DAVID BARNES in TOKYO
GREGOR TOWNSEND forged his reputation as both a player and a coach through his willingness to back his instincts and let flair have its place. He has not turned his back on those principles, but it is clear from his team selection for Sunday’s World Cup opener against Ireland in Yokohama, and from his comments after yesterday’s team announcement, that a more pragmatic edge has been adopted as Scotland aim to claim a Tier One scalp at a World Cup for only the third time in history (they beat Ireland in 1991 and Italy in 2007).
“I believe this team is ready to give its best account of themselves,” insisted a bullish Townsend at yesterday’s team announcement. “I’ve seen that through the way they’ve trained and acted in the last few days. We’ve had two of our best ever training sessions in the last few days so as a coach you get excited about things like that.
“And, also, I see it through the experience we have in our squad because that counts for a lot in these big games.”
“It is what it is. It’s the opening game of the World Cup, we are playing against the team currently ranked number one in the world,” he continued. “We know Ireland are a very good team, we play against them every year. So, you can’t disguise this as anything else than a hugely important game against a very good side.
“We have to take our opportunities and we have to limit the opportunities Ireland get. Ireland have shown in recent years that they do take their chances and they punish teams. They kick it into the opposition 22 and they come away with points.
“Ireland like to dominate possession. They believe if they can get gain-line against a defence, tire them out, then openings will appear. They also believe that with the ball they have more chance of winning penalties which can lead to opportunities for points. So, we know what’s coming. It’s up to us to stop that. We have to win the ball back, we have to win those collisions, and we have to make huge tackle numbers.”
“We have to win every big moment in the game, whether that’s a ruck, a tackle or the execution of a pass, we have to be there.
“I believe in the team and with the individuals we have in our squad I believe we will create chances.It’s about taking them.”
Given that Ireland are currently ranked the number one team in the world and have beaten Scotland in six out of the last seven meetings between the two sides, it is an almighty challenge. The key for Scotland is going to be avoiding the sort of unnecessary errors which have cost them dearly in the past.
In their last Six Nations game against Ireland, the Scots were well in the hunt until a couple of silly mistakes, including a calamitous mix up at the back between Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland which gifted Conor Murray Ireland’s first try, allowed the game to run away from them. It was a similar situation when Ireland came out on top in Dublin in 2018, with Pete Horne’s intercepted pass gifting Jacob Stockdale a giveaway try and then Huw Jones butchering a walk-in for Stuart Hogg, which amounted to a 14-point swing in a match which was much closer than the 28-8 final score-line suggests.
With that in mind, Townsend has gone with the tried and tested on Sunday. In almost every marginal call, he has picked the man with the most appearances in the blue jersey – Ryan Wilson ahead of Blade Thomson at No 8, Greig Laidlaw ahead of Ali Price at scrum-half and Seymour ahead of Darcy Graham on the wing – meaning that there are 630 caps littered through Sunday’s starting XV. That eclipses, by quite some distance, the previous record for most caps in a starting Scotland side which was 581 against France in 2003 and against England in 2011.
It is, however, worth mentioning Ireland have 679 caps in their line-up, and that’s despite the ultra-experienced Rob Kearney (92 caps) and Keith Earls (78 caps) stuck on the side-lines after failing to recover from injury in time.
The only contested position where Townsend did not go for experience was at loose-head prop, where Allan Dell (25 caps) got the nod ahead of Gordon Reid (37 caps), which is also slightly surprising because of Reid’s reputation asa scrummager and the high probability that this match will be played in the rain.
Graham is the outside back named in the bench, which was a pretty straightforward decision once Blair Kinghorn was ruled out with what appears to be delayed symptoms of the head knock he picked up against Georgia a fortnight ago.
“He trained non-contact over the past few days. Our session two days ago involved contact and he felt he had symptoms yesterday. With any head injury you don’t know how long it will be, but he had fully recovered before that so we hope he will recover over the weekend,” explained Townsend.
Another notable call on the bench is Scott Cummings as second-row cover ahead of Ben Toolis. “That was a difficult decision because Ben has played really well for Scotland in the past,” said Townsend. “He fronted up really well over in Georgia, but it is really down to Scott’s form. Scott has grabbed his opportunity to take the game to the opposition and build on his end-of-season form. We believe that off the bench, as he showed in Georgia and Nice, he can make a real impact.”
Simon Berghan is preferred to Zander Fagerson as WP Nel’s understudy at tighthead prop.
Scotland (v Ireland in Yokohama, Sunday 22 September, kick-off 4.45pm Japan time, 8.45am BST): Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Sam Johnson, Duncan Taylor, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, John Barclay, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson. Substitutes: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Scott Cummings, Blade Thomson, Ali Price, Chris Harris, Darcy Graham.