GREGOR Townsend is suffering, although there is a question mark over the exact nature of what ails the Glasgow coach. He attended the club’s annual end-of-season shindig on Thursday evening and we are catching up the following day. The Borderer is definitely below par, a little peely wally.
“I think it was something I ate because I honestly didn’t drink very much,” he rails against the injustice of it all. “I just can’t manage any more after hitting 40. Something in my body has changed. Oh, and we played some football today in training with the coaches joining in and I jarred my ankle.”
Townsend turned 40 on Friday last with the band at that dinner in Glasgow striking up “Happy Birthday” on the stroke of midnight. Whatever else his family and friends have bought, his best present is surely the recent form of the Glasgow team that he coaches. With one round of regular season matches still to play Glasgow have already booked their place in the playoffs and there is still the tantalising prospect of home advantage should Glasgow fire four tries past Connacht while the Ospreys restrict Leinster to three or less.
There is every chance of it happening, at least the first part of that equation, because Glasgow can’t help scoring tries. The club have qualified for the playoffs in the last two seasons, first on Sean Lineen’s watch and again this season during Townsend’s first stint at the steering wheel. The big difference is how they got there.
Under Lineen, Glasgow were gritty and determined but they didn’t accrue many marks for artistic interpretation, scoring just 34 tries en route to the last year’s semi-final. One year on, that number has ballooned to 64 with one round of regular season matches still to play. Did Townsend come in with an explicit plan to expand and improve the club’s attacking options? “I had ideas of what it took to be a successful club and the most important element of that is defence,” contradicts the coach. “There was a very good report written at the end of last season by our head analyst Rob Holdsworth that laid out what we had done well and what we could improve on.
“There was the desire to tackle from the players but we could improve what we did post-tackle and I think we have done that. Attack is a big focus for us and we play lots of games in training that reflect that. We also select the players and their growing belief and momentum just adds to the performance.
“I think the weather is also a big factor. People were asking how we managed all those bonus-point wins during the Six Nations and the answer is that we had dry weather. Look at Leinster, they have scored the second most tries in the league after us but when we played them in the wet in November the final score was 6-0!”
Regardless of the hangover/stomach bug, Townsend is in a good place right now, his critics are muted and his team is playing inspirational rugby in front of crowds that are growing nicely. There is even talk of one prominent Edinburgh businessman who lives and works in the capital but is still the proud owner of a season ticket for Scotstoun.
It’s all a far cry from the opening fortnight of the season when the new coach was desperately trying to justify his appointment. Glasgow opened their account with a loss away to Ulster and followed it up with another defeat at home to the Scarlets. In the press conference that followed Townsend looked like a ghost.
Perhaps he frightened them into action, because the following week his players travelled to Swansea and cuffed the Ospreys, scoring three tries to one in a game they bossed. The team won their next five league matches and they have continued to improve as the season has progressed. Glasgow have now won ten of their last 13 matches and are hovering just outside the top ten in Eurorugby.com rankings. The only real hiccup along the road was that 29-6 loss to the Scarlets two weeks back. It still rankles and so it should because it may have cost Glasgow a home semi-final.
“That was the low point for me, the only match all season where we didn’t turn up,” says Townsend. “It is probably the loudest I have shouted at half-time, I was really angry. In a way it was a reminder of how well we have done up to then and it was a good motivator for us.”
The highlights have been more regular and, of course, far more rewarding. The Heineken campaign never quite got off the ground but at least it finished on a high with a win against Northampton. Glasgow have run up a record 60 points against the Dragons, dismantled Munster in a once-in-a-blue-moon manner and stuck five tries past the Ospreys who boast the best defence in the division.
Townsend has the good grace to admit that he inherited a very good squad of players and he has undoubtedly benefited from Murrayfield’s increased largesse. He has something like half a million pounds more to spend than his predecessor did and while that sum might only buy you a ball boy in the world of football, it still goes a fair way in rugby. At one point Glasgow boasted eight props on their books and when you can whistle quality players like Henry Pyrgos and Ryan Wilson off the bench, the squad obviously has depth as well as quality. No one can deny that Townsend has made a very decent fist of things in his debut season even if everyone is still wondering why his coaching career started, horse before cart, with the Scotland squad? He has worked his way down the ladder to success.
The next few weeks will be vital and Warriors may need a little good fortune if they are to go all the way. They remain susceptible to large forwards taking route one to the try line and Leinster have bested them twice already this season, home and away. The margin was miniscule both times but good teams have the happy knack of doing just enough and if Glasgow fancy themselves amongst the Rabo elite they need to do the same.
It won’t be easy, because the former Scotland No.10 has a stand-off problem of his own after Duncan Weir broke his fibula against the Ospreys. The alternatives, Peter Horne, Scott Wight and Ruaridh Jackson, all come with a variety of pros and cons but if their coach has made up his mind he is keeping the decision to himself. “They have all played ten for us this season,” says Townsend. “Ruaridh Jackson played well against Munster but not so well against the Scarlets. That’s the nature of the game, you have to keep backing up one performance with another or someone else will get the opportunity.”
If Glasgow do the same the club has the potential to go all the way. Imagine the stomach bug he would suffer if Townsend becomes the first Scottish coach to claim some silverware in the professional era.