Scotland v Italy: Gregor Townsend takes a calculated risk on Stuart Hogg at 10

The rescheduling of Scotland's Covid-delayed match against France has been confirmed as Friday 26th March

Gregor Townsend and Stuart Hogg. Image: © Craig Watson -
Gregor Townsend and Stuart Hogg. Image: © Craig Watson -

FINN RUSSELL missed out on being involved in Saturday’s Six Nations clash against Italy by a matter of hours.

The fact that there isn’t six full days between last Sunday’s match versus Ireland – when he sustained his concussion – and the kick-off of this weekend’s game meant that he couldn’t make it through the return to play protocols in time to be considered.

But Gregor Townsend says that the player’s recovery has gone well and he expects Russell to be be fit to take a full part in the build-up to Scotland’s final Six Nations outing against France in Paris, which has now been confirmed as taking place next Friday night [kick-off 8pm GMT].

Scotland v Italy: Stuart Hogg and Scott Steele at half-back in much changed side

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Pierre Schoeman out for four to six weeks

“He was probably two hours away,” explained the head coach. “Because of the protocols – with our [Ireland] game kicking off later than this weekend – the six days was actually less than six days. You can make it technically on a six-day turnaround if you are within the timescale. Finn has had no symptoms since Sunday evening and he has gone through all the various stages, which included training with us today. He will do contact tomorrow and be available after Saturday.”

The rescheduling of the France versus Scotland match was confirmed earlier this [Thursday] evening, although it is understood that an agreement between Six Nations and PRL – the umbrella body which represents the clubs in England’s top-flight – has not yet been finalised to ensure release of Scotland’s English-based players for the match.

Townsend is hopeful that an accommodation can be reached so that the likes of captain Stuart Hogg (who has been moved from full-back to take over from Russell at stand-off this weekend), Jonny Gray (who has a shoulder injury this weekend but is hopeful of being back next week), Sam Skinner, Chris Harris and Scott Steele are involved.

“We believe [it] is the only way to make this tournament as true and proper as it should be – full squad against full squads,” he said, speaking before the rescheduling had been confirmed. “It’s the biggest tournament in world rugby outside the World Cup and we obviously don’t want to go into a game where we are not allowed to pick certain players.

“I don’t think I would have that power,” Townsend replied, when asked if he would want to boycott the game if he is unable to pick his best team. “Ultimately, if the Six Nations agree that we have to play then we will have to play, but I’m hoping that’s not the case and all our players are available.”

Townsend added that he expects Russell – the only French-based player in the squad – to be made available by Racing 92 for the match. “I would hope so given that the French players are all being released,” he said. “That’s my understanding. I believe that on that side everything is sorted and the French clubs have come to an agreement with the Six Nations. Racing have a couple of French players as well as one from Scotland.

The selection of Hogg at stand-off for Saturday is a bold move. He has started in the No10 slot only on a handful of occasions during his senior playing career, most recently for Glasgow Warriors against Benetton back in December 2016.

While the conventional option would have been to pick Jaco can der Walt as a direct replacement for Russell, Townsend has taken the view that Hogg is better suited to imposing Scotland’s attacking game-plan on the Azzurri, who have lost their four matches so far in this campaign by an average deficit of 35.5 points.

“Stuart obviously covered 10 after Finn came off last week and has covered there in previous games, so we believe that gives us a better balance to the team and we’re keen to see him play there,” said Townsend, who shifted in and out of the stand-off slot on several occasions during his own international playing career. “Full-back is his position but given his experience, his leadership, his ability and all-round skill-set, we see him being able to cover other positions as required.

“We’ll play with a similar mindset and strategy to what we’ve had so far in the championship. A lot of that is where the space is, how to create that space, by moving the ball in a certain way, or it could be though a smart kicking game.

“We know having Jaco on the bench gives us security, let’s say, in that he’s someone playing regularly at 10, a goal kicker, a good defender,” Townsend added. “He missed the game two weeks ago with injury but has been training with us and training well.

“It was a close decision but we feel this is a good time now for Stuart to play longer at 10, to see if that is an option [so that] when we have to put a squad together he covers 10, or we have Jaco or Adam [Hastings] on the bench.”

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The coach added that he had considered sticking with Ali Price – who made a couple of costly errors against Ireland – at scrum-half as an experienced hand to help Hogg manage the ebb and flow of the game, but opted to award Steele his first start in the No9 jersey as reward for his contribution to the squad since his initial call-up during the Autumn.

“Stuart is going to be playing with a new scrum-half no matter because he’s not started in that role for us,” Townsend reasoned. “There is going to be parts where they [Hogg and Steele] are maybe not as fluent, there will be errors and we understand that, but they are both very good rugby players who will bring a lot of energy, and I’m sure they’ll build that cohesion as we get closer towards the game and during the 80 minutes.

“Scott has come off the bench on three occasions, but only once at scrum-half and that performance was excellent down at Twickenham when he really helped control those last 10-15 minutes. We believe this is the right time for him to get this opportunity and he’s worked hard for it.  His work-rate, defensive attributes and all-round skills should see him go well.

“Knowing Ali is on the bench, too, he’ll be very keen to get on and add to what the team has done in that first 50, 60 or 70 minutes, to help the team win.”

Scotland v Italy: Stuart Hogg and Scott Steele at half-back in much changed side

About David Barnes 3377 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.


  1. Why aren’t either Hastings or Gray in this squad? Both have been selected to play for Glasgow this weekend so aren’t banned or injured. Hastings would of been a much better solution at 10 with Gray giving a world class line out option to help out our line out which has been awful the last few games.

    • Hastings is suspended following his red card 3 weeks ago. Glasgow kick off a day later by which time the suspension is over.

  2. Paris is locking down again so perhaps the France v Wales game tomorrow may have to be rescheduled too.

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