Gregor Townsend on turning down the Lions in 2017, winning in South Africa and the tour stand-off contenders

There was a moment when Gregor Townsend feared his chances of coaching the Lions had gone. When asked to be part of Warren Gatland’s backroom team in 2017, the Borderer demurred.

Gregor Townsend was stand-off as the Lions defeated the Springboks in the 1997 Test series. He will return to South Africa as Lions defence coach. Picture: Shutterstock
Gregor Townsend was stand-off as the Lions defeated the Springboks in the 1997 Test series. He will return to South Africa as Lions defence coach. Picture: Shutterstock

Having only just been installed as Scotland’s head coach, the timing wasn’t right for Townsend. Four years later, and he leapt at the chance when Gatland came calling once more and will take on the role of attack coach for this summer’s tour of South Africa.

The hard work starts now, however, and Townsend revealed that he and the rest of the coaches met earlier this week to discuss the make-up of the squad.

“A lot of the meeting was focused on selection, going through each position and being open-minded about players who could make a difference to the Lions,” said the Scot.

Gregor Townsend says the Lions selection debate has already begun. Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

“We know that the squad will be named in three weeks but it was good to have that discussion and there will be a few more between now and May 6.

“We all basically chose our own squad and then compared notes. And then we ended up discussing a fair bit outside of our own choices and players who hadn’t made the 36 we had all sent in were discussed too.

“All the lists were pretty divergent! There was a core group that most of us agreed on, maybe 50-60 per cent that we could all see as Lions this year. But the other 40-50 per cent there’s still a lot of discussion to be had and opportunities for players to get in that squad.”

While Townsend will mastermind the Lions attack, his Scotland sidekick Steve Tandy will oversee the defence. Gatland has also called on Leinster’s Robin McBryde, who will take charge of the forwards, and Wales’ Neil Jenkins, who will serve once more as kicking coach.

Sporting a cut above his eye, Townsend joked that he had picked up the injury at the selection meeting. A gardening injury is the real cause of the abrasion but there is sure to be plenty of robust debate about the personnel who will board the plane to South Africa.

The Scottish cause will be helped by Townsend and Tandy’s direct involvement, although the former says his players have made a strong case for inclusion with their recent performances.

“I think the Scottish players have put their hands up and not just in this season’s Six Nations but in the one prior to that. If you look at the last two Six Nations there is just one point separating Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England and that shows you how competitive it is between the countries that make up the British and Irish Lions so our players - sorry Scotland players - are in the mix but are up against very good players from the other three teams.”

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Townsend could have been involved on the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2017 but chose instead to tour with Scotland.

“That was not an easy decision but at the time I felt it was the right decision to stay with Scotland,” he said. “It was going to be my first coaching opportunity with the national team and we had a tough tour to Australia and Fiji but it did cross my mind that if you turn down the Lions you might not get asked again so I was delighted that Warren didn’t cross me off his list.”

South Africa was a happy hunting ground for Townsend in 1997 when he played a pivotal role as the Lions stand-off in a memorable Test series victory under the guidance of Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer. Then, as now, the Springboks were world champions, but Townsend believes coaching the composite side could be even more special than playing for it.

“It means more now than it did 24 years ago,” he said. “It was such an enjoyable tour and winning a Test series is incredible. The friendships created were as memorable as the games on the field. As you go through your rugby career and your career comes to an end you realise with each passing year how important the Lions are and how fortunate and lucky I was to be involved on such a good Lions tour in South Africa back then.

“For the Lions to take on the world champions is amazing and some luck. It happened in 1997 and in 2009 and it’s now happening again. That’s another big challenge and one that will focus the minds of everyone that gets into that final squad.

“A few of our teams have experience of playing against them. Wales did it in the [World Cup] semi-final in 2019 and England faced them in the final.

“So we know it will be a huge challenge physically. They have a game model that works for them. We won't have too many games to analyse as they’ve not played for a while but I’m sure they’ll be ready to go by the Test series.”

As to who may inherit the red No 10 jersey he wore with distinction in ’97, Townsend was giving little away. Johnny Sexton will be 36 in the summer but the Ireland outside-half showed little sign of flagging during the recent Six Nations.

“Johnny is obviously very much in the mix,” said Townsend. “It’s a very strong position with players at the top of the game at a good age. Finn Russell is 28 I think, Dan Biggar is a bit older and Farrell is a similar age and Sexton is older but with a lot of experience who played really well against Scotland. So there’s real depth there at 10 with plenty more discussions to come.”

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