SCOTLAND head coach Gregor Townsend insisted that Zander Fagerson had done everything possible to prove his fitness to face England in Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash at Twickenham, but it was ultimately decided that throwing the tight-head prop into such a big match so quickly after returning from a hamstring injury suffered at the start of December was too much of a gamble. That means 36-year-old WP Nel starts at tight-head instead with Simon Berghan on the bench.
“He he has been training fully since the middle of last week [but] we feel this game has come just a few days too early for him,” explained Townsend. “We’re delighted with his progress and he’ll be very much available for next week.
“WP is into his mid-30s and still playing well which is a bonus for us. He won his 50th cap in November which was an emotional time for him. To see him play so well for 80 minutes against Saracens shows that he’s physically in the best shape he has been in for years, and this is an opportunity for him.
“With Zander starting most of our games over the last two 0r three years, WP hasn’t had the No 3 jersey on so it is a great opportunity for him to show what he can do and take the Game to England.”
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Meanwhile, dropping Ali Price – who has struggled for game-time with Glasgow this season – from his match-day 23 was a tough call given how central the scrum-half has been to Townsend’s regime since the very start. Ben White has been handed the No 9 jersey in his place, with George Horne providing cover from the bench.
“It’s more difficult for the player to receive this news,” said Townsend. “Ali and I have worked together over a number of years. We chatted a week ago about how it is important that he did improve, whether that was at training or with Glasgow at the weekend, and he was very aware of that, too.
“He’s not been able to have as many games or as many minutes with Glasgow as he would have liked, but he did play well at the weekend, so he knows and he is making progress towards getting back to his best.
“Selection can motivate you in one of two ways. It can make you disappointed or it can give you a reaction to say ‘this is the reality and if I am not close to my best then sometimes I won’t get to play’. So, we’ve already seen that reaction from Ali and I’m sure he’ll be back to his best very soon.
“Ben [White] has been really consistent ever since he came into the squad. He’s had more game time for London Irish this year. He’s started the majority of games, his kicking game has been outstanding. He’s very competitive, he showed that in his start in the second Test in Argentina in the summer. He’s just grown in confidence.
“There’s someone in form, someone who can play the way we want to play which is to be smart with our kicking decisions and playing at real pace.”
Townsend also acknowledged that Huw Jones‘ history of scoring important tries against England was a factor in his selection at outside-centre ahead of Chris Harris, but more important was his recent form for Glasgow Warriors since recovering from a back injury.
“He’s in great physical shape, confident around how he’s playing,” said Townsend. “He’s running really well in attack but most importantly his defensive contributions have been excellent. There’s an element of cohesion with Sione Tuipulotu combining so well with Huw at Glasgow. We know we have an outstanding player and all-round defender in Chris Harris on the bench. But we want to back Huw in this game.”
Hamish Watson missing out on the squad is based on similar logic to the Fagerson call, with this game coming a week too early for the flanker, who played his first game for Edinburgh against the Sharks last weekend after suffering a concussion in November.
“That’s probably a lot of that decision. He did step up well in the game against the Sharks, he didn’t have to go straight from two and a half months out to straight into a Calcutta Cup game, but also the form of our other back-rowers [was a factor].
“Luke Crosbie has been excellent this season and particularly since November. He played really well against Saracens two weeks ago, so we feel he’s earned an opportunity to start. Andy Christie, Josh Bayliss and Jack Dempsey have also been playing well. Hamish will have to continue his progress from the weeks at training, but it’s added to a really competitive mix in the back-row.”
Asked what he is looking for from Crosbie, who is winning his third cap and making his first Six Nations appearance, Townsend explained: “We expect and hope that it’s what he’s been doing at Edinburgh. He plays one way, go forward, in attack really hard at the opposition and in defence through big hits.
“He has developed really well in decision-making and technical ability around the breakdown. We saw that at the StoneX Stadium when Edinburgh took on Saracens a few weeks ago, so that’s important when you’ve got seven on your back that you can be a threat post-tackle.
“But his effort in contact, his toughness are really good attributes in this fixture.”
The other big call was as replacement loose-head prop where Jamie Bhatti‘s fine form for Glasgow Warriors this season earned him the nod ahead of 2021 Lions Test player Rory Sutherland. That makes it an all Glasgow front-row on the bench, which may provide valuable cohesion when the se-piece inevitably comes under pressure in the second-half.
Meanwhile, Townsend played it cool when asked about England head coach Steve Borthwick and captain Owen Farrell recently praising his squad as the best Scotland side in living memory.
“Very kind of them to say that,” he shrugged. “We’ve had some very competitive fixtures recently with England. Even the one we lost was a tight game, we were drawing going into the last 15 minutes. So, over the last five years we have been a good match for them and I’m sure this will be competitive too.
“They have an outstanding group of players as well. When you look at their depth right throughout their team, we were trying to predict what their team is going to be but there are so many options we couldn’t get close to the 15 that we believe will be announced later today.
“They [England] are an unknown in terms of the game-plan because the last time England played it was a different group of coaches. But we believe they’ll play a game based around their forwards, based around effort and a kicking strategy. So we have to be ready for that.
“But also they’ve got so many quality players throughout the team so they can also play a different way. They can move the ball to width so we have to adapt to that, too. The challenge is first playing a quality side away from home but also getting the game we’ve worked on over the last few weeks into our performance. Doing well in attack and defence and then the transitions. That’s the most difficult thing – getting your game out there. And that’s what we’ve been focusing on in these last few weeks.”
“Our players are aware of what can go wrong when you’re not accurate and you’re not focused,” he added. “Our last visit two years ago was very good. The mindset, the accuracy and the effort. If you look at the first halves of the two previous contests at Twickenham, England dominated. So if we don’t get it right we know we won’t win at the weekend.
“What we want to earn is victories. And we’ve got to be playing well, riding those moments when the opposition do get momentum, which is going to happen against the quality teams, and keep coming at them. We have to keep taking the game to England and be at the same level in the last minute of the game as when you started.
“We’re here to win and inspire our nation and make them proud. There’s no better fixture in which to do that than the England game.”
6N: Scotland v England: Gregor Townsend throws some selection curve-balls