The former Scotland and British and Irish Lions stand-off has been handed a significant responsibility by the SRU, with Murrayfield’s director of performance rugby, Graham Lowe, and national coach Andy Robinson believing that he was the ideal man to replace Sean Lineen as the new head man at the Warriors. It came as a shock to Glasgow supporters, when the news emerged in the press during the RBS Six Nations Championship, not least because Townsend was at that time trying to help salvage a worsening Scotland campaign while Lineen was piloting Glasgow towards the RaboDirect PRO12 semi-finals.
Now that the dust has settled somewhat, Lineen is excited about his role scouring the world for Scottish talent and it is intriguing to note that a trio of Scots who made their international debuts within a year of each other – Townsend, Carl Hogg and Bryan Redpath – are all stepping into the limelight at leading British clubs.
Hogg is in the frame to be head coach at Gloucester under a new director of rugby to be announced soon, while Redpath has become director of rugby at Sale Sharks, where he will work with another Scottish contemporary in the shape of Steve Scott.
Townsend met the Warriors staff last week, including forwards coach Shade Munro, with whom he toured Australia 20 years ago, and prior to picking up the keys to his West End flat was putting the finishing touches to a thorough pre-season programme of training. He has been working through much off-field activity and yesterday was the first media session in his new Glasgow kit. Daunted? Not likely. Excited? Hugely.
“People have asked me about the challenges I’ll face,” he began, “And of course there are lots of challenges – from getting to know the staff and their aspirations, to the planning for the new season, speaking to players individually and collectively, on to the game-plans, tactics, selecting teams, managing and motivating players etc – but I find that very exciting.
“I have spent the past five years coaching, and in the last couple I have really begun to want to work more regularly with players, so I’ve been looking for opportunities all over, and when the Glasgow opening came up I felt hugely honoured to be considered because there is terrific potential here.”
Townsend is known throughout the game as a deep thinker, a Borderer steeped in rugby, so it is just as well that his wife and two boys share his passion for sport. They have grown used to him being away for long spells with his job, and having taken the decision that he cannot commute as easily from his Borders home as Sean Lineen did from Edinburgh, that will increase now that he will be based in Glasgow most of the week. Fortunately, his family share his excitement in Glasgow, the city and the rugby club.
Townsend has been preparing for this chance for some time. One of the first Scots to pass the elite UK coaching certificate, he is keen to meet regularly with club coaches across the Glasgow district as well as step up the Warriors’ community work.
Last month he spent a week devouring information from his long-time mentor, Wayne Smith, the former All Blacks and current Chiefs coach. Smith invited him to New Zealand and arranged coaching sessions as well as social evenings with World Cup winner Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and the current New Zealand coaching team. The SRU paid for the flights as part of their new continuous professional development (CPD) programme to improve the quality of Scottish coaches, and Townsend accepts that with that comes a significant responsibility.
“I know that,” he said. “But I want us to learn from the best to try to be the best. I am hugely honoured and grateful to be given this responsibility, and I’ve got a job to do to make Glasgow rugby better. When you have been given that backing as a player or a coach you have to fulfil your side of the bargain and create improvement.
“Professional rugby is now rooted in Scotland, and Shade, myself and Matt Taylor, when he arrives [the Queensland Reds coach met the Scotland squad this week and is hoping to fly to Glasgow to meet the Warriors next week during the Super 15 break], have to take it on again. I am convinced we can.
“We want to be one of the leading teams in Europe. Sean started that process and next season we want to be challenging every team in whatever competition we’re playing in. I recognise that every other team in the RaboDirect and Heineken Cup are improving too, but I believe we can be the first Scottish team to win a title.”
That is a bold mission statement, but an adjective that described Townsend as a player was never likely to be lost simply because he changed role.
“Of course it’s tough, but we have the players and support staff to make a 10 per cent improvement, and on top of last season’s performances that is significant,” Townsend added.
“But it’s not just about the players. I came to Firhill regularly as a Scotland coach and you saw a real passion in the Glasgow supporters and an engagement in the game, and we have sold more season tickets already for next season than was sold in the whole of last season so people are buying into the improvement.
“This is a big proud city with a big rugby club with real potential. We can talk all day about what we want to achieve, but it comes down to two simple goals – to win games and to grow the club. It’s an exciting time.”