Interview: Gregor Townsend, Glasgow rugby coach, on a new challenge
THE eyes of Scottish rugby are on him but new Glasgow coach Gregor Townsend is up for the challenge.
It is less than a week until Glasgow kick off their league campaign with a tricky looking trip to Ravenhill and it has been just five short months since Gregor Townsend was handed the Warriors top job in circumstances that were odd to say the least. The former Scotland assistant coach replaced his long-standing friend and colleague Sean Lineen who had guided the club to a top four finish for the second time in three years. Lineen made it clear that he was less than enamoured with a move to Murrayfield to head up player recruitment. Asking if the two remained buddies only raises Townsend’s hackles.
“I don’t really understand the concept?” comes the frosty response.
Well, you got his job.
“Yeah, but Sean’s in another role.”
He didn’t appear particularly happy about it at the time.
“I can’t comment on that. He’s been really supportive of me right from the beginning and especially in the last couple of months.”
So there are no issues between you two?
What Townsend will concede is that his lack of experience in the head coach’s role may count against him, especially in the coming months as he eases himself into his new role. For the head coach of a pro team, actual coaching is a bonus.
The season will barely have kicked off before Townsend is fielding calls from agents and players attempting to negotiate (or renegotiate) terms. There are meetings with referees, meetings with players, the SRU, Andy Robinson, dealing with the bean counters, demands from the media and sponsors alike, physios and doctors to brief and debrief, assistant coaches to debate, videos to pore over and even, as Martin Johnson famously noted, meetings to schedule other meetings. It may take months just to get to grips with the administration...months Townsend does not necessarily have.
That is not to say he will fail and there is one problem area Townsend should improve markedly. Glasgow scored just 34 tries in the last league season (at a rate of 1.5 per match) and they need to find the back of the net a little more often. It’s Townsend’s speciality and he seems certain to champion a wider attacking game. The clue will be in the stand-off he favours. Townsend didn’t have much success on this front as a coach at international level (Scotland managed just 0.8 tries per match under him) but there are reasons to be optimistic, such as the extra width afforded by Scotstoun.
“Scotstoun is not just wider but it’s longer,” replies Townsend. “People focus on the width of a pitch when the length is just as important. If a team can kick the ball from one 22 to the other and turn defence into attack they will do so.”
While most remember Townsend as a slightly flaky, occasionally brilliant and often frustrating player, it’s worth noting that the Gala man was, and remains, a hugely competitive character with more than a hint of flint in his make-up. You don’t earn a Lions Test berth and a Five Nations title without some steel in your soul and he will need all the mettle he can muster over the coming months with a substantial section of Scottish rugby just waiting for him to fall flat on his face.
He is used to the slings and arrows of a sporting life. The highlights of Townsend’s playing career include a Lions series win in South Africa in 1997 and he equalled a Five Nations record when he scored a try in each of Scotland’s matches during the championship win of 1999. But things went downhill from there. Townsend’s Test career ended shortly after an ill-fated 2003 World Cup during which he lost the stand-off jersey to Chris Paterson. In December of 2003 he was bounced into retiring from the national side by Matt Williams at the absurdly early age of 30. It’s not obviously linked to Townsend’s absence but the following year (2004) marked some sort of low point for Scottish rugby. The national team were whitewashed in the Six Nations and Scottish teams occupied the bottom three slots in the Celtic League. Fast forward to the present and a rare spirit of optimism is in the air following a successful summer tour and hot on the heels of not one but two semi-final places for the pro teams last time out.
“I believe we’ve passed the turning point,” says Townsend. “For years we struggled with the concept of professional rugby, we struggled to buy into the Union’s role in professional rugby, we were behind other countries that had had success and invested in facilities and now I do think that the psyche of our supporters is behind pro rugby. The fact that Edinburgh and Glasgow got to the semi-finals of their respective tournaments is great and things like the Olympics, things like us moving to Scotstoun, everything is pointing in the right direction.”
Townsend has always been smarter than the average bear and he puts his undoubted intelligence to good use. He is a keen student of the game, a rugby nerd if you like, never happier than when discussing or dissecting the game. He has travelled the world, as coach and player, spending time in France, Australia, South Africa and England. He is not long back from two weeks with the Chiefs learning what turned the Waikato wannabes into champions. He recently picked the brains of Heineken Cup winner Joe Schmidt and there is scarcely a rugby expert that Townsend doesn’t know by name.
Townsend understands the technical and tactical stuff down to the nth degree but that is a prerequisite rather than a guarantee. The trickiest part of the coaching equation is persuading all 22 players to produce their all on the big day and whether Townsend has that rare ability to get the very best out of his charges each and every weekend of a long winter season remains to be seen, especially when his working week is spent many miles from the comfort and support of his family, who have remained in Galashiels.
Townsend has the eyes of Scottish rugby trained upon him and his team and there is more than just his reputation at stake. Failure by Glasgow this season would undermine not just the coach but the credibility of the SRU performance manager Graham Lowe who gave Townsend the gig. He can hardly be blamed for jumping at the offer. Surely the new coach is feeling the pressure as the clock ticks down to the season’s opener?
“Pressure is something that journalists love to talk about rather than possibly focusing on what our job is here, which is to win,” replies Townsend. “That’s all we’re focusing on, whether we produce winning rugby on a regular basis.”
Glasgow’s new coach can rest easy on that score. Journalists, and the rest of Scottish rugby for that matter, will be focusing on nothing else in the weeks and months ahead.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South