A winner at Twickenham ten years apart, scrum-half Stu Townsend is living the dream. Jonathan Harding finds the Exeter Chief hoping to kick on to even greater success
Stu Townsend was transformed from an on-loan prospect to an Aviva Premiership winner within a matter of months last season. But this was not his first time on the winners’ podium.
A decade earlier, the Exeter Chiefs scrum-half led Kingsbridge Community College to the final of the Emerging Schools National Cup at Twickenham.
The then 12-year-old scored the only try in his side’s 5-0 victory over Harrogate, picking the ball up from the back of the scrum and powering through the opposition defensive line.
He says of the occasion: “It was a dream to play there. Even at that age I knew I wanted to be a professional and the experience inspired me to pursue it.”
Townsend began playing rugby at the age of six for Kingsbridge RFC, his local team in Devon and one of the county’s most prolific youth teams.
If you wish to understand the scale of this success, you need only visit the kitchen of his family home. There you will see a dresser in the corner, which can be heard creaking under the weight of the trophies dutifully supplied by Townsend and his two brothers.
Yet the 22-year-old gained far more from his time at the club than silverware.
“I learnt about one of the most important elements of rugby, making new friends, which is something I’ve taken forward to Exeter,” he says.
“You have great friendships within a club and the social bond goes a long way on the pitch; you want to play for each other, it means a lot to everyone.”
During his school years, Townsend was ferried across the length and breadth of the country for games by his mum and he soon started to stand out as a genuine prospect.
Milestones fell with impressive regularity, the player captaining his county side and winning numerous individual honours en route to signing an academy contract with Chiefs at 16.
Yet the speculation about what was possible for him began years earlier, with many tipping the Torbay-born player to become a professional before he had even started playing full-contact.
He says: “Compliments are always nice, but I tried not to dwell on it too much because I still had a very long way to go.”
At Chiefs he was given the platform to develop and soon became an integral part of their academy. And after four years, Stuart was sent out on loan to the lower divisions, where he appeared for both Taunton Titans and Cornish Pirates.
“You have to prove to the coaches and everyone at the club that you are good enough to play at that level.
“Believing in yourself isn’t enough. If you sit back and think you’ll just do it, you probably won’t. As long as you want to improve you will get a chance.”
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This opportunity to play regularly was pivotal for his development, enabling him to acclimatise to the physical demands of the men’s game.
But it posed a number of challenges too.
He adds: “It was difficult being away from Exeter. You sometimes wonder whether you’re ever going to get that chance, whether they’re ever going to call you back.
“But I never let doubts settle in my mind. I always thought that I was good enough. You have to prove to everyone else that you are and constantly focus on what you can do to get better.”
Midway through last season, he was given his opportunity. With fellow nines Dave Lewis and Will Chudley ruled out through injury, Townsend was recalled to Chiefs’ first-team outfit, capping his first top-flight start with a try at Leicester in March.
Fast-forward two months and he was running out at Sandy Park for a play-off semi-final against European champions Saracens, which the home side edged 18-16.
“I love the culture of the club. We have a great bond amongst the players”
That performance was enough to earn him a starting berth in the play-off final against Wasps and he was keen to repay his manager’s faith in him.
“That day was pretty surreal for me. I was incredibly nervous in the weeks building up to it, but once I was there I just had to enjoy it and tell myself I was there for a reason.
“Rob (Baxter, DoR) had trust in me in the games leading up to the final. That’s all well and good. But then you have to go out and prove to him that he made the right decision.”
There was to be no try in this Twickenham outing, but the young scrum-half performed with a confidence beyond his years, using the ball well and carrying at the right time as his side ran out 23-20 winners.
For Townsend, this victory was the sweetest possible moment in his lifelong love affair with the club, a culmination of years of hard work and hurdles overcome.
“I’ve grown up here and always wanted to play for Chiefs. I love the culture of the club. We just have a great bond amongst the players, we all enjoy each other’s company. It keeps that pure rugby culture at the club.”
Back in his home town, people continue to speculate about what is possible for the player.
With some predicting an England call-up, Townsend, who already has an U20s Six Nations to his name, is more focused on getting his hands on the Chiefs’ No 9 jersey. Wallaby Nic White is currently first choice, with Chudley, Townsend and England cap Jack Maunder also vying for game time.
“It’s a great ambition of mine to represent my country, but it’s not something I’ve given too much thought to,” says Townsend, who has featured in seven Premiership matches this season. “Exeter is where I want to be and I want to have a great career there. If England opportunities come along then great.”
Luckily for Townsend, he still has plenty of time to defend his unbeaten record at Twickenham.