Interview: Gregor Townsend, rugby coach and former Scotland international

GREGOR Townsend is on the rugby fields of Dollar Academy, a group of young men hanging on his every word, a camera crew filming his every thought.

It’s Friday evening in Clackmannanshire and it’s cold, oh so cold. Later, Townsend sits down to chat and says that this is going to be the first interview he’s ever done with his gloves on. Gloves on and guard up.

“You’ll be here to talk about the website,” he smiles.

Oh yes, the website. The Rugby Site to give it its proper title. That’s why the cameras were here in the first place, to capture Townsend’s coaching of backplay for an online package to sit with the analysis of other contributors, such luminaries as Graham Henry and Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and Shane Williams. A brains trust for sure. An innovative idea, no question. But it’s not why we’re here.

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Back in October, in a small conference room in an Auckland hotel the day after Scotland were knocked out of the World Cup, Andy Robinson promised his audience that he’d talk openly about what happened in New Zealand once he’d done his review. The review is now done and last week he spoke. He chatted about the good and the bad of his reign so far, the improved competitiveness and the notable victories, while also addressing the cataclysmic problem of the lack of tries in the Scottish team. Robinson has been in charge for 24 Tests. Twelve have been won, one was drawn and seven of the defeats have been lost by a margin of seven points or less. That last statistic is an instructive one. “If only they could score more tries” is a refrain that is heard all across the rugby landscape in this country.

Scotland have failed to score a try in 13 of Robinson’s 24 Tests. In both of his Six Nations championships, Robinson’s side have either finished bottom or joint bottom of the try-scoring charts. In New Zealand they became only the second side in World Cup history to go three games on the bounce without scoring a try. The other being that rugby behemoth, Spain, in 1999.

Robinson addressed all this stuff last week and said that a new coach would be coming in after the upcoming Six Nations. This is what brings us to Townsend’s door. The feeling is that the new guy is being brought in on the attack side, even if Robinson doesn’t specifically say so. The name mentioned more than any other is Brian Ashton, a relatively free agent at the moment and a radical thinker on the subject of attack play.

This doesn’t look great for Townsend.

“How do you mean?” he says.

“Andy Robinson wants to bring in somebody on attack.”

“I don’t think he mentioned attack. Andy never mentioned anything about attack. If you look at his quotes he said he wants to bring someone into the coaching group, which is a great idea.”

What Robinson actually said was this: “We want someone to add to what we’re doing. We’re looking for someone who we feel can make a difference to all of us, as well as to our attacking game.” That’s not to say that Townsend is going to be jettisoned. He surely won’t be. He is a young and ambitious coach with a lot to offer, but he needs help and Robinson appears to have acknowledged that now.

“It’s a game of opinions, isn’t it? I learned a long time ago that if you get worried about what other people are saying – I mean certain people in the media – then you’re going to have all sorts of psychological issues. There are coaches out there who have the same coaching experience as me, the likes of Rob Howley who finished playing only a year before me. He’s coaching with Wales. I took the route that was there for me and a route that Andy encouraged me to take. And I’m working as hard as I can to become the best coach I can be. I know what Andy meant in that press conference.”

“The suggestion is that Ashton might be in the frame.”

“Brian was linked with England, wasn’t he? They got that totally wrong. Wait and see.”

“So it’s not a new attack coach, then?”


“Or a mentor for you?”

“Andy’s my mentor. I have lots of mentors actually. What Andy said is that he’s looking to bring somebody into the coaching team after the Six Nations, somebody with a depth of experience at international level. People were speculating the other day about a [Ian] McGeechan or an Ashton or whoever. Andy’s looking to bring in somebody and people can read into that what they want. We’re all looking for ways to improve. We’re speaking in hypotheticals here, but if somebody came in with an attack background and I was working with him then that would be great. It would be a chance to learn even more than I’m learning now.”

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Townsend has taken bits of flak this past while. He says he doesn’t pay any attention to it, but underneath that friendly and welcoming exterior there is a sensitivity that is understandable. Robinson seems to get all the bouquets when things go right and few of the brickbats when things go wrong. That’s been Townsend’s burden.

Here we are again, laying the tries thing at his door.

He tells a story about the night of the Georgia game in Invercargill, another try-less evening but an example of how, on occasion, the try deficit can be exaggerated. “You look at that one and there’s no tries, but it was a fantastic performance by the team. We were much prouder of the team that night than we were after the Romania game where we scored four tries. The world’s rugby media descended on Invercargill expecting an upset. We were up against two of the best props in the world and one of the best No.8s in the world. The heavens opened just before kick off. A minute earlier I’d told Andy that it was a great night for rugby. Lovely and dry. Then the weather turned and the conditions were as hard as they could be against a fresh and unbelievably physical side. No tries, yeah. But a great win.”

“It’s a recurring theme, though. No tries.”

“It’s the one people hook on – and fair enough. We’re doing everything we can to score tries. You talk about the try stats, but the main stat is that, as coaches, we’ve won more than we have lost. But we need to win more. The lack of tries is not embarrassing, but it’s not good.”

Nor is it entirely straightforward. Scotland’s attack game has improved under Townsend. They might not be getting the tries to show for it, but they’re getting field position and from there they are getting the penalties and the drop goals that have won them big games. They are spending large amounts of time in opposition 22s – nine minutes in Argentina’s 22 and eight minutes in England’s. This is progress. Progress that is, admittedly, laced with all kinds of frustration at their continuing inability to convert territory and possession into points.

“Has your confidence been dented by the World Cup?”

“I wouldn’t look at it like that. I’m driven to find ways to play the game better, ways in which I can deliver better, how I can make sure the players are learning quicker. We have to put over our message better. As coaches, we look at ourselves first. Those games are gone but the lessons have to stay there. Now is the time to kick on. We’ve finished second bottom of the Six Nations the last two years. We’ve got to finish above that in 2012.”

Seven weeks to go before the championship begins. The latest round of judgment days will soon be upon him.

Gregor Townsend is the latest in an impressive line-up of coaches and players joining The Rugby Site. Involving the likes of Graham Henry, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Shane Williams and Courtney Lawes, The Rugby Site is a new website offering coaching videos from some of the world’s most celebrated names in rugby.