British and Irish Lions attack coach for 2021, Gregor Townsend, chats to Sky Sports about his coaching philosophy, key players, players forming bonds and his 1997 memories as a player…
Scotland head coach Townsend, who toured with the Lions as a player on their victorious 1997 tour to South Africa, has coached at Test level since 2017 and links up with the Lions in a coaching capacity for the very first time.
Alongside Lions head coach Warren Gatland, Townsend combines with three Welshman on the coaching staff, as Robin McBryde (Forwards), Steve Tandy (Defence) and Neil Jenkins (Kicking) all tour also.
If Townsend was to sum up his coaching philosophy and vision for how to play the game, how would he do so?
“It’s a difficult one to describe, because each game tells its own story, and you have to deal with the opposition, which might give you different challenges and different opportunities,” Townsend said, speaking as a guest on Will Greenwood’s Lions podcast.
“You have to deal with the weather, as well as the strengths of your players. Obviously, I’m a head coach with the national team and an attack coach with the Lions, so my focus as a head coach is on much more of a global philosophy, let’s say.
“I know how important defence is for winning rugby games and how championship-winning teams must have a strong defence, or it must be one of their key strengths.
“From a pure attacking point of view, I see the game as one of opportunities, and it’s about creating and seizing opportunities.
“So there’s certain things that you do to create more opportunities, but ultimately it’s about creating an environment where players feel they can go and create opportunities. So, it’s empowering the players, giving them confidence, giving them a structure or framework which, and the players at the top level know this already, but to go out there and grab those opportunities.
“There is so much opportunity and space in the game of rugby, and even though defences are getting better, they can’t cover everything.
“So if you have that optimistic view that there will be a way, and if a defence does really well to shut you down outside a 10, well where are they weak? Is it back on the short side, off nine, the kicking game?
“Is it having a bit more patience to go: ‘Right, well this ball we have isn’t good enough to attack off just now, can we create better ball through kicking and then them kicking back to us?’
“So opportunity would be my philosophy.”
With the way Townsend operates, who are his key guys from the Scotland set-up, and with his understanding of the players on this Lions tour, who are the sorts of players likely to be central? And did he have to push hard for the inclusion of eight Scottish players this time around?
“It’s always going to be the 10s,” Townsend adds.
“The 10s are the ones that are going to be making the most decisions, they get more touches of the ball in an attacking sense, so those players, you want to free them up, guide them at times to say: ‘Was this an opportunity we could have taken?’ but they tend to know that anyway.
“They have to drive your attack. So whether it’s Finn [Russell] with Scotland, whether it’s Finn and or Owen [Farrell] with the Lions, the relationship we have is going to be really important.
“And the relationship they have with the team. They’re going to be driving where we attack, what type of attack we use, and when I say attack, obviously the kicking game is part of that too.
“Outside of that, if you have players that are decision-makers and have the skills to do more than one thing, then you’re going to have so many more weapons than just someone who can run straight into a defence.
“And when I see the Lions forwards, and that back-row, the players we have there that can do multiple things in attack and defence, that can link with the backs, play to space, players that are quick enough to create the space themselves. Players who could easily fit in a backline.
“You could fill [Justin] Tipuric and Sam Simmonds in the centres, or any of the back-rows in the centres, and you’ve got players who will make decisions as well as be physically able to get behind the defence.
“So I hope you can tell I’m really excited to be working with these Lions players, because there’s some amount of talent.
“We know we could have picked anyone from a group of 55 to 60 players and we’d be believing we’ve got a team capable of beating the Springboks, and be excited about working with those players.
“The Scottish players put their hands up for selection, in how well they played over the last couple of years and also how well they can play with some brilliant players around them going up against South Africa.”
A majority of the Lions squad has now already met up before the tour for a training camp in Jersey. How has that been with the players?
“It was really good to watch the players arriving and form bonds.
“It took me back to 1997 and I remember we came in for a lunch, and it was like: ‘Where do you sit? The Welsh lads were all together on a table.
“The difference a week ago was it was a night event. We flew down with the Scottish players, and you could tell how nervous they were.
“I bumped into Robbie Henshaw about 10.30pm, we’d got checked in, and on my WhatsApp with the other management, they said ‘let’s meet for a drink’. He [Henshaw] was heading the same way, and I said: ‘Are you coming for a drink with the management’, and he said: ‘No, all the players are there!’
“Naively, I thought: ‘They have a big day tomorrow, they’re getting their Covid vaccinations at 7am, they are all in bed.’ But I go along to the bar and there’s three big tables of players and as the night goes on, it becomes two tables and then one big table of guys drinking and enjoying each other’s company, which was brilliant to see.
Will Greenwood adds: “I was asked what’s the difference between the Lions and a national campaign.
“I said, the national campaign is a four-year, sports science-based, petri-dish, microscope, magnifying glass, just everything in huge detail.
“A Lions tour is emotional, Corinthian, stalwart stories, fire-side stories, tribes connecting, people coming together and finding out what makes them tick. It’s so much more of an emotional connection that’s required, very, very quickly.
“And I’d imagine Gatland would have that high up on his agenda.”
Finally, having toured as a Lions player against a regaining World Cup-winning Springbok side in 1997, what are Townsend’s memories of 24 years ago?
“On the field, it is the South African anthem before the first Test.
“I knew that was going to be the biggest night of my rugby career, and probably the biggest night of my life.
“We don’t sing an anthem as Lions, and so you’re just waiting for the South African one, and I almost had an out of body experience where I was looking down at Newlands Stadium myself, standing there and going: ‘Right, this is the night you have to deliver.
“It’s the celebrations at the end of the second Test, and the whole atmosphere, physicality, intensity of that second Test, to end the game having won it was incredible.
“And maybe the Test matches dominate in my mind, because they were a step up, but I loved the games leading up to them, even our defeat up in Northern Transvaal in Pretoria.
“The rugby we were playing, and the way the ball was getting moved around, at times our forwards were on the back foot, but we were still able to move it and play some superb rugby, so they were really enjoyable.
“The Test matches were very memorable, because it was at such a high level, and we won.
“So many things off the field. The connections we made with other people, the nights out, a night at a Mexican when Keith Wood was lying on the floor getting tequila poured into his mouth.
“A group of players also went to do a coaching session in Soweto, and I was really interested in politics, I’d studied it at University. Taking that session with young lads who were barefoot, on hard pitches, and driving through Soweto, you felt really privileged to be in South Africa and a place like Soweto.
“That stood out as well.
“In 2021, getting to take on the world champions in a three-Test series is the ultimate now for us as coaches.”
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