1. The time for experimentation is through
Gregor Townsend said:
“Arguably yes [this is the 1st XV], but obviously our captain is unavailable due to injury and there are one or two other people who were very much in the mix for this weekend, but it’s a team that is closer to the team we put out during the Six Nations.
“We have to build a cohesion on a team that we believe can start against South Africa [in the World Cup opener on 10th September] as soon as possible as we don’t get the advantages that the southern hemisphere teams get. We only have three more games until we play South Africa. So I believe the best way of getting that team ready to fire for that one is by playing as strong as team over the next three games.”
2. Bygone are bygones
“Finn has played really well since he got back into the squad [having missed about on initial selection ahead of the 2022 Autumn Test Series]. He has always been a leader for us in terms of attack. He is older, has more experience and an opportunity has opened up where he’s the right man to lead us this week.
“It’s the right time to give him that opportunity, and it will be interesting to see how he goes. Being vice-captain and our most important attack leader gives him a real confidence and I’m hoping that being captain gives him confidence, too.
“Everyone has their own strengths and you’ve got to make sure they can bring them out. Finn is a very good connector, he likes spending time with other people in the team, whether that’s in the team room or on the training field.
“That is a really good way of leading. His knowledge of the game is very good and something that doesn’t get talked up enough is his competitiveness. That’s infectious. He wants to win, he might do it with a smile at times but other times he’s winding up the opposition, putting a ruck clear in or getting back for a tackle. That’s a really important trait we want in our leaders, that they are prepared to put their bodies on the line and work hard to help the team win.
3. The stand-in captain is in the form and shape of his life … and is a coach in waiting
“The ability he has and knowledge of the attacking game, what works and what works for us, has got stronger over the years, really stronger over the last six to nine months. We know his life has changed [with the birth of his first child last November] and since he came back into the squad he has shown on and off the field he wants Scotland to win. We see that through his performances but also see that through what he does at training, connecting with others. He is one of our key leaders and this is a chance for him to be captain this weekend.
“He’s in really good physical shape and was when he came back in last November and during the Six Nations too. He’s hitting that sweet spot where, after playing the game for 10 years in that one position, and playing against some of the best teams around, he has an understanding of where space might open up.
“If you’ve got that physical side right too, you can exploit those opportunities. That’s what he is doing. He’s really motivated about playing for Scotland and playing club rugby for the next few years.
“If you can get that mix for the next two or three years, and it’s important to note he is improving all the time, you’ve got one of the best players in the world in that position with us, which is great.
“I’m not sure if more eyes would be looking at him – the opposition and the media would always look at him. I think he’s thriving in where he is in his life and where he is in his rugby in terms of his knowledge of the game. I could see him being a coach in a few years’ time, because he understands the game.
“The game is in an exciting phase, I believe, because attacks are starting to get the upper hand over defences, and attacks are looking at where space is in and forwards have to be involved in that. So if you’re someone who naturally understands that and works hard to make sure that he does go where the space is, then you’re going to enjoy that.”
4. Jamie Ritchie should be back next week
“I would hope he will be back next week. He’s confident he will be back in full-training next week. It was a calf strain that has required more time off. He got a scan on Tuesday just to make sure there was no more damage done, and it was felt that this week there was no need to push the injury. He’s confident he will be running by the weekend and back to full training next week.”
5. Back-row competition for South Africa is fierce but captain’s spot is safe(ish)
“Obviously, Jamie, if he goes well, is likely to be in our team as captain. But Jack [Dempsey] has to play well to challenge Matt [Fagrson] who had a very good start last week and gets another opportunity this weekend. Matt has had some brilliant games for us, down in Twickenham [during the Six Nations in particular. Hamish [Watson] has played more than 50 times for us while Luke Crosbie started the first two games in the Six Nations and won them both. Rory Darge was outstanding when he got his chance a year ago. Josh Bayliss had really impressed us in training and he got an opportunity that maybe he wouldn’t have got against Italy if he hadn’t trained as well – and he had a brilliant last 15 minutes on the field. So there is a lot of competition. It’s a great position to be in.”
6. Ewan Ashman has a chance to stake claim for No 2 jersey against South Africa
“Absolutely. He’s getting an opportunity with a very strong team alongside him and I feel he has the attributes to start for us and certainly be in the World Cup squad. He was involved in the last game of the Six Nations against Italy, he has played some big games, with his first game against Australia and then in the third Test in Argentina he was outstanding.
“With Sale [Sharks], in the last two months of last season we saw him in his best form. He had some niggles prior to the Six Nations but he got over them and was really imposing himself in defence and at scrum-time, and also getting on the ball. He’s one of our quickest, most-powerful carriers.”
7. Russell is the man to charm this referee
“He’s very good with referees. With his personality he doesn’t get too aggressive. He gets competitive but with referees he’ll be calm just as he is with his team-mates. I was talking to Ben O’Keeffe the other day and let him know that Finn would be our captain this week. And he said that would be great as he refereed a Racing game last season. He was practising his French with Finn who was speaking English back. So he knows Finn.
“It will be new for Finn to speak to the ref. You saw how Jamie used to interact with Hoggy and Finn about kicks or what to do. Finn now has to take on others’ views but he’ll be the one saying to the ref, we’re doing this or that.
“Ben is one of the top refs in the world so to have him for two Tests in a row is brilliant. He’s someone we got to know well over the years. He did the third Test in Argentina and an England game. He’ll be one of the favourites to get the World Cup final if New Zealand aren’t there.”
8. Scotland feel they have a score got settle after 14-man loss during Six Nations
“We want to show we are better team than that day. I feel that what the players are showing in training is at a lot higher level than what we produced in the Six Nations. That gives us a lot of encouragement and excitement.
“We did play well and the character the team showed was outstanding, but we didn’t finish off nearly enough opportunities to win the game. Three times we were over the tryline and didn’t score, and there were another four times where great creative play didn’t get rewarded.
“It was great that France committed to home and away fixtures like they did last time. It suits us that we were able to mix-up our team last week and we now have two very tough Test matches home and away.”
9. The final decision on the 33 for the World Cup will be made after second France warm-up match a week on Saturday
“I reckon we will take 35 or 36 players to France next week, so the squad will come down closer to that 33 then. Ideally we would go with 33 next week but we have to have cover, and we will still have a couple of decisions to make over the next two games.
“It is not a blank sheet of paper. We have well over 20 already. We know those that are competing hard for the places in the 15, the 23, so that takes you close to 30. Then you have to look at it two ways. We want to look at who we want in our strongest team against South Africa and who will fill the roles in the other games. There are a lot of people competing we believe can play against South Africa.
“It is getting the balance right [between] having players who can cover if we have to change the team at the pool stages which we probably will.”
10. Time is running out for Adam Hastings and Kyle Rowe
“Kyle has not played any rugby [since inuring his knee on his Scotland debut against Argentina last summer] and Adam hasn’t played any rugby since his last injury [in the final game of last season]. Yes, they are available to play … are they ready to go straight into a Test match? We believe this weekend no. We will see what transpires next week as well.”