GREGOR TOWNSEND believes that Ryan Wilson’s value to the team both on and off the park made him the obvious choice for selection as Scotland’s No 8 in Saturday’s World Cup showdown against Ireland.
There had been a fair bit of speculation that Blade Thomson might get the nod, but Townsend is an avowed admirer of the charismatic and confrontational Glasgow Warriors back-rower, and in a game of this magnitude his 45 caps worth of experience was a key consideration compared to the two appearances his challenger for the jersey has accumulated so far in his fledgling international career.
Wilson has been involved in a lot of Scotland’s best performances in recent years, including that famous Calcutta Cup victory in 2017 when his pre-match shenanigans with Owen Farrell set the tone for perhaps the best all-round performance of the Townsend era. He lined up alongside Hamish Watson and John Barclay in the back-row, just as he will on Sunday.
“Ryan has a number of strengths away from the rugby side of things that he brings to the team,” said Townsend. “He played really well against Ireland in the spring; he went off at half-time and we didn’t play as well in the second half. Some part of that was that Ryan’s influence wasn’t there in the second half.
“He has captained the team and has played really well in a couple of games in our warm-up series, so we feel he has earned that spot. Given his experience he can really help prepare the team well.
“He is an emotional leader. He is the person who sets the energy off the field and in the changing room before a game. But he is also a very intelligent rugby player. If you ask Danny Wilson [the team’s forwards coach], he will say he is one of the best line-out forwards he’s ever worked with. That line-out ability is a real strength.
“His tactical nous is very similar to John Barclay’s in terms of knowing the opposition and knowing what we need to do to win. If you have more players like that in your group before a big game like this, it really helps planning and gives others confidence.”
Blindside flanker Barclay echoed his coach’s words when discussing the balance of Scotland’s back-row. “We’ve played together the last few years, whenever I’ve been fit it seems to be the three of us [who get picked],” said the veteran breakaway, who celebrates his 33rd birthday two days after the Ireland game.
“Hamish has really come on to his game in the last season and taken it to another level – he’s very abrasive with the ball. You see how he runs and you don’t think he’s going to be able to do what he does. He’s also strong over ball.
“With Ryan you know what you get, he’s physical, he’s confrontational and a very good line-out forward. I think rugby’s a simple game, but the simple things are undervalued, like that physicality and being abrasive. Teams and individuals are so well conditioned now, you get a lot of … not clones … but certain positions are profiled into certain players.
“He’s not the biggest No 8 and Hamish isn’t the biggest either. Maybe there’s a bit of an obsession with big, heavy No 8s or whatever. You look at Hamish, just over 100 kilos but he can run through people like nobody else I’ve seen at that sort of weight. I’d rather someone who is a bit lighter and can give you the full 80.”