Scotland v South Africa: Gregor Townsend tells Scotland to expect the expected

Coach has made six changes to the side which played Fiji ahead of huge physical challenge against Spingboks

Gregor Townsend
Gregor Townsend believes his Scotland team is ready to deal with the physical challenge South Africa will pose on Saturday. Image: © Craig Watson -

THE challenge facing Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday has very little to do with figuring out how South Africa will play, and an awful lot to do with the home team being ready and able to deal with what they know is coming.

Rassie Erasmus has started to add layers of nuance to the Springbok game-plan since taking over as head coach in February of this year, but as the world’s fifth ranked team (one ahead of Scotland) showed last Saturday evening when coming from 23-9 behind early in the second half to beat France 26-29 in Paris with a try in the fourth minute into injury, they have not forgotten the bedrock which their proud rugby history is built upon.

“We get physical challenges in the 6 Nations with the likes of England and France, and with Ireland in recent years, but any coach in world rugby will tell you that the biggest physical challenge is South Africa, and it always has been,” said Gregor Townsend, the man charged with preparing the Scotland team to meet this challenge head-on this Saturday.

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“France played really well last weekend. They matched South Africa physically. They’ve got some big men themselves and they were able to get in behind the South African defence a few times, but the longer the game went on the more South Africa came back into it. They showed their strength in that second half and obviously found a way to win.”

Having played a Super Rugby season with the Sharks in 2004, Townsend has had a first-hand insight into what makes South African rugby tick.

“When things aren’t going well for a South African team they go back to their strengths,” he stated. “I remember games when John Smit was my captain at the Sharks and things weren’t working out well and I was saying ‘maybe we should move the ball here’, and he would say ‘no, no Gregor, we are going to run even harder into this area’.

“So that’s a massive part of their game. They will believe they will be able to out-muscle any team they play against and that was how they got back in the game against France. Francois Louw made a huge impact defensively, the forwards started to maul stronger and stronger as the game went on, and they ended up getting the win.

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“They have evolved their game since Rassie took over, but they’ve not gone away from the forward pack. They select the biggest and strongest men they can find.”

With that in mind, it is slightly surprising that one of the six personnel changes Townsend has made in the team to play South Africa from the side that started against Fiji last Saturday, is the installation of a loose-head prop who currently plays his club rugby in the second tier of the English leagues.

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Gordon Reid is at London Irish, who were relegated out of the Premiership last season, but Townsend insisted at yesterday’s team announcement that he is confident that the 31-year-old has been challenged enough in the Championship this season, and has gained enough all-round experience during his 32-cap career so far, to stack up the Scottish scrum.

“What Gordie has faced at London Irish is big packs every week. What you get in the Championship is a real test in the scrum. London Irish play with a tempo and are obviously winning most of their games so he won’t get tested as much around the field by the opposition, but he will be getting tested in the set-piece,” explained the coach.

“Speaking to Gordie, he’s a very honest guy and he says the scrums are harder, or as hard, at Championship level as they are at Premiership level. He is encountering different kinds of props – very big, heavy men.

“He did a really good job for us last year. He started every game in the Six Nations and our scrum was a really strong part of what we did well last year, and Gordie was a big reason for that.

“We didn’t take him on tour to give Allan Dell that opportunity to come back and play for us, which he’s grabbed – he’s been excellent this season for Edinburgh, on tour with us and in the last couple of games – so he’ll have a big part to play in this game as well, but this is an opportunity for Gordie to play for his country and build on what he did in the Six Nations.

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“When we looked at the opposition, one of the biggest threats was what South Africa pose around the scrum – in the first half of the England game they really took on that English pack and drove them off the ball a couple of times – so for us to play the sort of rugby we aspire to play we’ve got to have our set-piece ball. We’ve got to make sure the opposition don’t get to dominate scrum, line-out maul or win an easy line-outs off us.”

Sam Skinner at six

Elsewhere in the pack, the selection of Sam Skinner – who picked up the man-of-the-match award on his debut against Fiji – at blindside flanker instead of in the second-row points towards the desire to add bulk to a back-row which also contains the relatively Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson, who are not big players by international standards.

“He took the game to the opposition and looked comfortable at test level [last week],” said Townsend. “It inspired him to play well. We have seen a lot of him in training that indicates he could go well at back-row.

“He has a real presence in the set-piece and he is a very good decision maker in attack. You saw that at the weekend. I never thought I would see a kick from him, but it shows what goes through his mind: Should I be running this? Should I be passing this? If there is space in behind I will kick it. Whether you have four or six on your back or 13 we demand from our players an ability to recognise the situation and carry, pass or even kick now and again.

“He played stand-off until the age of 16 and started out at Exeter Chiefs in the back-row, and often moves from second-row to back-row in games. There are a few things he has to improve this week.He knows the challenge is bigger and that he will have to keep his level of performance up for 80-minutes.

Number eight Matt Fagerson has not recovered sufficiently from the dead leg, while Jamie Ritchie drops to the bench.

“Jamie played really well at six against Wales then even better at seven against Fiji,” said Townsend. “Giving him a third game on the bounce was something in our minds but seeing Sam perform so well at the weekend and knowing that he’s a very strong set-piece forward gave him the edge this week.”

Gary Graham must bide his time

Gary Graham, who switched allegiance back to Scotland this week after throwing his lot in with England before the last Six Nations, does not get an immediate opportunity to wear the jersey.

Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis are recalled to the second-row, with Grant Gilchrst dropping out of the squad altogether, while Stuart McInally rotates back in for Fraser Brown at hooker, and WP Nel carries on at tight-head.

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There is only one change behind the scrum, with Huw Jones returning at outside centre in place of Alex Dunbar, after a disappointing match in Wales at the start of the series when he slipped off tackles during the lead-up to both the home side’s tries.

“It’s a great game for him. He played a few seasons in South Africa and he’ll know a few of their players. He is fresh. He trained last week and was decisive in training. When he played well last year a lot of that was to do with how he trained. He has been sharp and can’t wait to get on the ball,” said Townsend.

South Africa name their team at lunchtime tomorrow.

Scotland team (against South Africa at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, on Saturday 17th November at 5.20pm): S Hogg VC (Glasgow Warriors); T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), H Jones (Glasgow Warriors), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors), S Maitland (Saracens); F Russell (Racing 92), G Laidlaw© (Clermont); G Reid (London Irish), S McInally VC (Edinburgh), W Nel (Edinburgh), B Toolis (Edinburgh), J Gray (Glasgow Warriors),  S Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), H Watson (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow Warriors). Subs: F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), A Dell (Edinburgh),  S Berghan (Edinburgh), J Strauss (Sale Sharks), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), A Price (Glasgow Warriors), A Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), C Harris(Newcastle Falcons).

Scotland’s professional rugby players finally get their own union


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.