THE primary purpose of Saturday’s match against Argentina is, of course, to claim the victory that will ensure this tour ends on a high note. But you can win in the present while also having one eye on the future, and that is precisely what Gregor Townsend appears to have done with his selection.
In particular, the Scotland coach has made a couple of choices with next year’s Rugby World Cup very much in mind: Fraser Brown at openside and Adam Hastings at stand-off. No-one is guaranteed a place in the squad just yet, not with 13 Tests still to play after this one before the World Cup kicks off. But Townsend made it clear that Brown’s switch at least has a chance of becoming a longer-term option, while Hastings’s chances of playing his way into selection will depend to a large extent on how often he is selected at stand-off by Dave Rennie at Glasgow.
Brown, of course, has played in the back row from time to time throughout his career, and two of his 33 caps have been in the No 7 position – as a replacement against the USA in the last Rugby World Cup, and again off the bench against the same opponents last weekend. The 29-year-old’s selection in the role for this final match of the summer tour is partly designed to bring more experience to a pack who lost their way at times in Houston, and has been made possible by the availability of Edinburgh hooker and tour captain Stuart McInally, who is back in the team after missing out against Canada and the US because of a calf strain.
McInally remains the first choice when fit, George Turner has come through well on tour, and Ross Ford is expected to resume playing soon after a lengthy injury-enforced absence, so there is strength in depth at hooker. With a squad of just 31 allowed at the World Cup, versatility will be a vital asset, and that could mean Brown going to Japan in a dual role.
“Ross is back fully fit now and we really hope that he gets back to match fitness and plays really well to give us more depth at hooker,” the head coach said. “George has had more game time than probably he would have expected or we would have expected on this tour, given he’s up against Stuart and Fraser, and he’s done pretty well.
Strength in depth
“We believe we’ve got some good openside depth that aren’t on tour, and again that’s a relevant point – Hamish Watson, John Barclay, John Hardie, other guys coming through. But when you put a World Cup squad together, we will be looking at ‘Right, is that an option in one of the games for someone else in that position?’
“And positions are more fluid now. Stuart has been brilliant at hooker this year – he was a back row for most of his career. Around the tackle area, hookers now have to be as good as opensides, and we know Fraser is.”
“We got that glimpse of what he can do off the bench last week. It wasn’t something we had planned, but with Luke [Hamilton] getting that injury we thought, ‘right, here’s our chance.’ He knew he was potentially going to play 7 at some point on the tour, and with his first tackle he drove their hooker, who was having a great game, straight back. He was over ball, he’s one of the best in our squad at forcing turnovers and capturing ball. Stuart’s also very good at that and it’s an area where we know we have to be strong this weekend.
“I think at Glasgow, with the number of opensides they have, he [Brown] will be hooker. If he can make the adjustment this weekend, then it could be an option in November to make that adjustment from week to week.
“It’s tough on Jamie [Ritchie], but Jamie’s on the bench for his second cap. We could go with Magnus [Bradbury] with three caps and Jamie on one cap in the back row, or we could go with Fraser, who we know can do a really good job there, with his experience in the back row.”
As for stand-off, the safe choice would have been Peter Horne, but Townsend wanted both to gave Adam Hastings another run, and to keep Horne in the centre where he has a stabilising influence on those outside him as well as inside. “We knew we’d have a choice to make on stand-off – we don’t have Finn Russell on tour,” the coach continued. “We did have an option to move Peter Horne, but the Duncan Taylor injury influenced our decision there. Even if Duncan had been here, and Alex Dunbar who was injured prior to going on tour, we probably would have still gone with Peter [at inside centre] to help someone who hadn’t played much at 10 this season, whether that was Ruaridh [Jackson] or Adam. . .
“Adam grabbed his opportunity against Canada and did some really good things against America. Yes there’s going to be mistakes, yes there’s going to be times when he can’t influence the game, especially when we’ve given away a couple of penalties and are defending lineout drives in our 22.
“Around his game, we really thought he looked good. He tackled well up against a very physical American midfield, got up very well and worked really hard. He got so much learning out of that game, to go right, ‘what could I have done better there, decision-wise, communication-wise.’ We feel it’s really important for his development, and our development as a team, to give him another opportunity in an even bigger game.
“Ruaridh and Pete are available 10s for Glasgow next season, so from our perspective, the player who plays the most there is obviously likely to have impressed the coaches at training, grabbed their opportunity in games and they’ll have more opportunity of being available to us at 10.
“We know Pete is an excellent 12 and has played 10 very well for us. He’s always going to be in the mix if he’s fit, in terms of what he brings, his work rate, his experience, his multi-faceted game, whether it’s at 10 with his ability to run pass and kick, or at centre, with his ability to do that one pass out.
“It will be up to them. We hope that with Adam and Ruaridh, the experiences they’ve had on this tour, will give them a boost going into next season and they can go out and grab the opportunity.”
Scotland have made eight changes in all, seven in the pack – with Tim Swinson the only survivor – and Dougie Fife replacing Byron McGuigan in the back division. Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade has made six changes from the team that lost to Wales again last week for what will be his final game in charge.
Scotland (v Argentina at the Centenario Stadium, Saturday, kick-off 4.40pm local time, 8.40pm BST): S Hogg; D Fife, N Grigg, P Horne, B Kinghorn; A Hastings, G Horne; A Dell, S McInally, S Berghan, T Swinson, G Gilchrist, M Bradbury, F Brown, D Denton. Substitutes: G Turner, J Bhatti, Z Fagerson, B Toolis, J Ritchie, S Hidalgo-Clyne, J Lang, C Harris.
Argentina: E Boffelli; B Delguy, M Orlando, B Ezcurra, S Cancelliere; N Sanchez, M Landajo; J Diaz, A Creevy, N Chaparro, G Petti, M Alemanno, P Matera, Lezana, L Senatore. Substitutes: J Montoya, S Garcia Botta, S Medrano, M Kramer, T Lavanini, G Bertranou, S Gonzalez Iglesias, JC Mallia.