Gregor Townsend knows that as Scotland coach he cannot get into the bear-pit with Finn Russell, can’t slug it out in public with his former fly-half, trading blow for blow for our delectation. He can’t, won’t and doesn’t want to.
He does wish to talk about it, though. Or as much of it as he can. He rejects pretty much every line of what Russell, now exiled from the Scotland squad, said in the Sunday Times and, no doubt, Russell will reject pretty much every line that Townsend utters here. There are two sides to this story and in almost every detail they are diametrically opposed.
Among the things Russell told the Times was that he “doesn’t have a personal relationship” with the head coach, despite working together for seven years.
He also said the action that sparked the fall-out – a “late-night drinking session” or a handful of beers and an 11pm finish according to viewpoint – was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, and that he had doubts about playing for Scotland as far back as last year’s Six Nations because of the environment under Townsend.
The coach himself says he’s not angry, but disappointed. He seems perplexed by parts of Russell’s view of things and saddened by other parts. He sings the praises of the player and says he’d like to have him back in the squad, but will not cave in on what he, and his senior players, see as non-negotiable standards of behaviour.
You’re not backing down? “Not at all,” he replies. You will not bend? “No.”
Townsend was planning to speak to Russell again this week, either face-to-face in Paris or over the telephone, but that may not happen now. The fly-half made his position abundantly clear on Sunday. Now Townsend has his say.
Tom English: You had no awareness that this interview was coming?
Gregor Townsend: No, I got a message about 11 on Saturday night that something was coming out the following day. It was disappointing. I’d actually been messaging Finn on Friday to set up a meeting the following week.
TE: You spoke to him?
GT: I spoke to him on the Sunday night after the Ireland game just to inform him that we’d be going with the same squad but that we would reassess after the first two games. And then on the Friday before the England game I messaged him on WhatsApp to arrange a time to either to meet, which would have been Paris, or to talk on the phone.
TE: And what did he say?
GT: He said Tuesday or Wednesday this week would work best and I said I’d get back to him after the game.
TE: And no sign in that exchange that he was going to go public?
GT: No, no. He said good luck (in the game) tomorrow.
TE: So you pick up your Sunday Times, what did you think?
GT: It was disappointing, the timing of it and the issues within it, especially as we were hoping to sit down and have a further conversation. The last time we sat down and had a conversation it was on the Monday after he had chosen to leave camp. He didn’t come in on the Monday morning, which was very disappointing, but the conversation we had that night was a really positive one and I was hoping – and this was included in my message to him last week – that if we could have a similar conversation after the England game then that would be something I’d look forward to.
TE: Let’s go through a few things he has said. He’s basically saying it’s you or him, isn’t he? He’s laying it down that he isn’t coming back while you’re Scotland coach…
GT: What we say to any player that has the ability to make a Scotland squad is that they have to align to certain team standards and values that the rest of the group are living by. That’s what we want to see from any player. If they come into the group they have to be trusted to live those standards.
TE: Do you feel a betrayal?
GT: No, just disappointment that I’m not coaching Finn. I’ve coached him for over seven years and he has been very coachable, he’s been great to work with, it’s great to see how he has evolved from an academy player.
‘Those views don’t ring true’
TE: Gregor, his portrayal of you is that of a controlling, joyless character. He says that despite being coached by you for many years he has no relationship with you. It’s a devastating critique…
GT: Those views don’t ring true with what I’ve experienced, with this group of players and with coaching Finn for all these years. My approach to coaching evolves from campaign to campaign and from what I learn from different organisations but the fundamentals are there and have always been there. Finn, like any player, has the ability to express how he feels. The door is always open. Players have freedom to play within a structure. In terms of our environment, joy and fun is a big part of what we do during the week, but this is high performance sport. We have very high standards because the teams we are playing against operate at the highest level.
TE: You would reject the portrayal of you as too controlling…
GT: Players have opinions on a coach, but I work in collaboration with players and coaches and that’s always been the case. I’ve particular empathy with people who play stand-off because I played in that position, I understand the pressures and expectations of playing 10.
TE: I’m pushing you to respond to each comment he has made but I know you don’t want to get into a tit-for-tat, right?
GT: What stands out here is that players are invited to play for Scotland and there are huge responsibilities that go with that.
TE: So he hasn’t been a team player?
GT: He chose to leave the team environment, he chose not to be there on the Monday. There has to be consequences for that and a recognition that it won’t happen again.
TE: Tell me about the meeting you had on the Monday after the drinking episode on the Sunday. A positive meeting?
GT: Hugely positive.
TE: Did you think that the issue had been resolved at that point?
GT: I thought it was on its way to being resolved. We talked about a number of things – life and rugby, but also the events of the night before and that day and how that was unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for a player to walk out on a group. He accepted that. He wanted to apologise to the group. He knew that he wouldn’t be playing against Ireland. We can’t cut corners on things like this. He was positive about that and how he would help Adam (Hastings). And we left positive. We were talking about gameplans.
TE: What happens on Tuesday?
GT: We had full training and I had told him you won’t be here on Tuesday and that was the consequences of what you did. But we have Thursday and Friday training. He was going to be there. I phoned him on the Tuesday evening before flying to London for the Six Nations launch and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the same conversation as the night before. There was definitely a change in direction and he wanted to go back to Racing that weekend which meant he wouldn’t be able to speak to the players on Thursday and Friday, which was disappointing.
TE: Was that a frosty conversation?
GT: I was really deflated. I’d been so positive about the night before.
TE: What happened?
GT: I don’t know. Twenty four hours after our conversation and things had moved on from his point of view and they have not gone back in the last couple of weeks.
