THE cancellation earlier today [Friday] of Scotland’s final Autumn Nations Cup pool match against Fiji (which was supposed to be next weekend), means that this Sunday’s match against France has become a straight shoot-out for Gregor Townsend’s men with a top of the group finish the prize – but the head coach says he wasn’t tempted to shelve his squad rotation plans once it became apparent that his team would not have to play two games in six days.
Townsend has made five changes to his starting XV – including a whole new front-row – and added three new faces the bench, in his biggest shake-up of the Autumn ahead of the team’s toughest challenge of the series against a fully-loaded French ensemble.
While Rory Sutherland’s ankle injury is not as serious as first feared, this weekend’s match came too soon for the loose-head prop, and scrum-half George Horne has not yet sufficiently recovered from the toe injury which kept him out against Italy last weekend.
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Apart from that – plus the injuries to Finn Russell, Adam Hastings, Damien Hoyland and Grant Gilchrist that have already ruled them out of the series – Townsend reported a clean bill of health for the squad, meaning hooker Stuart McInally and live-wire wing Darcy Graham have both been dropped out of the match-day squad for selectorial reasons.
“Rory is the only [new] injury, but we’ve got better news – a lot better than we were expecting – it’s hard to put a timeline on it … let’s call it two to three weeks, maybe more, maybe less,” said Townsend.
“We’re not ruling him out for the rest of this tournament. We have one game left in a couple of weeks, so we’ll just see how he goes once he is out of the boot and starts to move around again. But I think we’re all feeling it could have been a lot worse.
“George Horne is progressing well. He’s not available this weekend, but we expect him to start running tomorrow or Sunday. We’ll see where he is for the final weekend. He might have been touch and go for the Fiji game anyway, but we believe he will be available for the final weekend.”
“Stuart and Darcy are not injured,” he then confirmed. “We had one eye on a game in six days’ time and making use of our squad and bringing people in for this game, so it’s disappointing we don’t get to play six days after the France game.”
McInally was Scotland captain this time last year and was vice-captain against Italy last weekend, but it is clear that Fraser Brown – who has recovered from a head knock picked up during training last week – is currently Townsend’s preferred choice hooker, while George Turner has been rewarded for his high impact final 20 minutes last weekend by being retained on the bench.
“The original plan was that George was going to be on the bench this week and Fraser was going to be on the bench last week – we were looking at that six-day turnaround making use of all three hookers – but Fraser getting injured meant that George also got on the bench last week as well and played very well when he came on,” said Townsend.
“It’s good for George to get that second game. He impressed us all with what he did in attack and defence at the weekend and will add to that depth that we have. Stuart and Fraser have led the way at hooker over the past couple of seasons, so for George to play as well last week … we’re looking forward to him backing that up.”
Similar logic was applied in the decision to name Sean Maitland as back-three cover on the bench instead of Graham.
“This was the plan, and we’ve integrated Sean Maitland into the squad for the first time. Would we have changed things [if the Fiji game had been called off earlier]? Maybe yes,” said Townsend.
“We’re looking at this campaign as an opportunity to see other players play, and Fiji was going to be a big part of that. But we certainly wanted to give players like Sean Maitland and Duncan Taylor, who are on the bench this week, the opportunity to be involved in our match-day squads, because we know what good players they are and it increases competition. It means that players should be fresh when they get that opportunity in this seven-week period.”
Townsend added that Maitland’s Covid breach whilst away with the Barbarians at the start of this Autumn Test window did not discourage him from calling up the highly experienced winger.
“He was very apologetic, he understood the consequences of his actions and how it let down a number of people,” said the coach. “But he said straightaway that if he does get the opportunity to be back involved then he would get his head down and work hard in training. That is what he has done.
“He has been a very important player for us over the past couple of years. He has scored a number of crucial tries including two against France in March. Just having his experience and his determination to be involved is a great thing for us. With Duncan Taylor on the bench as well, we know we have two players who will get into the game straightaway if they get the chance to come on.”
The call-up for Taylor was slightly leftfield. While it was known that he had been training with Scotland these last couple of weeks whilst recovering from a shoulder injury, there had been no indication that the Saracens man was in contention for selection.
“He came into train with us when he was waiting to see if his injury had healed,” explained Townsend. “Medically he has been past fit and we felt this was a good opportunity off the bench. He was outstanding [for Saracens] in the European quarter-final against Leinster, played well against Sale the week before that and has fully healed from his shoulder injury. His experience and work-rate will help us this week.”
Back to the front-row, Simon Berghan starts at tight-head prop, but such is the importance of Zander Fagerson to the squad that he has not been given the weekend fully off, and has been instructed to make a big impact when he is deployed as a replacement.
“With Simon we believe he deserves the opportunity with how he’s played and trained,” explained Townsend. “Some of the work he’s doing scrum-wise has been excellent in training, I thought he made a very good impact down in Wales, and we feel he’s earned this opportunity.
“But we also have the knowledge that Zander should be on for the end of the game, and Zander has been outstanding throughout this campaign so we see him making a big impact too when he does get on.”
Meanwhile, little brother Matt Fagerson gets another chance to make the No8 jersey his own, having started against Georgia at the start of the Autumn and played well until he picked up an ankle injury just after the break.
“It’s a position we’ve got three players in the squad for – four when you count Nick Haining who can play there or at 6 – we have Cornell du Preez, Blade Thomson, who has played the last couple of games there, and now Matt,” said Townsend.
“Matt started against Georgia, picked up an injury and has done really well to come back and was available last week after a full week of training. We see him now getting this opportunity but we were pleased with how Blade played in the last two games. He’s been involved more and more, especially in the last 20 minutes of the Italy game where he was excellent in defence.
“Now it’s up to Matt to show what he can do. He’s been in excellent form for his club and he works really hard in attack and defence and we’ll need that from him this weekend.”
Scotland (v France at Murrayfield, Sunday @ 3.15pm GMT): S Hogg©; B Kinghorn, C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; D Weir, A Price; O Kebble, F Brown (VC), S Berghan, S Cummings, J Gray, J Ritchie (VC), H Watson, M Fagerson. Substitutes: G Turner, J Bhatti, Z Fagerson, S Skinner B Thomson, S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Taylor, S Maitland.
France: T Ramos; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, G Fickou, V Rattez; M Jalibert, A Dupont; J Gros, C Chat, D Bamba, B Le Roux, R Taofifenua, D Cretin, C Ollivon©, G Alldritt. Substitues: J Marchand, C Baille, M Haouas, P Willemse, C Woki, B Couilloud, L Carbonel, A Vincent.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)