Scotland will prosper at this year’s Rugby World Cup, according to Gregor Townsend, who believes the dark blues can capitalise on the feel-good factor surrounding Glasgow’s Guinness PRO12 success as they build towards the global gathering.
Wooden-spoonists in this year’s Six Nations after losing all five matches under new boss Vern Cotter, the Scots face a qualifying pool fraught with danger containing traditional powerhouses South Africa and Samoa, as well as fast-rising outsiders Japan and USA.
Scotland will be written off, but buoyed by Glasgow’s stunning improvement and Edinburgh’s new found competitiveness in reaching the European Challenge Cup final, Glasgow rugby director Townsend is backing Cotter’s side to silence the doubters.
Townsend told The Rugby Paper: “What ourselves and Edinburgh have done has been magnificent and public interest here is huge. It’s wonderful having a World Cup in the UK at the end of it and it’ll give the players a lot of confidence knowing they can win big games.
“The standard of players that the Glasgow and Edinburgh boys played against and beat will be similar to the ones they’ll play in the World Cup and it’s proven to many people that professional rugby can have a successful future in Scotland.”
Townsend added: “Scotland’s Six Nations performance was a surprise because up until then they had been playing well. They’d pushed the All Blacks close and beaten Argentina and Tonga in the autumn, and then should have won the first two Six Nations games against France and Wales.
“It perhaps shows where the team is confidence-wise and they could probably do with a win or two ahead of the World Cup, just to give them that bit of security knowing they are a good team, but I think they’ll do well at the World Cup.
“All four games will be tough – Japan have been building for this and USA rugby is a rising force, while we know the physical challenge South Africa and Samoa will pose – but you’ll not get many one-sided games in this pool.
“People are looking at England’s pool as being the one with the tightest games, but I reckon teams like Japan and USA will be competitive against the so-called bigger nations. I reckon our pool could be the toughest of the lot, but with the experience our lads have gained throughout the season, I expect us to reach the quarter-finals.”
Glasgow’s PRO12 victory, beating perennial Irish challengers Munster with a scintillating display of counter-attacking rugby in a thrilling final at Ravenhill, capped a superlative three years for former Scotland and Lions fly-half Townsend, whose side have improved incrementally since he took charge in 2012.
“It was an historic moment to win our first PRO12 title and the circumstances made it even better,” he says. “To win after twice losing in the semi-finals and once in the final before was very special, and not only was it great to see the players play so well, to have 4,000 supporters come across made it a brilliant weekend. Just fantastic.
“It’s great credit to the players and that improvement had already started before I got there, when they finished fourth the previous year. They found togetherness and a working culture that meant they were going to be consistent and we’ve just built on that.
“Some young players have come in and done well, while some really good signings, like Fijian scrum-half Niko Matawalu, helped us move forward as well. But the move to Scotstoun has also really helped and we’ve built up a fantastic home record there. Producing more wins drives confidence and when players believe in what you’re doing, you develop momentum that takes you to what you’re trying to achieve.”
Townsend’s achievements have largely gone under the radar outside Scotland, but his success should come as no surprise given the pedigree of coaches he worked under during a long and eclectic playing career which encompassed Montpellier, Natal Sharks, Castres, Brive and Northampton, as well as hometown Gala and the defunct Borders.
“I think my career served me pretty well for coaching,” Townsend, capped 82 times by his country, explains. “I was always a learner as a player and wanted to get into new environments outside my comfort zone, and that mindset has helped me as a coach.
“Ever since I finished playing I’ve gone out to visit as many clubs and coaches as I can and that’s helped me to improve my knowledge of how to manage people and how to build a successful rugby team. I’d actually say most of what I’ve learned has been since my rugby career ended and there have been some key individuals there.”
Identifying the coaches who helped forge his coaching career, he adds: “The two who had the biggest influence on me as a player would be Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan. They were different but were both very passionate and knowledgeable about the sport.
“Since I’ve finished playing, I’ve been fortunate to have met Wayne Smith on a number of occasions. I spent time at the Waikato Chiefs and instantly hit it off with him, while he spent time in Glasgow during my first season here. He’s been great to me and another coach I admire and speak to is Joe Schmidt, who’s done a wonderful job with Leinster and Ireland. It’s great to speak to those people and get their advice and I’m very grateful to them for that.”
Glasgow earned plaudits last season for an attacking brand of rugby that produced more tries than any PRO12 team bar Munster, but one that was augmented by a solid defence run by former Scotland A and Queensland Reds star Matt Taylor.
Outlining his inclusive playing philosophy, Townsend, 42, explains: “It’s about creating an environment so players can play. You want them going into games well prepared and fully confident they’re able to make decisions, whether that’s to run with the ball, pass or kick, and you need to arm them with the knowledge that gives them freedom to learn.
“As a club we pride ourselves on having a strong defence because we realise the best teams in any sport have that and it gives you great counter-attack ball. A lot of our best attacks in the final against Munster came from good defence which forced them to kick or allowed us to turn over the ball, which in turn enabled us to score some very good tries.