‘I knew I had to improve as a coach’
TE: He says you have not really had much of a relationship and that the difficulties go back a year or more. I’m quoting now. “…the current environment, I don’t think I want to play in that, I don’t think it’s good for me as a person or a player, I have felt like this for more than a year”. What’s it like to hear that?
GT: We have built in lots of opportunities for players to feed back at any time during the season. We have sit-downs and one-on-ones with players. We talk about their rugby and their lives and anything that is changing, we talk about any issues they might have. After the World Cup we asked every player for feedback. I knew I had to improve as a coach. It wasn’t good enough. Some wrote back to me, some I sat down with and that helped create changes in the environment now.
TE: Are you saying that he had opportunities to raise any problems he had with you and he didn’t take them?
GT: Well, any player…
TE: Let’s just deal with Finn…
GT: I’m dealing with any player in our environment. They have opportunities. The opportunities are there while we are in camp and the opportunities are there when we, as coaches, go and meet them in their home clubs. I was in Paris in December and caught up with Finn. So there are opportunities to talk through any issues in camp and out of camp.
TE: You went to Paris in December?
GT: Yes. That meeting was around hearing his thoughts on the World Cup because he had chosen not to feed back (before then).
TE: Why hadn’t he given feedback?
GT: I don’t know, but I thought it was worth me going out to Paris to discuss things, and see if they were any issues but also to talk about where we believe he could get to. There is a phrase in coaching called Feed Forward rather than Feed Back, you picture where you want to be in two years and how you plan to get there. We talked around that. After Christmas there was a follow up with phone calls and Finn said, ‘OK, there are things I would like to change’ and we set up to have a meeting in camp which was initially going to be in Paris, but that didn’t work out for different reasons, so that meeting ended up on the Monday night.
TE: He says he had all these negative feelings for more than a year. When did you become aware that this was a serious problem?
GT: That conversation after Christmas. We had a telephone chat and I thought, ‘Right, we need to have a face-to-face meeting’. I’d rather not get into what we discussed. I believe that players have to feel safe to express how they feel. I know how difficult it is for a player to speak to a head coach about what they are feeling and that kind of environment is one we always want to create. So that conversation I had with him on Monday was like that and I felt a real privilege to have that. To have a player open up and talk to you – it would be great to have more of those discussions. Unfortunately it’s not been the case since that Monday night.
TE: He says, “I believe we we need change, we are tracking down a road and it’s not been working for us and it’s especially not been working for me.” A direct challenge. What are you going to do about this?
GT: Any player who doesn’t want to be involved, then that’s their choice. If a player states publicly that he doesn’t want to be involved then that is absolutely their choice. The pride and responsibility you have when you wear that thistle, you must be totally committed.
TE: You must be hurt by this. You might not want to admit it but you have to be…
GT: No, things move on quickly in sport.
TE: Scotland fans will say how the hell did it come to this, why did nobody solve this earlier. What do you say to them?
GT: It’ll be disappointing for the supporters not to have everyone available. I totally understand that, but there has to be standards of behaviour that people align to and we can’t change those for one person. If people are not able to live by the standards of the group then they won’t play for Scotland, it’s as simple as that.
TE: Not every player is the same, though. Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus is not treated the same as everybody else. The manager will see him as the star and make allowances. Shouldn’t you make allowances for your star player?
GT: Everybody is different and they are treated differently but they have to be treated fairly as well. What is important is what the team requires. Listen, I love differences. Different personalities are great. People are allowed to be themselves.
‘It hasn’t been a distraction to the players’
TE: What do the players make of it all.
GT: I don’t know.
TE: You must have asked the senior players? ‘Are we doing the right thing here’?
GT: Yeah, all I can say is that it hasn’t been a distraction. They’ve absolutely been excellent.
TE: Have you spoken to the players since Finn had his say?
GT: Yeah, I speak to the senior players a lot.
TE: Are they backing you?
GT: It’s not an area you’ll get me going into. What is important is that the leadership are committed to team values and whoever comes in has to align themselves to those standards of behaviour.
TE: Do they agree that Finn has let himself down?
GT: I don’t want to speak on their behalf.
TE: I’m trying to get the mood in the camp here…
GT: You’re interviewing me, not the players.
TE: Finn talks about the negative environment…
GT: This environment is a new one. It’s not the same environment as the World Cup or the last Six Nations because there are new players and new leaders and new coaches. We have changed a lot of things. Everything evolves.
TE: You asked Finn to see a psychologist. What was that about?
GT: I’d rather not talk about that. I know Finn mentioned it in the article, but there is a duty of care in any coach when they feel support could be required for any issues a player might have. A psychologist is similar to an assistant coach in some ways.
TE: He mentioned his own health in the piece “for my rugby and my health I don’t think I can do it…” What’s he getting at?
GT: You’d have to ask him.
TE: Will he play for you again?
GT: I hope so. He’s a terrific player.
TE: But you’re not backing down?
GT: Not at all.
TE: You won’t bend?
GT: No. I was hoping that Finn and I could have a similar discussion like the one we had on the Monday night in camp and we’d be in a situation where he could come back, but things look like they’ve changed with what he has said in the media.
TE: Can you talk to him?
GT: Yes, but it doesn’t look like there will be any change to align himself to the agreed standards of behaviour.
TE: Any intention of picking up the phone?
GT: We’ll see. The plan was to chat this week but I’ll digest what’s happened.
TE: Has he got a future under you?
GT: I would hope so. Finn has played 49 times for Scotland. I’ve coached him for a lot of years. If he comes back and is willing to agree to what we are living by then, of course, he can play a part in the future.