THE decision to select Newcastle Falcons utility-back Chris Harris at outside-centre for Scotland and to shift Huw Jones to inside-centre ahead of Saturday’s NatWest 6 Nations opener against Wales looked much less like a leftfield selection gamble and much more like a carefully calculated response to a specific dilemma, as soon as head coach Gregor Townsend revealed that both Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor were not available for the Cardiff expedition.
There was, of course, other options available to the Scottish selection panel. Mark Bennett is recently back from injury and with 20 caps under his belt is a more experienced option at 13, while Peter Horne – who is named on the bench – is equally comfortable at stand-off or in the centre. But Townsend clearly feels that Harris is best equipped to give Scotland’s defence serious line-speed and physicality.
“It’s a big ask – but he’s shown it this year. I’ve been really impressed with him, no matter who he has come up against,” explained the coach, after naming his team yesterday lunchtime. “We watched him live down at Newcastle against Exeter, the English champions, and he played really well that day – and we’ve watched his games on video before that.”
“He’s just found a groove in his defence this year. He’s enjoyed tackling and he’s read plays really well.”
“Defence is really important whoever you’re playing against, and we’ve got to make sure that right throughout the team we have that as our number one priority,” Townsend added. “So, we look at players and how well they’re defending, how they can combine with other players to make sure we’re really solid, and also our opposition.”
Harris’ only previous international experience was as a 58th minute replacement on the wing during Scotland’s fairly patchy victory over Samoa last November. On that occasion, he and Jones got caught out in midfield to allow Tim Nanai-Williams over for Samoa’s third try on 62 minutes, and the pair also got their wires crossed in attack nine minutes later when Harris came in for the short ball and ended up colliding with his team-mate, leading to a spilled ball.
But Townsend says he is confident that, after the best part of two weeks training together, the centre partnership selected for this weekend has now developed the sort of understanding required to cope with the Welsh maelstrom which will be unleashed at the Principality Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“The fact that Huw Jones has played recently at 12, and played very well for Western Province in the Currie Cup, gave us opportunities to see how they combined at training. They’ve done really well,” he said.
“In an ideal world, if we could have players who had been playing regularly together, that would help – whether that’s front-row, back-three, hooker and second-row, half backs, it’s something that factors into our selection. But, when you have players unavailable, you’ve got to pick what you feel is best for the team, and you get a gauge from how they’re training together, how they’re combining – and obviously the form they’ve been in.”
“Most of the oppositions we play against now are going to be attacking in the wider channels, attacking through the backs, so we’ve got to make sure we’re strong there. Wales are certainly one team that will be direct, so they’ll go at the 10-12 channel, then they will try to pass the ball and get into 13 and the outside channels – so having Huw and Chris working well together during the week, we’re really confident that we can defend well.”
“He [Chris] has been very confident and relaxed in this environment, both in November and now. Having spoken to him and a couple of guys who came in last November, they’re even more confident now they know the players.”
“And there are parts of his game, away from the defending, where he has really impressed us this week. We believe he’ll be in a good place to grab his opportunity.”
As for the missing men, the prognosis for Dunbar was a lot more encouraging than it was for Taylor
“Alex got a concussion against Exeter. One of his own team-mates, when he was clearing contact, caught him on the side of the head,” explained the coach.
“Because it was quite a bad one and he had a couple of days where he needed to recover, we took him out of consideration for this week – but he scored three tries in a training match the other day, so he looked good in the non-contact skills element. And he’s feeling much better. So, if he gets through everything when he comes back to contact next week, he’ll be in consideration for the French game.”
“Duncan wasn’t able to train so he went back to Saracens and we’ll just see how he is – we don’t believe he’ll be available for the next game against France. Obviously, we’ve got two weeks after that until we play England. He has been out a bit longer so Saracens and ourselves are taking things a bit slower.”
“He’s still got symptoms. We can’t progress to the next level until he’s symptom free, which is what Alex was able to do after a couple of days.”
The other key calls –
Townsend on Gordon Reid at loose-head prop –
“We obviously have experience there and he’s been an excellent player for Scotland, so we were disappointed that he picked up that injury before November, but we’ve been watching him closely. He had a great game against Dan Cole in Leicester a couple of weeks ago and the feedback from London Irish is that his scrummaging in training games has been outstanding. We’ve seen it in games and we obviously know Gordon well as coaches having worked with him at Glasgow.
“Jamie Bhatti was brilliant for us in November, has been consistently playing well for Glasgow in some big games. He played well in the scrum and the loose against Exeter on both occasions, so we believe we’re really strong on the loose-head.
Townsend on Jon Welsh at tight-head prop –
“He’s played regularly in the Premiership the last two years and can’t wait to play for Scotland again.
“Murray McCallum, who we’ve been impressed with the last two weeks, has really good and can get involved in the loose. We’ve seen, over the last couple of weeks, that he’s gone up against some tough opposition – Stade Francais in particular and there were a lot of scrums in that second game. He played 70 minutes, which was a really step up for him, because he’s mainly been off the bench this year.
“It’s now up to players like Murray, being uncapped, but also Scott Lawson, Jon Welsh and Gordon Reid, who haven’t been involved with us for a while, to go and grab their opportunity.
“The role models are there in Darryl Marfo and Jamie Bhatti. You give players opportunities and, more often than not, they take them. They’re all excited about playing this weekend.”
Townsend on Cornell du Preez at number eight –
“He played really well in November. He came off the bench against Samoa, started against New Zealand and came off the bench against Australia. We’ve seen another level of play as well since then, especially in defence. I thought he fronted up really well against Stade Francais in Paris in a tough game a couple of weeks ago, and given the fact he’s playing regularly and Ryan Wilson hasn’t played over the last month or so, we feel that’s a really good combination for us.
“But, also, pleasingly, Ryan has trained well. We had a full-contact day last week and he came through that. He’s an important player for us, so to have him involved in the squad is a boost.”
Townsend on Ali Price ahead of Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half –
“Every call takes a lot of thought and debate, and discussion. We take our jobs as selectors very seriously, and we know we’ve got a responsibility to put the team we believe will help win out there – but also to our players, to make sure that we take our time in those discussions.
“It was always going to be very tight for Greig. He’s done very well to be in our squad, and to come back from injury a week ago, which was ahead of schedule. To play 80 minutes at the weekend showed to us that he was capable of coming back into our squad, which was good news for Greig and good news for us.”
Scotland team to play Wales at The Principality Stadium at 2.15pm on Saturday: S Hogg; T Seymour, C Harris, H Jones, B McGuigan; F Russell, A Price; G Reid, S McInally, J Welsh, J Gray, B Toolis, J Barclay, H Watson, C du Preez. Substitutes: S Lawson, J Bhatti, M McCallum, G Gilchrist, R Wilson, G Laidlaw, P Horne, S Maitland.