IF YOU had to think of a Scotland player who epitomised Gregor Townsend’s preferred high-tempo style, Grant Gilchrist’s would not be the first name to spring to mind. Nonetheless, the more down-to-earth qualities of the Edinburgh lock may well be precisely what Townsend’s team needs as they look to bounce back from defeat in Wales when they take on France on Sunday.
With only 19 caps to his name – a consequence in large part of some lengthy injuries – the 27-year-old is by no means the squad member with the most experience in the Test arena. But at 117kg he is one of the most solid, and his willingness to put that bulk on the line time after time should come in very useful against opponents who are likely to try to run over the top of Scotland just as they attempted a year ago in Paris.
Gilchrist, who came off the bench in Cardiff but has now swapped places with Edinburgh team-mate Ben Toolis, is an undemonstrative sort off the park who tends to let his actions do his talking for him. But he does not indulge in false modesty either: ask him why he has been brought into the side, and he will tell you precisely what his qualities are, and how he is expected to put them into effect against the French.
“I can play the way I play for Edinburgh,” he said after being named in Townsend’s team for this second Six Nations Championship match of the campaign. “I bring an edge to my game, a bit of physicality in the set piece and line speed – make sure that these big French runners are getting met with some good low tackles. In attack, make sure that when it’s my time to carry I can get us on the front foot, make sure I get over the gain line for us and get us going forward – that will allow the back line to do the damage.
“And a big part of my job is lineout calling and making sure that our set piece is a platform for attack. I’m calling this weekend. All three of us can call – me, Jonny [Gray, who starts alongside him in the second row] and Benny – but I’m calling this weekend.
“Of course there has to be a response to last week, and I’ll be part of that. I make sure that I get my role right and we put a performance out there that we can be proud of and that everyone coming to watch can get behind.
“I enjoy a physical game; I enjoy a battle. As a front-five forward you enjoy the battle – if you don’t, you’re playing in the wrong position. The nuts and bolts of the game have always been my strength and I won’t be moving away from that.”
For his part, Townsend explained that it was exactly that sort of commitment to the fundamentals that encouraged him to favour Gilchrist over Toolis this week – although he also implied that there will be an important role for the latter too when he comes off the bench. “It was a close decision,” the coach said of the selection at lock. “It was very close in November as well.
“Grant had a very good impact against New Zealand and earned himself a start against Australia. Ben then made a great impact coming on against Australia.
“We believe Grant, defensively, is outstanding. He’s a very hard worker. He’s an experienced player – he was going to be Scotland captain at one stage in his career – and that’s what’s required this weekend. We believe in Ben and we know that, off the bench, Ben can put a lot of pressure on the French set piece – but also get involved in attack and defence.
“It was a brutally physical game last year. There were a lot of collisions, a lot of people running into each other. That can take a lot out of them, if that’s the strategy they want to play.
“But we’ve got to make sure that, if it’s so physical, we keep chopping them low. If they choose a huge team, which they can because they have those players in the squad, then it will be more likely that they want to use route one and be direct.
“We’ve got to adapt to that. And, when we’ve got the ball, we move them around. We take them to places they don’t want to go.”