Scotland v Italy: 10 talking points from Gregor Townsend’s team announcement

Head coach explains his team selection ahead of Saturday's World Cup warm-up match

Gregor Townsend has made his team selection for Scotland's first World Cup warm-up match against Italy on Saturday. Image: Craig Watson
Gregor Townsend has made his team selection for Scotland's first World Cup warm-up match against Italy on Saturday. Image: Craig Watson

1. It’s a shoot-out between Ollie Smith and Blair Kinghorn for the recently vacated No 15 jersey

GT said:

Ollie has been very impressive in training. The Test matches that he’s played for us, he’s played really well. In the third Test in Argentina I thought he was excellent, to go out there in that environment and be that calm. Against Australia he played very well, and also against Italy. He seems to be able to thrive at Test level and has impressed a lot in training with his work rate.

Blair obviously played a lot at 15 [off the bench] during the Six Nations and is in really good physical shape. There would have been three competing for it and Blair, we know, can play 10 but with Ben Healy returning to training, Blair has been mainly training at full-back. We know he can cover both positions but he and Ollie are the two guys running full-back just now.

2. Ruaridh McConnochie is the only current injury concern

He’s had an Achilles flare-up. He did come back and trained one day last week but it’s kept him out this week. We’ll assess it over the weekend. It’s been great that Kyle Rowe has been back available. Kyle was on the summer tour last year [when he sustained a bad knee injury], but he got a couple of games for London Irish at the end of the season, after the ACL. He’s trained really well and he’s maybe a couple of weeks away from being passed fully fit but it’s been good for us and for him to be able to train this week before he joins Glasgow.

Adam Hasting has resumed full training [following ankle surgery on an injury he suffered playing for World XV against Barbarians at the end of last season].

Not everyone is going to get an opportunity to play in these games, but those who have that opportunity can put their best foot forward to make selection more difficult than it is.

We’ll be announcing to our group quite early, it might be after next week’s home game against France rather than waiting for the away game [against France again], so we can start working with a 33-man squad.

The games are part of it, what they’re doing in training is another, especially now we have got to more competitive, live rugby, a lot of guys are putting their hand up.”

3. Ben Healy walks with a swagger

He was a man in form for Munster [at the end of last season]. We enjoyed working with him in the Six Nations and he got an opportunity off the bench. We felt he kicked on even more after that. He started against Leinster in the URC semi-final and was excellent but then got a bang on the head and had to be replaced. But he still had a role to play in the final off the bench. So he’s come in here with confidence.

He picks up things really quickly. We have a different way of playing to Munster but he’s adapted to that. He’s technically very strong in his kicking and passing, and he’s growing and learning more about spaces in defence and what options there are for him. It’s been great watching him and Finn [Russell] train in the last couple of weeks.


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4. Ali Price’s star has not significantly wained

He’s been good. He had a difficult time at the beginning of the Six Nations when he wasn’t selected for us but we saw the determination and the perfpormances in training and for Glasgow too. He went back and played a couple of games and was excellent. So that challenging moment he got through the right way by working hard and believing in himself. Ali has been a quality player for Scotland for a number of years. He started two Tests for the Lions and played really well. He’s shown in the last couple of weeks he’s in good physical shape and having someone with that experience inside Ben on his first start will be good.

5. It’s going to be a big day for Murphy Walker (and Javan Sebastian)

Italy have got a strong forward pack. They’ve got mobile props now, too, which has been another evolution in their game, so we know our props will have to be very mobile but also do their work at scrum time. Pieter [de Villiers, the Scotland scrum coach] has been really impressed with both Murphy and Javan [Sebastian, the reserve tight-0head]. We’ve done a lot of scrumming over the last few weeks with Murphy, Javan, Zander [Fagerson] and WP [Nel] against Rory Sutherland, Pierre Schoeman and Jamie Bhatti who are very good scrummagers. So what we are seeing in the daily scrum sessions is that these guys are ready to go and play Test level.

It’s a big day for both of them [Walker and Sebastian]. It’s Murphy’s first start and Javan hasn’t been involved with us since that summer tour when he was on the bench for a couple of games. He’s got back into his best shape too. They know they’ve got a job to do at set-piece but our game is about movement and Italy’s game is about movement, so our tightheads need to be able to move in attack and defence.”

6. Rory Darge is a natural born leader

This is an opportunity to see how Rory thrives with this responsibility, which he’s had before at under-20s level and which has brought the best out of him. I think there are times during summer tours and November Tests when you think, ‘Okay, can we put someone in a leadership role’, when they maybe would not get that opportunity during a World Cup

Having those experienced guys around him will help. Sam Skinner has been excellent. In terms of vice-captain, he runs the line-out. Chris Harris has been vice-captain before and he’s got a real calming influence, especially in defence – he’s our defence leader. And in Kyle Steyn and Stafford McDowall he’s got two people who have captained him at club level this year.

