Gregor Townsend names his Scotland team to play Ireland in Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup 3rd/4th place play-off on Saturday:
15. Stuart Hogg©
14. Darcy Graham, 13. Chris Harris, 12. Duncan Taylor, 11. Duhan van der Merwe
10. Jaco van der Walt, 9. Ali Price
6. Blade Thomson, 8. Matt Fagerson. 7. Jamie Ritchie (VC)
4. Scott Cummings, 5. Jonny Gray
1.Rory Sutherland, 2. Fraser Brown (VC), 3. Zander Fagerson
Substitutes: Stuart McInally, Oli Kebble, WP Nel, Sam Skinner Blair Cowan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Huw Jones, Sean Maitland.
Here is what he had to say about his selection and the challenge his players face:
1. He doesn’t care how many ‘project players’ are in his team
There are a few things you think on selection. The individual and what he brings to the team. The combinations. Are they playing alongside someone from club level? Do they complement someone? Have they played there in the past? The game plan and the opposition, and whether it suits that individual? The fact that someone is playing because he played all his life in Scotland or because his parents were Scottish, his grandparents were Scottish, or because he was brought up somewhere and comes through residency, does not come into selection thoughts.
2. He doesn’t worry about what this says about Scotland’s own player development record
I believe we’re producing players better than we’ve ever done before. And as you know we don’t have anything like the player numbers of any nation in the top 15 in the world, Italy and all those countries have many more players than us. So,, we have to work very hard at getting players to the highest level.
Our depth’s at the best ever level, and there’s players who have come through residency in that, but that’s always been the case over the years [with] players who are second or third generation or those who have come to live in our country.
The real pleasing aspect is we have three players from a small town in the Borders [Hawick] who are all starting for Scotland. That’s not happened in the pro era. Those who said rugby would struggle in the Borders in the pro era and loss of the Borders pro team. That’s a real success story.
Jaco van der Walt [the South African-born stand-off who will make his debut this weekend] has been playing for Edinburgh the last three years and his performances have earned him the right to be considered. This will be our fifth stand-off [of the Autumn] – Finn Russell, Adam Hastings and Duncan Weir all came through the Scottish system which is important, that players can see they can come through the system and play for Scotland. They’re great role models for young players.
We know the rules that other countries as well as ourselves have used, and it’s up to those players that get capped through those residency mechanisms to make a huge effort to play for that country. That’s what we’ve seen with Duhan van der Merwe and Oli Kebble, and we’ve seen in the past from WP Nel and Sam Johnson.
3. He shares Mark Dodson’s enthusiasm for getting a new contract signed soon (hopefully before Christmas)
That would be great if it happens. I’ve enjoyed the whole time and the positives I have seen with the player group, the management that work with me, the coaching staff, I feel we have the expertise from the coaching and sports staff. We have got the players and the togetherness to go and achieve things over the next couple of years and it would be nice to be a part of that.
We have been in discussions for a few weeks now. I am hopeful that something can be agreed and announced in the next few weeks.
We will see but [a contract until] 2023 would be great as it gives everybody a target for that World Cup to work together. Everybody in this playing group should be available for this World Cup. Being in France, in the northern hemisphere, not too far from where we are, it will be great if we can stick together until then.
4. Hamish Watson is rested – not dropped
Hamish has had a really good campaign but we obviously want to create depth in each position. We have three number 7s in the squad. Jamie [Ritchie] has played really well there for Scotland and was one of the best players in the World Cup against Samoa in particular. He played Six Nations as a No7 too when Hamish got injured. We know he’s a 6 who can play 7 and one who can carry the ball hard and do other things. Hamish is in the driving seat but it’s good to know there’s competition there. And we want Blair [Cowan] to show what he can do too in the next few months by going back to London-Irish and carrying on that really good form.
