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Sage Scot justifies his wage

Perhaps it is a little unfair on John Smit to keep harping on about the comment he made to the television interviewers following his side’s fine second half performance against the Cats in Durban last week.

However, I cannot help picking on the new Springbok captain for saying that Gregor Townsend had shown in the match that “experience cannot be bought”. We all know what Smit meant, and usually that is a saying that is common place when a long serving stalwart helps his side to victory.

Clearly though, the reality is that the Cats game showed us the exact opposite – experience can in fact be bought, as Sharks Kevin Putt did when he went over to the northern hemisphere in the off-season to sign up the Scot.

Experience was always going to be the big asset that Townsend brought with him to Durban. There were quite a few sceptics when the announcement was first made, particularly when Putt said that the former British Lion would be used as a back-up to Butch James. Why, it seemed quite justified to ask, should it be necessary to bring out an overseas player as back-up.

Yet as we go past the halfway stage of the Super 12, it is becoming clearer that Putt’s move was in fact a masterstroke. Just like Argentinian Federico Mendez helped several of the young Natal scrummagers mature during the 2002 Currie Cup season without always playing an onfield role himself, so Townsend has started to teach his Natal teammates a trick or two.

While he has not made the starting lineup since the game against the Waratahs, when he was replaced halfway through the match and then dropped immediately afterwards, Townsend has played a key role at some critical junctures of the games where he has come on.

The first was in the match against the Highlanders in Dunedin. The Sharks were well behind on the scoreboard when Townsend came on in the last quarter. But he played no small part in the turn-around as his cool head kept those around him as cool and collected.

Here Smit is 100%, this calmness and unflappability only comes through experience, and its presence rubs off positively on those around him. Not many have written it yet, but Townsend might be playing more than just a bit role in the dramatic resurgence in the career of Butch James.

There has never been any doubting James’ talent, what was always debatable was his temperament. Too often he has gone walkabout under pressure, and while you should not mention it too loudly when Putt is anywhere within earshot, there is also the small matter of his reputation for volatility and hot-headedness.

Well, that all seems to be cured, at least for now, and my money says that Townsend’s presence, be it on the field as a replacement or as a teammate in training, has had a lot to do with it.

Townsend’s arrival was one of the factors that swung the game the Sharks way after a tricky start against the Cats. The problem, as Putt explained to journalists afterwards, was that he had instructed his players to get the ball behind the Cats (in other words kick it).

His team was criticised for kicking too much, but the reality was that the players weren’t properly understanding the instructions. Instead of kicking cleverly and targeting points on the field where they could expose Cats weaknesses, they were just gifting possession to the opposition by kicking willy-nilly.

When Townsend came on 10 minutes into the second half he gave the players around him an object lesson on how the tactical kicking game should be executed. Cats coach Chester Williams was one of the first afterwards to admit the big role this had in changing the tide of the game.

There is no need right now to call for Townsend’s immediate return to the starting side. Bit by bit his little runs on the field will start rubbing off on the rest of the Sharks players, and I suppose you could say that one of Townsend’s goals during his stay in Durban is to make himself obsolete by teaching the youngsters his tricks.

Quite apart from the different tactical option that the Sharks have available with him on the bench, what Townsend brings is tutorship to a side that up until this season has far too often played like 15 chickens with their heads chopped off.

Even when he is not on the field, the new direction exhibited by these Sharks can be attributed at least in part to the highly controversial signing from Edinburgh. And yes, in answer to the inevitable question, a controlled influx of foreign players into the South African game may carry more benefits than negatives, as the northern hemisphere has shown through the way they have tapped into southern hemisphere resources during the last six years.

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