We believe it’s the right time. First and foremost we want to see Rory playing well, which he’s done every time he’s played for Scotland. And we’re seeing evidence of him being back to his best [after injury] in training, so that’s how you lead well – play well and let other guys who are making line-out and attack decisions have their say and lead the game in that area.

7. Cameron Henderson is a real contender to make the final cut

Cameron came in for the summer tour [in 2021] when we were away with the Lions and then got a bad knee injury. We’ve been impressed with how he’s responded to what was a nine-month injury, playing really well for Leicester. I remember they went away to Clermont and he stood out, calling the line-outs and he played 80 minutes that day. He’s a regular for Leicester and he’s calling the line-outs. He came into our Six Nations camp and he was great, wanting to get better. He’s added a strong defensive part to his game. There is a toughness, a mobility to make a tackle and get back on his feet. He’s very good at kick pressure and he’s improving his attack.

Second-row are the ones we’re asking the most of. They’re up there with having to hit the most rucks, put in the most tackles, work a line-out and not just win your own ball but compete against the opposition, and you now have to be ball players. That’s probably the biggest evolution, second-rows now have to be able to make these big catch-pass decisions. We’ve seen real growth from all of them, but Cam in particular, and he’s desperate to play for Scotland.

I remember Scotland Under-18s beating England five or six years ago and him giving an offload for one of the tries.

Cam getting that experience at Leicester, you’re going to a club where you’ll spend more time on driving line-outs than any other club, so he’s grown. And to be able to do that after a really bad injury and come back at a better level shows real encouragement for the future. He’s trained really well and he’s earned this opportunity.

8. The door isn’t closed to Andy Christie or Jonny Gray

He broke his arm and had an operation and it hadn’t healed in time for him to be fit for these Tests. So Josh Bayliss came in to replace him. He [Christie] is likely to be fit for the World Cip but he’s not in our squad. If he’s back in full training then we’ll stay connected on that.

Jonny Gray might be another one. If he can get back to full training and can do live tackling and maybe even play a pre-season game, as the World Cup goes on we’ll be aware if we do pick up an injury that someone like that might be available.

9. Italy should not be underestimated

The game in Rome [during the 2022 Six Nations], we won but it was much more competitive than the scoreline suggested and we chatted after the game about how we had come up against a tough team. Then went and beat Wales then had a good autumn and we played them this year off the back of four very good games that they played in the Six Nations … maybe not so much the England game in the second half but against Ireland they were within a score with five minutes to go, while against Wales they had more line breaks out of any team in the competition.

They are a quality side, a team that is now capable of beating anybody in the Six Nations. It is not just their attack, they are physical and compete hard on the floor and have a core of young players who have come through who have shared experience at ag- group but more so at international level, and they will have more success over the next few years.

It was a surprise and tough for Kieran Crowley [that he was sacked as head coach] after a couple of big wins and performances. I’m disappointed for him but that’s the nature of our sport.

They’re definitely a team that’s on the up and will continue to improve with the game that they’re playing. With the age of the squad they’re only going to get better with age.

10. The plight of Scotland Under-20s is a big concern

The under-20s are really important to the national team. That is evidenced by groups of players that come through from the 20s. The latest to come through was from four years ago: Cameron Henderson, Ollie Smith, Rory Darge, Murphy Walker, Ewan Ashman. Prior to that when John Dalziel was coaching the under 20s there was the Scott Cummings, Blair Kinghorn, Jamie Ritchie. If they have that cohesion and connection and have played together into the national team it is great and gives them a new sense of connection and energy that a young group of players bring. That is what we need.

We know it has to improve. We need to get our young Scottish players through in more numbers and quicker.

We have to do things differently to what we are doing. It is not working, or has not worked these last two or three years and there are clear learnings out there from the likes of Ireland and France. These are two countries we can learn from.

And we can learn from what worked for us in the past too. We were getting players through in more numbers before. There are lessons out there from what is working in other countries and what worked for us from before and what is not working now.

It is a responsibility of all of us to do better. We have to do better for our young players. Our players should be better than that. We need to give them more opportunities, more support so they can thrive and not just at the age-group level, to come through and thrive at pro level and international level. That youth system should be the lifeblood of any club or international team [so] that is what we have to work to get back to.

I am an optimist. I always have been about Scottish rugby in terms of the number game. We have less numbers compared to 14 other countries that play rugby in the world. But that can work in our favour. We can get more alignment to see our players coming through, but we are not doing that just now. With changes and investment into that area then we can make a difference reasonably quickly . There is a group coming through now, but not in the same numbers. The next generation we can work with and support better.


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About David Barnes 3821 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including he Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.