Chris Harris wins place in new-look Scotland side to face Wales

Gregor Townsend at the Oriam press conference after naming his Scotland team to play Wales. Image: © Craig Watson.

CHRIS Harris earned his place in Scotland’s starting line-up to face Wales after proving how well he could work in a centre partnership with Huw Jones, Gregor Townsend has explained.

Newcastle back Harris is the surprise inclusion in a team which shows six changes from its last outing, the record win over Australia in November. Stuart Hogg is the other alteration in the backs, Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh come in at loosehead and tighthead respectively, Ben Toolis is at lock and Cornell du Preez is at No 8. Du Preez has been preferred to Ryan Wilson, who is just back from injury, while Ali Price holds on to his place at scrum-half ahead of Greig Laidlaw, who has also just returned from a spell on the sidelines.

“We’ve been really impressed with him overall,” Townsend said of Harris. “He’s been very consistent. Defensively he’s stood out – and it’s a massive part of winning games, being successful, is having a strong defence. He’s shown that this year. We’ve been really impressed with him in the last two or three weeks before coming to camp, and with the unavailability of Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor, he gets an opportunity to start for us at 13.

“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.”

With injury ruling out several props on both sides of the front row, and Edinburgh tighthead Simon Berghan being suspended, Townsend has gone for experience in his starting line-up, with Jamie Bhatti and Murray McCallum on the bench. “Jon Welsh has been very consistent for Newcastle,” the head coach said. “He can’t wait to play for Scotland again.

“The way he’s trained, the way he’s prepared, has been excellent to see, and on the other side Gordy has really hit form since he missed November with being out for three months. We’ve been really impressed with his scrummaging. We believe we’ve got a really strong scrummaging unit, with two players that can scrum and also add impact off the bench in Jamie and Murray in the loose in the second half.”

Du Preez has had serious injury issues over the past couple of years, but more recently has impressed Townsend with a solid run of form both for Edinburgh and in his autumn outings for the national team.  “He played really well in November,” the coach continued. “He came off the bench against Samoa, started against New Zealand, came off the bench against Australia. We’ve seen another level of play as well since then, specially 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.”

Laidlaw, who missed the Autumn Tests with a broken fibula, made his return off the bench for Clermont just 11 days ago. Although he played the whole match last weekend, it was decided that a combination of his lack of recent rugby and Price’s form should mean that the Glasgow man holds on to the No 9 jersey.

“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 . . . . just at the weekend. The week before, he came off the bench, which was ahead of schedule, which was great. 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.”

The inclusion of Byron McGuigan might seem like a shock to some, but the Sale winger did start against the Wallabies, and impressed Townsend both then and subsequently. Asked if the selection was a reward for McGuigan’s excellent debut, the coach replied: “That, and the way he trained with us, and the way he’s played for Sale. That was a very difficult decision, because Sean Maitland has been an excellent player for Scotland and has been playing well.”

Scotland (v Wales 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.


About Stuart Bathgate 1407 Articles
Stuart has been the rugby correspondent for both The Scotsman and The Herald, and was also The Scotsman’s chief sports writer for 14 years from 2000.