GREGOR TOWNSEND has turned to experience to get Scotland’s Six Nations campaign back on track, with two former captains in scrum-half Greig Laidlaw and second-row Grant Gilchrist plus a vice captain in number eight Ryan Wilson being added to the starting fifteen for Sunday’s clash against France at BT Murrayfield. Six changes in total have been made to the side which lost heavily to Wales last weekend.
Tight-head prop Simon Berghan returns from a six-week suspension to take over the number three jersey from Jon Welsh, Gilchrist comes in for Ben Toolis in the second-row, and Wilson replaces Cornell du Preez at number eight.
Behind the scrum, Laidlaw swaps into the number nine jersey with Ali Price named as a replacement, Peter Horne starts at inside centre with Huw Jones shifting to outside centre and Chris Harris dropping to the bench, and Sean Maitland replaces the injured Byron McGuigan on the left wing.
There are two call-ups on the bench in number eight Dave Denton and utility back Blair Kinghorn – who will be making his debut when he comes on.
“We hope it [the players’ experience] will be a really important factor. The players coming in to start this week showed energy when they came off the bench last weekend. In Greig and Ryan, specifically, these are guys who have been captain or vice-captain of the team in the past, so they played well and trained well and get their opportunity,” said Townsend.
“Simon Berghan is back from his suspension, he was involved in November and is obviously more experienced than Murray McCallum [who was on the bench last week and will play for Edinburgh this weekend instead].”
“Greig has got a lot of experience. He has been the captain of the side for a couple of seasons. He drives a lot of the standards off and on the field, so having him back in the group last week was already a positive, and seeing him play so well and being desperate to be back in the team – we should use his experience.”
“We’re all aware that last week we didn’t perform anywhere like what we are capable of, and whether or not it was the same team that was going back out, I’m sure we would have seen a better performance – but these changes, we believe, will make us stronger.”
Peter Horne is also regarded as a steady hand, and Townsend will be hoping that he can be a voice of reason within the hurly-burly of the midfield on Sunday afternoon.
Alex Dunbar had hoped to make his comeback in that number 12 slot after missing last week’s match with a head knock, but he has now suffered a thigh strain in training on Tuesday and is now a doubt for the England match.
“It’s a blow. He’s been an important player over Scotland over the last couple of seasons and would likely have been involved in this match had he been fit,” reflected Townsend.
Last week’s defeat in Wales was undoubtedly a chastising experience, but Townsend insisted that his team have managed to put that painful experience into perspective and will go into this French mission in a positive frame of mind.
“It’s been a long week. We get an extra day’s preparation which has been a good thing: looking at the defeat and analysing why it happened. It means we have been able to look at all aspects of the performance on Saturday and put that to bed, work it through with the players and look ahead to France,” he said.
“The second half of the week has been excellent – positive – with a lot of energy at training,” he added.
“The responsibility lies with the coaches and me as head coach. We put a team out to perform, and whether it is selection or how we prepared, the first thing we look at is how we could have done it better.”
“Then we look at the performance of the players and the groups within our team, and there are certain things we didn’t do which we should do naturally – whether it is working round the corner in defence, scanning what the opposition are doing – so we’ve spent a lot of time reinforcing that this week.”
“We, as a coaching group, and especially the players, believe that what we showed at the weekend wasn’t a true reflection of what we are capable of and what we have done throughout 2017.”
One of the criticisms levelled against the Scotland team this week is that they did not seem to have a plan B when the wheels started to come off in Cardiff.
“There’s lots of plans in a game,” responded Townsend. “You’ve got to adapt to what the defence is giving you, you’ve got to adapt to what is working for you, and you’ve got to be accurate – whether you play a certain style of rugby or a multitude of styles of rugby, accuracy is the most important thing. We weren’t accurate enough on Saturday in attack or defence.”
“I really believe in this group of players. We under-performed – it happens every now and again. You don’t want it to happen – you think hard about why it happened – and you go to a lot of measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again – but this is an excellent group of players that have shown that over the last year.”
“Our focus is on France. We have two huge games coming up at BT Murrayfield to show what we are capable of and in the context of the championship, we will see after this weekend where we are.”
“France are strong, in terms of their physical strength in the set-piece, and in the tackle where they hit hard and compete hard for ball. And they’ve got some great individual players. We all saw during their game against Ireland that they got better which shows that they are getting to know each other better after being in camp for the last couple of weeks, and they’ll probably come here with confidence given that it was an improved performance under a new coaching group.”
Scotland team to play France at BT Murrayfield at 3pm on Sunday: S Hogg; T Seymour H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Substitutes: S Lawson, J Bhatti, J Welsh, B Toolis, D Denton, A Price, C Harris, B Kinghorn.