TOWNSEND ON THE ATTACK
Townsend still looks as fit and tanned as the vast majority of the Scotland players who were milling about the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews last week and infinitely more relaxed, as the the final cut to the World Cup squad looms. It turns out that the Scotland attack coach has been not just training the troops but training with them to boot, joining the repetitive 100 metre sprints, and he looks as if he could just about take to the field again at a push or, failing that, with a push; not that it’s going to happen. A nagging Achilles injury has reminded the former fly-half that he is nearer 40 than 30 and the one-time darling of the national team is now plotting and planning Scotland’s next victory with nothing more than a clipboard and a laptop rather than his trademark eye for a gap.
The transition from player to coach was almost laughably easy, not that those who have been toiling away at the coalface of club rugby for umpteen years necessarily enjoyed the joke. Frank Hadden hired Townsend on an occasional basis and Andy Robinson made the appointment full time. He has led something of a charmed life, avoiding all those nagging responsibilities that come with being head coach but his place in the current management team looks secure as long as Robinson remains in situ, although that may rest upon a huge gamble paying out. This coaching team has placed its reputation on the line by betting that this World Cup will be different to all others that went before it.
The game may have changed out of all recognition since David Kirk first lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy back in 1987 but the method of winning the big one has stuck to a structure every bit as predictable as a Jim Davidson joke. The winning team invariably fields a powerful forward pack allied to a stonewall defence and orchestrated by a kicking fly-half. Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky, Stephen Larkham, Jonny Wilkinson and Butch James have all tasted success as World Cup-winning playmakers and every one of them could land it on a sixpence from 70 yards; two still can.
Scotland will likely field a stand-off in Ruaridh Jackson, left, whose every instinct is to attack with the ball in hand which, in the circumstances, looks a little like betting against the Harlem Globetrotters. Jackson has started four of Scotland’s last five Tests and while his rival Dan Parks got a run out yesterday, the youngster remains in pole position for the big games in New Zealand. Are Scotland really going to buck the World Cup trend and attack with the ball in hand?
“Yes,” replies Townsend with Buddhist-like serenity, before adding the rider, “if it’s the best thing for us to do. We’ve obviously based a lot of our training on out-working other teams, getting into position quicker than they do, moving the ball. This year we’ve worked on becoming a passing and an off-loading team but it will depend upon what the defence does.
“If it comes up in a 14-man line and there is space in behind obviously we need to mix up our game but the pleasing thing in the last two games of the Six Nations when we got our shape in attack, and as many different ball carriers as possible, we looked very good against England with limited ball and very good against Italy, so we want to build on that.”
History still suggests that defence rather than attack dominates World Cup matches, especially at the business end of the event. The 1999 tournament marked the first professional World Cup and Australia won their second Webb Ellis Cup while conceding exactly one try. That set the green and gold standard and, while no one has since approached that Wallabies’ defensive display, it remains the yardstick that every team aspires to.
Remember Jake White’s claim about his Springboks being a very good team without the ball or French skipper Thierry Dusautoir’s lung-busting 38 tackles (out of 299 in total) to deny New Zealand in Cardiff? In that same match the all-singing, all-dancing and brilliantly entertaining All Black backs were little more than spectators in the second half. As the clock wound down, the pressure ratcheted up and the Kiwis threw their game plan overboard, reverting to forward pick and drives. That’s what the World Cup can do, it has a nasty habit of reducing the most ambitious attacking aspirations to little more than organised mud wrestling. So what has changed?
“It should be different because the laws have changed,” says Townsend, referring to the IRB ruling that requires the tackler to fully release the tackled man before attempting to steal the ball. “However the game is creeping back to where it was because the contact is so competitive. Certainly a year ago the sort of rugby that was winning games was attacking rugby and I still believe that that [sort of rugby] will win games in the World Cup.”
If he’s right then the competition has been reduced to a two-horse race between the trans-Tasman rivals of Australia and New Zealand because those two teams are streets ahead of anyone else when it comes to doing something interesting with the ball in hand, a fact that Townsend halfway concedes. He picks the Wallaby passing and the All Black lines, support play and work off the ball as the best in the world but the Scot stops short when asked about the gulf in class between the northern and southern halves of the globe.
“Gulf is not the right word,” he argues. “If you take the best back line that France, Ireland or England can field, there are some highly-skilled players. You watch some of the rugby that Ireland are trying to produce or that Leinster produce, that’s high quality attacking rugby.”
“Look what we produced in the last two games of the Six Nations, England did it against Australia in November. It’s there so it’s just about producing it on a more consistent basis.”
Of course what Townsend cannot do is call upon someone with Brian O’Driscoll’s genius at turning a half yard into five points or Johnnie Sexton’s game management skills. The country does not have a Quade Cooper or a Conrad Smith, a facilitator with the speed, strength and skills to create space in the rush hour traffic that clogs the modern midfield. Instead Townsend talks up Jackson, who still makes more mistakes than are good for Robinson’s blood pressure.
“Ruaridh started three games in the Six Nations and his fourth two weeks ago against Ireland,” responds Townsend. “We can’t be judgmental at the beginning of the season and only once in every four years is the first game of the season a Test match so there will be errors. The strengths Ruaridh brings are an ability to move onto the ball and check the defence before putting out a quality pass off either hand, and that skill is hugely undervalued.”
There is a school of thought that believes, with the players that are available, Scotland should pull their horns in, play Dan Parks and adopt a strictly limited game plan against the big boys but that theory is about as popular as Charles Darwin’s brainwave among the Republican right. Instead, one of Scotland’s most entertaining players seems determined that the current crop will play the game the same way that he did, with the ball in hand, although only time will tell whether he is singing the same tune after six weeks in New Zealand.