Alan Tait backs ‘great thinker’ Gregor Townsend to become next Lions head coach

Alan Tait has backed “great thinker” Gregor Townsend to become the British and Irish Lions’ next head coach.
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Scotland team-mates Tait and Townsend proved central to the Lions’ 1997 Test series victory in South Africa that will forever hold a place in the famed touring team’s folklore.

Townsend led Scotland to standout Six Nations victories in England and France earlier this year before joining Warren Gatland’s Lions backroom staff for the South Africa tour.

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The 48-year-old will be gunning to help the Lions seal a series win over the Springboks with victory in Saturday’s second Test in Cape Town.

British & Irish Lions' coach Gregor Townsend during the captains run at the Cape Town StadiumBritish & Irish Lions' coach Gregor Townsend during the captains run at the Cape Town Stadium
British & Irish Lions' coach Gregor Townsend during the captains run at the Cape Town Stadium

And former dual-code international Tait believes his old colleague Townsend has all the right credentials to lead the Lions on tour in Australia in 2025.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gregor lead up the next Lions tour and I’d be 100 per cent behind that,” Tait told the PA news agency.

“Gregor has always been a great thinker. I went out on the field and just tried to read the game. But Gregor never forgot a piece of information.

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“He would remember everything and put it into action in a split-second.

“His rugby brain was superb then and he’s got better and better as he’s gone on. And that will only continue as he keeps on learning.

“He’s destined to be a top coach and I think he probably will head up the Lions next time.”

Gatland is bidding for a third Lions Test series without defeat, having tasted triumph in Australia in 2013 and pulled off a draw in New Zealand four years ago.

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The Kiwi may well opt to make this South Africa tour his last in Lions colours and Tait is convinced Townsend should be the next man in line as head coach.

“Top players will always ask about things, ask if they can do things a little differently and Gregor will say ‘yeah’ because he’s that kind of coach,” said Tait.

“It’s great for Scottish rugby as well, with Steve Tandy there too.

“I thought he’s been a massive difference to Scotland in the last year, so full praise to Steve, he’s done a great job with Scotland and now he’s out with the Lions.

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“If I were Gregor I’d have a massive smile on my face for Scotland.

“Scotland have world-class players now, I just look back to 1997 when there were five of us out there and possibly could have been a couple more.

“But after that, in 1999 we won the Five Nations, and I’m sure it was on the back of a lot of the experiences we learned and the same with Jim Telfer being out there too.

“Jim probably learned a lot working with some of the English guys out in South Africa. You take as much as you can from things like that and hopefully that can filter down to the Scottish team.”

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Tait’s try sealed the Lions’ 25-16 first Test victory over the reigning world-champion Springboks in 1997, with Townsend pulling the strings from fly-half.

The 1997 tour has been immortalised on film as the first to be accompanied by a fly-on-the-wall video crew.

Former Newcastle Falcons boss Tait admitted fans still regularly approach him to say they still watch that Living With Lions documentary.

“I think I watched the video once when I first received it,” said Tait.

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“The amount of people who have gained real enjoyment out of that, who come to me and say how much they enjoyed it, it’s staggering.

“As you get older and you look back you realise how big the tour was.

“Jim Telfer’s speeches obviously have stood out, and he had many a speech when I was with Scotland as well.

“He’d sit you down before you left the hotel, before you got onto the bus. Some guys are almost motivational speakers.

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“Jim could just roll off a story, talk about somebody in the room and he’d pull on your emotional strings to get you up for it.

“You could imagine him lying awake at night and composing speeches in his mind.”

Gatland’s class of 2021 pulled off the perfect start to the current tour, toppling the Springboks 22-17 last weekend.

And Tait now believes the tourists stand a fine chance of swiping the series with a Test to spare on Saturday.

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“It’s key that this Lions team has done the same as we did and won the first Test,” said Tait.

“It must put pressure on the Springboks and with them not having that kind of battle-hardened match fitness, I think it will be a little bit of a worry for them not having had any matches between the World Cup and this tour.

“And I think the Lions will get out there and get a result on Saturday.”