Townsend admits Test career is over

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GREGOR Townsend has snuffed out any lingering hope of a return to the international arena and admitted that next season will be his last as a player.

Scotland's most-capped player, who returned to action on Friday night after recovering from his fourth injury of the season, admitted his playing days are numbered, even if his Borders team does remain in business beyond the summer. A Scotland squad will be named at Murrayfield today, but Townsend admits he now looks at the Test arena with a sense of detachment.

"This has been the most frustrating year of my entire career," he explained. "I felt great about coming back to the Borders, settled back in very quickly and had a good pre-season and felt I could really play a key role in guiding the team this season.

"And then, in our first home game of the season, I chipped a bone in my ankle and tore ligaments - my first ankle injury in my career. Three months later I came back and played against Brive, Edinburgh and then Glasgow, and in the final minute of the Glasgow win I tackled Andy Henderson badly and his knee caught my thigh hard and damaged the muscle.

"I came back again, played for Melrose, and got a whack on my back, tearing ligaments behind my shoulder - out again. Then I play some touch rugby to help get fit and my back goes again. I've never experienced anything like it.

"The news on Friday from the SRU, of a pro team possibly being cut, brought another black cloud although, to be honest, the players have been given no information yet and so we don't know what to think about next season. But I may not even get the chance to finish my career with the Borders."

It would seem that Townsend's age - he is 33 - or 16 years in the senior game has finally caught up with him. From Gala to Northampton, stints in France with Brive, Castres and Montpellier, with a struggling Borders team and Natal Sharks, in South Africa, in the Super 12, all brought high expectations and pressures, physically and mentally.

Add in the 82 international appearances, through Scottish decline, and the intense, but remarkable 1997 British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa, the countless Barbarians and invitational outings and tours, and one can almost feel the strains 16 years of rugby might bring.

However, he insisted: "I don't think the injuries have come because of my age or experience really. All of them, the ankle, thigh, back, were felt by the physios just to be innocuous injuries that I could have got any time, but the recovery is not so easy now; that is where the career takes its toll. I felt fresh after the first injury and raring to go again, with the possibility of the international window re-opening and Frank [Hadden] talking to me, but then I got the thigh knock, and now the season is beginning to feel very, very long. I can't wait for the summer now.

"I sat and watched the Scotland internationals in the Six Nations and felt for the guys out there, but it was different; I did feel, for the first time since I was a kid, that I was a supporter, not a player anymore. I knew it would be hard to get back to Test level, but the injuries have ruined any chance I had."

Townsend did retire from international rugby in December 2003, but felt forced into it. Matt Williams had told him he was not part of his plans, having watched Chris Paterson replace his mentor during the World Cup in Australia. Williams' "thanks, but no thanks" dismissal persuaded Townsend to think again about an offer he had declined to leave the Borders for Natal, and he left to realise a dream of playing in the Super 12.

Throughout 2004 and 2005, no-one gripped the No10 jersey and held it with any real confidence, Dan Parks, Gordon Ross and Phil Godman all having a shot before Hadden took over and asked if Townsend, by now back at Netherdale, would reconsider his international exile.

Hadden insisted he was one of the few world-class players Scotland had and believed Williams to have made a poor call in ignoring the mercurial fly-half. However, the Borderer had to prove himself again, and he never could.

"I'm quite relaxed about it now," Townsend added. "I would be delighted if I could just go through one last full season with the Borders without injury, and finish on my terms. Whether I get that chance now remains open to question.

"But life moves on and I'm launching summer camps this year, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, bringing kids from all over the country together for coaching in good weather hopefully, with good-quality coaches and well-known players. I remember Jim Renwick coming along to a sports school I attended in the Borders as a kid and he inspired me.

"There are football camps all around the UK, but few rugby camps. We need more skills coaching in the summer, and we'll be using video analysis and other state-of-the-art coaching techniques. That's what it's about for me now, looking ahead and how I can help develop players of the future. Hopefully, that includes young Borderers with a pro team still at Netherdale."