GREGOR TOWNSEND has backed Cornell du Preez to add serious firepower to the Scottish back-row after the South African-born breakaway was added to the starting team to take on the All Blacks at BT Murrayfield on Saturday evening.
Du Preez has been named at number eight for the clash against the world’s top team after vice-captain Ryan Wilson was ruled out with a shoulder injury. It will be the 26-year-old’s third Scotland cap since qualifying to play for Scotland under the three-year residency rule, but his first start at that level.
He made a good impression during the final quarter of last week’s victory over Samoa after replacing John Barclay in the 58th minute, exhibiting a combination of deft handling and hard running.
“He’s very skilful and also a very aggressive player – which is a good combination to have,” said Townsend, who then explained that the player has really started to hit form after belatedly putting behind him the horror ankle injury suffered in October 2014, which threatened to end his career at the time.
“He was in excellent form before he got a really serious injury and I remember at the time a lot of people thought he might not come back from that. Having spoken to him and worked with him this season, it is the first time he has really felt no pain at training, and you can see that with how his fitness has changed. He’s having a lot more involvements on games,” said the coach.
The other change in the starting fifteen is at tight-head prop and was anticipated from the moment on Monday when it was confirmed that WP Nel is out of the series with a broken arm. Zander Fagerson is promoted from the bench to take over the number three jersey and Simon Berghan joins the replacements.
Tommy Seymour has recovered sufficiently from his toe injury to resume on the right wing, but Townsend is worried enough about that issue to have named a specialist winger in Byron McGuigan amongst the replacements.
“Knowing that he [Seymour] picked up an injury at the weekend, having a winger on the bench makes sense just in case he doesn’t get through the game; but, also, because Byron has been playing really well and trained well with us,” explained Townsend.
Leicester Tigers back-row Luke Hamilton has taken Du Preez’s place on the bench, and will hope to make his debut at some point on Saturday. Grant Gilchrist is also added to the replacements as a straight swap for Tim Swinson, who hurt his hand against Samoa.
“The plan going into Samoa was to try and keep the squad together as much as possible, which would give us that advantage of an extra week’s preparation and give the players that second opportunity,” said Townsend.
“We had a few injuries at the weekend and a few injuries just before we announced our 36-man squad, but the players are training and they know the rugby we aspire to play, so they’ll be ready to take this opportunity.”
“If you look at the players who have come into this week: Zander is an international player and playing well at Glasgow, Simon Berghan is in great form for Edinburgh, and likewise Grant Gilchrist. These are players who have been playing well for their club and they are going to transfer that, we hope, into the international arena, like Cornell du Preez did last weekend.”
“Luke Hamilton and Byron McGuigan have really impressed us at training, and they have been playing well for Sale and Leicester. From what we’ve seen from them they are up to speed with our attack and our defensive systems, and I see them playing well when they get their opportunity.”
Townsend said that he does not expect Wilson to be a long-term absentee.
“I hope not. He got a shoulder knock early in the game – it was something that he’d had against Exeter in the Champions Cup. He’s working with our medical team. He was obviously very close to being available this week. We feel that this game is just a week too soon for him to play, but we’re hoping he’ll be okay for the following week,” he said.
Scotland (v New Zealand at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 18th November at 5.15pm): S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, L Jones; F Russell, A Price; D Marfo, S McInally, Z Fagerson, B Toolis, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson. C Du Preez. Subs: G Hunter, J Bhatti, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, L Hamilton, H Pyrgos, P Horne, B McGuigan.