townsend taking a similar approach with Scotland.

"I do see a fair few of our set-plays," Schmidt insists.

"I did chat to him when he first took over Glasgow, he rang about setting up a group - things like that. He is very much his own man as well. He's got a good brain about the game. He's analytical.

"I think, and this is an external perspective, just like you people, but it looks like the players enjoy playing for him and commit to playing for him. If you've got those things, then you're in a pretty good place. He's a good bloke, I wish him well from Sunday onwards!"

Townsend has adopted an exciting, expansive, almost Super Rugby style of play, which undoubtedly comes from the time he spent in the southern hemisphere.

Maiden

Two visits to the Queensland Reds, the second of which was when they were about to win Super Rugby for the first time (2011), as well as a stint with the Chiefs before they won their maiden title a year later, were crucial for his coaching development, Townsend has claimed.

During his time in New Zealand, Townsend was able to spend plenty of time with Wayne Smith, another one of the most highly thought of brains in world rugby.

The 45-year-old has now come full circle as other young coaches observe his methods and how he views the game.

Townsend knows that he has a long way to go before being talked about in the same breath as the likes of Guardiola, Smith or Schmidt.

But if he can get one over on one of his former mentor's this afternoon, that would certainly see his stock rise even further and in doing so, would create major doubts for Schmidt and Ireland ahead of their World Cup showdown with Scotland.

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