WHILE Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend insisted earlier today [Wednesday] that he is sending out the strongest available team to play Georgia on Friday night, the decision to select Adam Hastings ahead of Finn Russell does not mean that is now the established pecking order at stand-off.
It is a horses for courses decision, and with Townsend waxing lyrical about how Russell’s game has developed in the last year, the door is clearly open for a change at stand-off the following week when Scotland head to Llanelli to play their long-awaited final Six Nations match against Wales.
“We felt it was the right [selection] for this weekend, but we didn’t make the decision until Sunday night and Monday [morning],” said Townsend. “Obviously, we wanted to see if Finn got through the [Racing 92] game [on Saturday evening], then see where he was and reflect on what we did in training last week.
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“It is a tighter turnaround for anybody coming into a squad this week given that we have only really had two training sessions before a Friday game. So, it was important that he was back in the squad and we want to integrate him back into the squad to get the best out of him.
“It’s been a year since he’s played for Scotland and a year since he’s worked with these players and coaches; plus, we’ve had a couple of new coaches in the group since then, especially Steve Tandy [who oversees defence],” Townsend added.
“Finn has integrated well, he took part in the session on Monday and trained fully yesterday [Tuesday]. In training, you see his skill level and it’s probably moved on a couple of notches since last time he was in the group. He’ll get up to speed pretty quickly and it’s exciting to see him back in the squad.”
Russell swung back and forth between hero and villain during Saturday’s Champions Cup Final between Racing 92 and Exeter Chiefs, with some dazzling contributions in attack, but also a few howlers which cost his team dearly, prompting a flutter of debate amongst pundits and fans about whether he is more of a liability than an asset. While divergence in how coach and player thought Scotland should play underpinned the very public spat which ruled Russell out of the first four games of the 2020 Six Nations, Townsend stressed that he is comfortable that everyone is on the same page now.
“We’ve chatted about his game at the weekend – any game you play there is going to be errors, especially when you’re a 10 – and I should know that,” said the former stand-off, who also had a reputation as a risk-taker during his time in the Scotland side.
“We don’t want to take away from any of our players the ability to seize opportunities and make those decisions that they believe are right.
“It might be a technical thing of holding depth or getting the catch-pass right or whatever it is that you can work on. It might have been a decision-making thing. But it’s great to see players having the courage to go for what they believe is right and with someone like Finn with his experience and skillset, those decisions will be the right ones far more often than they’re not.”
New caps bring physicality
The two new caps in the squad are both South African-born and qualified for Scotland through residency, with Duhan van der Merwe starting on the wing and Oli Kebble covering loosehead prop from the bench.
“Duhan is impressive,” said Townsend. “We watched him more closely this season than last now that he’s available to us. He’s been very committed and receptive on what we’re trying to do in attack and defence, he’s a really good man, and he’s integrated well into the group off the field.
“We’ve enjoyed seeing him train and anyone in the back three we want to see them on the ball. If he can get up to double figure carries, that’s going to be good for us as a team.
“Oli has been one of Glasgow’s best players [since rugby restarted], he has got on the ball a lot and carried, and with the way we are encouraging our players to defend he has been doing that. He is obviously a big man, he is a lovely guy as well, and there is more to his game than just power, he has soft skills and good running lines.
“Ultimately for Oli it will be his work around the scrum which will be very important as will setting up our mauls or stopping the Georgia maul.”
Lang handed second bite of the cherry
Meanwhile, James Lang is not a new cap at inside centre, but his two previous appearances were two-and-a-half years ago against Canada and Argentina (off the bench) during Scotland’s 2018 summer tour. Since then he has had to battle back from a serious hamstring injury, and has impressed Townsend with his recent form for Harlequins.
“With regard to the summer tour, it was great that we got to know him,” said Townsend. “He worked really hard in training but he maybe didn’t grab his opportunity on that tour and just the stage where he was in his career.
“But last season [before injury] he really impressed us with Harlequins. He’s put on a little bit more muscle, is more dominant around the tackle area and ball-carrying, but still has that fantastic work-rate.
“Something we really appreciate as well is his ability to play in different positions. We see him more as a 12 than a 10, 13 or 15, but those are the positions he’s played in, which shows that he’s able to make decisions and has the skillset and the awareness to play rugby anywhere on the field in that back-line.
“And interestingly him and Chris Harris were on the bench for us against Argentina in Resistencia. Training together this week, it’s been great to see that combination. They get on well together and we see them forming a good partnership there.”
Versatile Jones unlucky to miss out
Townsend added that Huw Jones was unlucky not to be named on the bench, having been a serious contender for selection at both outside-centre and full-back.
We were debating a 5-3 or a 6-2 split [on the bench] and he would have been in the 20 they had we gone for 5-3,” he said. “We feel that he has shown real ability and improvements in his game playing at full-back and it is encouraging to see how he is developing there.
“He is playing with confidence so he’s still a good option for us at 13. A confident Huw Jones can play equally well at 13 and 15, but in those two positions currently we have Blair Kinghorn who had an outstanding Six Nations for us – albeit on the wing – and likewise Chris Harris. We will be keeping a close eye on Huw and how he continues to progress at full-back.”
Gray needs game game-time – Gilchrist out for series
There is also no room in the match-day squad for Richie Gray. “Richie has only started one game in the last eight or nine months,” explained Townsend. “He has impressed us in training and he did impress in that one game he started earlier in the season for Glasgow, but we feel he’ll be better suited going back to Glasgow and playing this weekend.”
It was also announced that Edinburgh duo Grant Gilchrist and Damien Hoyland have dropped out of the squad through injury. “They will be out for the series,” confirmed Townsend. “Grant’s injury is in the groin/adductor area and Damien’s is ankle. Grant got injured in the Munster game and Damien got injured training on Thursday or Friday.”
Edinburgh and Glasgow boosted
Townsend has released two Edinburgh players – prop Jamie Bhatti and WP Nel – back to Edinburgh ahead of Sunday night’s PRO14 clash against Connacht, and five Glasgow players – Gray, George Turner, Sam Johnson (who is now fully fit and we expect him to play), Jones and Nick Grigg – to Glasgow Warriors.
Ashman joins the party
Last year’s Scotland Under-20s hooker, Ewan Ashman, of Sale Sharks, has been added to the squad.
“It is partly for his experience, coming into the group and seeing what an international camp looks like,” explained Townsend. “He has a big future and I thought he was outstanding this year for Scotland Under 20s, and it also gives us an opportunity to allow George Turner to go back and play. We could have been in a situation where we had to hold George back as cover.”