“Matt Taylor won the Super Rugby title with Queensland four years ago and now works with the Scotland team as well. We played together at the Borders so know each other very well and he’s played a big part in our success over the past few years.”
Townsend’s old club side, the Border Reivers, were disbanded by the SRU during vicious cost cutting in 2007, since when debate has raged within Scotland over whether a third professional team should be reintroduced to bolster a domestic playing base that has been denuded by the loss of star players to England and France.
Recent lucrative sponsorship deals with BT Sport, allied to renewed interest amongst Scottish rugby fans, have replenished the coffers and Townsend believes the time is right to broaden the professional base again, but this time in the north of the country.
He argues: “A third professional team would certainly help to grow the game in other parts of Scotland and provide more players for the national team.
“It’s probably past the stage where the Borders could have a third team because it would cost a lot to put the infrastructure in place and build a proper stadium, so if it was going to happen it would have to be somewhere else, probably in the north of Scotland. Aberdeen would be my favourite and I could see huge benefits from having a team based there.”
Townsend’s success at Glasgow has manifested itself in Cotter’s World Cup training squad, which features no fewer than 22 of their PRO12-winning players, including fly-half starlet Finn Russell, 22, who is being earmarked as the man to make Scotland tick.
“It’s fantastic to have so many players in the squad and I’m actually disappointed for two or three of our other boys who didn’t make it,” Townsend says. “I’m delighted for the ones that did, though, and they’ll come back better players for their experiences with Scotland. Fingers crossed that most of them will make it into Vern’s final 31-man squad.”
Of the talented Russell, he adds: “Finn made a really big impact for us the season before last and although he didn’t play for us as much this season because of injury and Test call-ups, he was outstanding in our last three games against Ulster (twice) and Munster.
“He’s got excellent composure, he enjoys playing on the biggest stage and he’s improving all the time. He is learning to play in the fly-half position very quickly and he fronts up in defence, which is a big strength in his game and a vital one these days.
“There’ll be a lot of competition with Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson in the squad and all three were Glasgow boys last year, which is pleasing to see. Finn knows he’s got a lot of work to do to reach his potential and get selected above the other boys.”
While Townsend will maintain a watching brief on Scotland affairs, his No.1 priority lies with Glasgow and preparations for next season began early when the squad was called back into training just ten days after last month’s historic triumph over Munster. “We do things differently at Glasgow,” muses the man known as ‘Toony,’ whose recruitment for the 2015-16 campaign includes the man-mountain Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, currently wowing Super Rugby crowds with his try-scoring exploits for the Waratahs.
Naiyaravoro is a bullocking Rugby League convert who has been earning comparisons with the great Jonah Lomu, such has been his impact Down Under.
“We were delighted when Taqele chose us,” says Townsend, with considerable understatement. “His potential is fantastic and he’s obviously playing well and is the leading try-scorer at the Waratahs this season. He’s only been playing Rugby Union for 18 months and has a lot of learning to do, but he’s one hell of a prospect for us in the PRO12.
“He’s 6ft 5in and weighs about 20st, so those are amazing physical attributes to have as a winger. There’s a lot bigger wingers around these days than when Jonah Lomu played and while Jonah would still have stood out, now you see a lot of wingers who are as big as second or back rowers but have the pace and power you need.
“Taqele’s got the fundamentals of a winger, which is to be quick and finish off tries. He seems to do the latter very well and I can’t wait to see him in action for us.”
Aside from defending their PRO12 crown, Glasgow’s major target next season is to make an impact in the European Champions Cup.
Last season, Townsend’s side pushed Bath, Toulouse and Montpellier all the way in a brutal qualifying pool before narrowly missing out on a quarter-final place following a last day shoot-out at the Rec.
Townsend explained: “We were disappointed not to get out of that pool after winning our first two games. We played some of our best ever rugby in beating Bath at Scotstoun but didn’t quite have the discipline to win at their place after creating enough chances.
“The new Champions Cup format makes it so tight now and whoever we play will provide massive tests, but last season was a great learning experience for us and what we went through in Europe put us in a great position to kick on in the PRO12. If we can just tidy up our set-piece, I feel we can go up against some of those really big teams and prosper.”
Having steered Glasgow to their first title, Townsend’s name will inevitably now be linked with high profile vacancies elsewhere. But he has no intention of quitting, adding: “I’m too busy working here to think about anything like that. We’re back in pre-season now and all I’m thinking about is working hard here and making sure we mount a credible title defence.
“I really enjoy working with this group of players and it was a privilege to get the job three years ago. It’s tough work because you will inevitably lose good players through the open market, but weekends like the one we enjoyed in Belfast make it all worthwhile.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute and have another year on my contract, so all my energy is channelled here. It’s just great that 20 years after the game turned professional, we’ve actually picked up a trophy.”
The whole of Scotland will raise a toast to that: here’s to Toony, the man who put a smile back on the face of rugby north of the border.
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