GREGOR Townsend may have found his second season as a head coach more testing than his first, but as he spoke of why he moved for American sprinter Carlin Isles as his latest signing it became clear that he has lost none of his appetite for thinking ‘outside the box’.
Townsend dislikes the frequent pigeon-holing of his approach as akin to maverick, insisting that his desire for flair has always been accompanied by a pragmatism to unearth victories. Winning is always above entertaining, even for a player who was one of Scottish rugby’s most entertaining players. Anyone who has played alongside him will attest to that.
So, while he spoke at length at yesterday’s team announcement about this evening’s game away to Leinster, the importance of it to Glasgow’s drive for a home semi-final tie in the PRO12, why he had picked the side he had and how his team faced their “hardest fixture on paper” in Dublin, it was only at the finish when asked about Isles that we glimpsed the coach’s less orthodox side.
Isles is expected to arrive in Glasgow next week, the 5ft 8in, 11-stone winger beginning a journey which he hopes will lead to a place in the US team at the 2015 World Cup, and which Townsend believes could turn the Warriors into a more devastating side.
“I think it’s a great signing for the club with what he could do for the guys off the field,” the coach began, “in terms of learning from a world-class athlete with his preparation, exercise and things like that, and he’s a very positive and optimistic individual so he’ll lift the group.
“And the generating of interest globally from rugby but also non-rugby supporters already has been terrific, and that’s great for the club. It also says something about the club’s ability to sign someone like Carlin because I know Toulon were interested in him a season ago.
“But, for me, the signing was about his rugby. Yes, a lot of that is potential and we have to make sure that we improve him, as coaches, but what he has in terms of speed, evasion and how quickly he has learned the game in sevens – if you speak to coaches who have worked with him and coached against him they say what a difference he is now to when he came on the scene – I believe that we will get something out of him.
“We had a rugby opportunity and it was the rugby opportunity we looked at,” he stressed, dismissing suggestions that the signing was a marketing gimmick. “He brings those other things, but when you look at some of the tries he has scored in sevens, like in Vegas against Argentina where he tackled and ripped the ball out of contact, beat two players and scored, or the kick-chase which reminds me of what Thom Evans used to do here on Dan Parks’ kicks to just pure ‘I’m going to take you on one-on-one’, he has an ability with his pace that not many wingers in the world have.
“It’s now down to me, the other coaches working with him and the players to bring out the best in him at 15s.”
Townsend agreed that it said something about the coach’s approach to the challenge of turning Glasgow from competitive also-rans to champions.
“You can see from some of the players I’ve signed that we look for something different. I like to look for things that players can do that’s different and work to negate weaknesses they might have.
“Leone [Nakarawa] against Cardiff and Connacht was probably our best player and we signed him after watching him playing out here at the Scotstoun sevens.
“I knew he had played 15s but he came from a sevens background and Niko [Matawalu], similarly, had played two or three games for Fiji at 15s but also came from a sevens background and has worked hard to improve his 15s game, and had an outstanding season last year.
“The environment these guys come into, whether they come from a Fijian sevens or American sevens background, is such that, if they show the desire and growth mindset to improve, you see the improvements within a matter of weeks.”
Isles is expected to join Stirling County as his draft club, County being the latest in line for a Warriors pro, but while Isles could be released to club rugby to get game-time, the former Gala stand-off laughed that he would not be permitted to play against his old club this weekend.
“There are only two or three club games left this season but that could be an option for him to get some first games because we expect him to arrive by the end of next week at the latest.”
Townsend was more interested, however, in discussing the more pressing matter of Leinster this evening.
“This is on paper our biggest game of the season, playing the champions away from home, and a team in form,” he stressed.
He welcomed, therefore, the earlier-than-expected return of full-back Peter Murchie from a four-month injury – Peter Horne could also now be back in March – while Tommy Seymour, Tim Swinson, Jonny Gray and Chris Cusiter are all released from Scotland camp, with Cusiter captaining the team. Leinster have won all three games during this Six Nations window, and comfortably, against Zebre, Dragons and Cardiff, while Glasgow scraped past Connacht, won at Cardiff only after a stirring late comeback and suffered the reverse at the Dragons to go down by a point last week.
As a result, they are now fifth in the table, 13 points behind Leinster in second spot. But Glasgow have games in hand at home to Treviso and Edinburgh, so should they win tonight, they would move within reach of the Irishmen. Defeat tonight and hopes of a first home semi-final, and a more realistic chance of a first final place, will be severely dented.
Leinster’s strength in depth is such that coach Matt O’Connor has made ten changes to the side that beat Cardiff, and the team is strengthened with a completely new pack that welcomes back captain Leo Cullen, Sean Cronin, Marty Moore, Jack McGrath, Mike McCarthy and Shane Jennings from the start and Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross on the bench. But Townsend has sent out a formidable Glasgow back row to meet them, with Rob Harley switching to openside to allow the on-form James Eddie the six jersey alongside Josh Strauss.
The back line is missing a lot of Irish stars but Ireland wing Luke Fitzgerald and centre Fergus McFadden are back and the latter’s joust with Glasgow’s remodelled centre Richie Vernon will be a crucial one.
Glasgow defeated Leinster 12-6 at Scotstoun in September, but they have not won at the Royal Dublin Society ground since September 2011 and, even without Brian O’Driscoll et al, Leinster are now in championship mode, which provides the real test of Townsend’s development of this Warriors squad.