IT felt a bit like Scotland had brought a knife to a gunfight last Saturday – and a pretty blunt knife at that – with Gregor Townsend’s team no match for France’s heavy artillery.
As the squad nurse the bullet-holes from that painful shoot-out, Townsend has now turned to a new Blade as he looks to put things right this weekend, and the coach says he is expecting his debuting New Zealand-born No 8 to provide the sort of cutting edge which was so shockingly missing at the Allianz Riviera stadium four nights ago.
Blade Thomson was in line to make his Scotland bow during the last November Test schedule, but a concussion sustained playing for the Scarlets against Edinburgh on the eve of the series ruled him out of that run of games, and he also missed the Six Nations because of the lingering effects of the injury.
The coaching team felt he was still a bit off the pace last weekend so left him at home, but the plan was always to get the 28-year-old Aucklander some game time during the opening two games of this warm-up schedule, and Townsend says he is an absolutely no doubt that the player is now ready to make an impact.
“He has been with us right from the start of pre-season training and he has improved in terms of his conditioning, we know that through testing and through what we do with GPS [tracking],” said the coach. “He is a very skilful player who can offload the ball well. Who can make good decisions on when to pass and when to carry. He is an excellent line-out forward and he has an edge about him which we have to see this week from all our forwards … all our team.
“He has lots of similarities to Ryan Wilson. Ryan has speed in his game, he has excellent line-out skills, he offers a lot in attack and has an aggressive side. Blade is a bit taller. Ryan has more experience at Test match level and I believe they will work well together this weekend.”
Wilson has been selected at blindside flanker, with Hamish Watson completing the back-row triumvirate. All three will be charged with setting the tone at the breakdown so that France aren’t able to play virtually the whole game on the front foot as they did last weekend.
“I think, partly, it’s at the tackle, so if we’re putting dominance into tackles it’s going to be easier to stop offloads and to slow down ball,” mused Townsend. “Jackling is one way of slowing down ball, getting two men in the tackle is another way to make sure the ball carrier goes back.
“The game has evolved over the last couple of seasons to where some teams don’t even jackal at all. Some teams find other ways to dislodge the ball in contact. We think you have to have a balance of that, make sure the players who are good jackallers are keeping the attacking team honest at rucks so they have to be really accurate to clear us, and then we’ve got to make sure we’re getting turnovers in the way we tackle and ripping the ball, the way we counter-ruck, or just [through] constant pressure to force the opposition into an error or force them to kick it to us.”
No Gray area
Sam Skinner, who has played three of his five caps so far at blindside flanker, is named in his club position of second-row, where he will line up alongside Scott Cummings, who is getting his first start after debuting off the bench midway through the second half of last week’s game.
“I think [of Skinner as] a second-row who can play blindside,” said Townsend. “He started two Test matches at blindside against South Africa and England, which I think are pretty big opponents to go up against, so he’s had that experience. He’s really led well this week in a senior section role. He’s only played a handful of games for his country and is now leading the line-out really well.”
That means there is no Jonny Gray, whose ability to make a nuisance of himself in the tight exchanges would be a real boon for Scotland against France’s powerful pack. “He had a hamstring tweak at training last week,” explained Townsend. “He is back to running now. That is a bonus. We will see if he can get up to 100 percent by the end of the week and see if he is an option next week for us in Georgia.
Behind the scrum, Greig Laidlaw captains the team from scrum-half, with Finn Russell returning at stand-off and Pete Horne providing his old pal with an extra set of eyes and ears at inside centre, and Chris Harris getting a chance to stake his claim at outside centre.
The fill Hogg
Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour get a run on the wings, while Stuart Hogg is the only starter from last weekend’s debacle to retain his jersey.
“I think it was actually going to be 15 changes at one stage but seeing as Stuart Hogg left the field early with cramp [last Saturday], we decided that he could do with another game,” revealed Townsend. “He was looking pretty sharp [before he came off] and he was very keen to play.”
That means that Blair Kinghorn, who struggled to make an impact after replacing Hogg on 55 minutes last weekend, must once again make do with a place on the bench.
“He’s involved in the first two games which is more than a lot of guys when we make 14 changes,” retorted Townsend, when asked if he was concerned about Kinghorn’s lack of recent game time in light of having also missing the end of last season with an ankle injury. “Even though he was on the bench he got 25 minutes. We have 36 players available this week, so we were keen to give as many as possible opportunities to get game time. Blair is one of those players.”
Scotland (v France at Murrayfield, Saturday, 1.10pm): S Hogg; T Seymour, C Harris, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, G Turner, W Nel, S Cummings, S Skinner, R Wilson, H Watson, B Thomson. Substitutes: G Stewart, A Dell, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Barclay, G Horne, R Hutchinson, B Kinghorn.