HAVING recovered from the concussion which ruled him out of contention for Scotland’s World Cup opener against South Africa, George Horne is fighting fit and raring to go against Tonga on Sunday. Other players hoping to get a first hit-out at this tournament are stand-off Ben Healy, winger Kyle Steyn, centre Chris Harris, hookers Ewan Ashman and Stuart McInally (a late call-up), second-row Sam Skinner and veteran flanker Hamish Watson,
The question is whether head coach Gregor Townsend chooses to freshen up his side and protect some of his key players in a match which is by no means a foregone conclusion but will offer a step down in intensity to the relentless Springbok onslaught endured in Marseilles 10 days ago, or will he take the view that it is an opportunity for his front-liners to play their way back into form?
The coach provided a hint on the way he is leaning at the tail-end of last week when he spoke to French media about the importance of the team collectively and the players as individuals to bouncing back quickly following their opening weekend disappointment, and with struggling Romania providing the opposition next weekend, resting players this weekend could run the risk of the the likes of scrum-half Ben White and Finn Russell being undercooked when they face Ireland in their final pool match (almost a full month after the South Africa game). He will name his team for Tonga on Friday.
You get the feeling that regardless of strategic considerations, Townsend will be tempted to name Horne in his match-day 23 against Tonga just because the player might explode if not given an opportunity to properly release his pent-up energy. The 28-year-old was even upset that he missed out on the fitness test the squad did at the tail-end of last week.
“That’s the worst bit – watching the boys going through hell and not being out there with them,” Horne claimed. “Everyone was giving me stick after it. I’m a guy who likes to get out on the training field and sprinting about, so not being able to do that was tough.
“It was five days of doing absolutely nothing under the new protocols, so I was pretty upset and dark, but I just had to get behind the boys and support them in any way I could. It is never easy being in the stands,”
“Me and Ashy [Ewan Ashman] managed to do it [suffer the concussions] within 20 minutes of each other and he’s also now come through the same protocols as me, so we’re both back fit and raring to go. This week it has been good to get out there and burn off all that energy.”
Horne’s acceleration from the base and excellent support lines can be a devastating weapon for Scotland but only if they can produce the sort of quick ball which was rarely available to the half-backs against South Africa. With referees cracking down on reckless clear-outs, the breakdown has become a happy hunting ground for teams that are quick to the jackal. and Horne confirms that there has been an emphasis on addressing this challenge during training this last week and a half.
“The referees seem to be rewarding the jackal a bit more now because any dangerous rolls or if you are holding on for just one or two seconds, then it is a penalty,” he reflected. “ So teams are going after it more, but it is in our control. If we can carry hard, use our footwork and get the cleaners in fast then hopefully we can get the ball away
“If we can get a solid breakdown and the ball is on a plate then we can just get it away to the 10s hands, but if we need to guddle around then pick and run, that’s when it gets dangerous because they can put shots in on you.
“South Africa and Tonga are two teams who go after it at the breakdown. Both teams like to jackal and slow the ball down, so we’ve got to be squeaky clean, clear them out and get fast ball, because that’s when we are dangerous.
“And if they’re digging their heads in with two or three men, that’s less men in the line, so it comes back to us being accurate and getting quick ball to exploit that.
“It’s hard. Cleaning out, you can’t go anywhere near the head because that’s going to bring the referee into the game. The main thing for us is to win the race in and not give them a chance to get over the ball.
“Tonga are big physical guys and we’re going to try and move them about and keep the ball in play, we saw Ireland do that last week and it seemed to work. So, we want to move them side to side.”