5. He would have liked to give van der Walt a run against Fiji but has no qualms about throwing him in at the deep-end against Ireland without a specialist stand-off as back-up
We believe it better he starts to give other players opportunities as well. With Huw Jones on the bench, we’ve decided it’ll be Stuart Hogg covering 1o. Plans change when you have injuries, we have two stand-offs injured, but it was certainly the plan to get him [van der Walt] involved. His performances have earned that right, and we were aware he was eligible now, so let’s get him involved in international rugby and see how he does as soon as possible.
I think in a different situation we would have changed selection this week. If we’d played the Fiji game we’d be able to put the performance of Jaco up against Duncan Weir.
Duncan has put a huge effort into his game and would have loved to have built on those two games, and we’d have loved to give him that, but it does create competition and depth and we think Jaco’s close to playing international level already, so it’ll be interesting to see how he goes.
The way Jaco has integrated into Edinburgh and our group, he’s a very humble and hard working player, puts his body on the line and he’s a great defender. And his great grandfather is from Aberdeen, so there is a Scottish connection
6. George Horne is still not available
He trained with us Friday, Saturday and Monday but on Tuesday he was still feeling pain in his foot so wasn’t considered for selection.
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7. If you are good enough, you are young enough – just ask 34-year-old Blair Cowan, who is due to win his first cap in almost five years from the bench
He is in the best physical shape of his life. Getting personal bests with speed tests and in the gym. He hits hard in defence which is something we saw prior to the Six Nations back in January, and he had an outstanding game against Northampton back in August, so he was always going to be in our squad but unfortunately he tore his calf four weeks before we came into camp.
He has trained with us and is back to full fitness. We let him go for the last two weeks to play for London Irish with a view to him being involved against Fiji. He has played those games and he has earned his right to play for Scotland again. He can’t wait and we can’t wait to see him. He is a very good jackaler, link player and ball carrier, something that Hamish does well as a seven, and it is a strength to have sevens who can carry ball as well as being good defenders.
8. He is unconcerned by claims that the Autumn Nations Cup has lacked entertainment value
We have a duty to play to our strengths and do all we can to win. I have seen a couple of headlines but not read the article. I feel that rugby in November can be affected by weather. If you get a wet ball your game changes. It is harder to break down defences with a wet ball. Probably the lack of fans makes a massive difference. I don’t see much difference between the games that are being played now and the ones that are getting played in February, but with 80,000 fans there then certainly as a spectacle the entertainment level goes up because of the atmosphere.
9. He backs Blade Thomson to make life difficult for Ireland
He brings lots to that challenge. We know that that’s probably the biggest threat for our attacking game. We saw a lot of good things out in Dublin in February but in the end it was the turnovers at breakdown that stopped us from scoring points and getting well ahead of Ireland. So everyone knows that’s a huge challenge and not just for the guys in the back-row.
It has to be right throughout our team as they’ve got jackalers in the centre, front-row, second-row and back-row. So, every ruck we are clearing or contesting we have to be as committed and physical as possible.
Blade has played a lot at 6 for his club this year and 8 for us in the past. But we see him complementing with Matt’s ball carrying. Blade’s a different type of carrier. With the system we play, he and Jamie will be a bit wider and that should allow Blade to get his running and offloading game going. And one of his biggest strengths is the line-out and putting pressure on Ireland, which we know is a real strength of their. I think Blade has played really well this Autumn and has got better in every game. He’s also had a good impact off the bench.
10. Strength in depth is pleasing – but there is still a long way to go
I think we’ve had 36 players who’ve played during this campaign. It’ll be 37 with Jaco and more if Huw Jones and Blair Cowan play at the weekend. That’s quite a number and we’ve played well during this period.
We’ll have our fifth stand-off in five games this weekend if you count Hoggy’s 12 minutes down at Llanelli. I don’t think I’d have ever thought we’d have five stand-offs playing international rugby [in one window]. So, there’s growing depth. We certainly have depth in one or two positions which is very exciting, particularly in the second-row where the depth is really impressive.
It’s growing but ultimately you want the top 15, the top 23, probably the top 30 to be a very high level where those two players challenging for a position can be up there with the best in the world. We’re moving towards that but certainly we can be better in that regard.