HAMISH WATSON has been recalled to the Scotland team at openside flanker ahead of Sunday’s Six Nations round three clash against France in the only change to the starting XV from the Wales victory two weeks ago. The 31-year-old has only recently returned to action after a concussion suffered in the Autumn and takes the place of Edinburgh team-mate Luke Crosbie, who drops out of the squad altogether.
Meanwhile, Ali Price takes over from George Horne as reserve scrum-half, and Sam Skinner also comes into the match-day 23 as extra cover for the back five of the scrum in place of Chris Harris with head coach Gregor Townsend opting for a six-two split between forwards and backs on the bench.
“They [the Scotland players] are feeling refreshed and ready to go,” said Townsend. “To get an extra day of rest is a benefit in a fallow week. It means another day of connection, a lot of learning from the Wales game and obviously building up to a big test for us this weekend.
Scotland have, of course, won their first two matches of this Six Nations campaign, but they’ll face a step-up this weekend against the world’s number two side who won the Grand Slam last year.
“What a run they were on to win every game in 2022,” acknowledged Townsend. “They played some top sides as well in November. They’ve got some of the best players in the world and the biggest depth of any nation currently. Playing at home is a big boost for them. They’ve not played at home yet in the Six Nations.
“They play a game where their defence and set-piece are massive, but there’s a real intent to play when they do get the ball – sometimes off counter-attack, sometimes turnover ball. We have to be alive to the size of their forwards and their defence, but also how dangerous they are when the game breaks up.”
Scotland picked up their first win in Paris in 22 years to deprive France of the championship in 2o21, but Townsend stressed that the memory of last year’s defeat at Murrayfield was just as instructive.
“Last year is very relevant to us as well,” he explained. “We obviously didn’t perform as we wanted to that day and that is a lesson that if we chase the game too early and play from deep then France have jackalers throughout the team. I think they won eight or nine turnovers against us that day and made the most of a couple of loose bits of play.
“The two previous games, which we won, are important. Both were huge efforts from our team in defence. Probably our best defensive performances of the past few years have been against France. In the game two years ago we went through 23 or 24 phases to get the win, which is evidence to our players of the effort that will be needed to score tries this weekend.”
Townsend has earned a reputation during his time in the Scotland hot seat as an arch-tinkerer when it comes to team selection, but the choice of Watson for this match is only his second team alteration of this campaign, after bringing in fit-again Zander Fagerson for WP Nel ahead of the England game.
“I wouldn’t say I like to make changes, but I give huge consideration to every player who is in the mix for selection,” he said. “The easy thing would be to say: ‘We’ve won a game, let’s not even have a discussion and just move on’. You want to reward players who are playing well, but I said after the Wales and England games that we’ve not played at our best yet.
“We need to go up a few levels. That can come from players getting second opportunities, or other players who we feel can help us improve.
“The standard of training has made selection more difficult. After the England game we discussed a number of positions and the same thing happened after the Wales game.
“Hamish Watson and Ali Price have both played very well for us in the past. They have been showing in training that they are ready to go again. That’s the situation you want to be in, with form and experience coming together to make us better.
“At the end of the day, selection is just an opportunity. This 15/23 have to take that opportunity this week.
“We looked closely at what Hamish did at the weekend and it was tough because Edinburgh weren’t getting much front-foot ball, but we felt his speed and accuracy were excellent,” added Townsend. “He has trained well and has had two games now. We believe he will be back at the level that we know he can play at.
“Against France we feel he is a good foil for the way France want to play but also adding speed to our attack. It is tough on Luke Crosbie and Jack Dempsey, who was certainly in the mix with other players who played well for their clubs last weekend. It is a good thing that we have that level of competition.
“Hamish is in our leadership group and was captain for us in Argentina. He has really stepped up as a leader over the last year or two. That experience can help psychologically when you look around and see someone who has 50-plus caps. It is obviously down to Hamish to deliver that, as we expect him to do.
“We were tough on the players going into the Wales week, and quite rightly, because we hadn’t backed up that opening performance in previous years. But we feel there is much more to come from this group. We felt that way before the Wales game and we feel the same this week.
“I think the players realise just how big of a test this is going to be. We’re playing one of the best teams in the world on their own patch, and in a venue where we haven’t had much success over the last 100 years.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge – but we can match that challenge. We can improve from the Wales game. The players can drive that. Going into a game like this on the back of two wins is a much better feeling than if you had a couple of defeats.
“Every game feels massive. It’s exciting going to Paris when we’re in the mix for the tournament. But there’s only been two games played. We know we have to improve again this week to still be in the mix going into the last two games.”
Scotland (v France at Stade de Français, in Paris, Sunday @ 3pm): S Hogg; K Steyn, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; P Schoeman, G Turner, Z Fagerson, R Gray, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie©, H Watson, M Fagerson. Substitutes: F Brown, J Bhatti, W Nel, J Gray, S Skinner, J Dempsey, A Price, B Kinghorn.
France: T Ramos; D Penaud, G Fickou, Y Moefana, E Dumortier; R Ntamack, A Dupont©; C Baille, J Marchand, M Haouas, T Flament, P Willemse, A Jelonch, C Ollivon, G Alldritt. Substitutes: G Barlot, R Wardi, S Falatea, R Taofifenua, F Cros, S Macalou, B Couilloud, M Jalibert.