GREGOR TOWNSEND says he has no qualms about having full-back Stuart Hogg as his deputy stand-off for Scotland in Sunday’s Six Nations clash against Ireland at Murrayfield, but he will surely be crossing all his fingers and toes hoping that his team don’t suffer the same sort of rotten luck as they experienced in Wales last October when they lost two stand-offs inside the space of 20 minutes, because there are no other obvious candidates in this match-day squad to take over the crucial playmaker role.
Jaco van der Walt and James Lang, the two other players in this Six Nations with proper experience at No10, were both available for selection this week, but didn’t make the cut.
“Stuart covered Jaco’s debut game against Ireland in December, he’s popping up at first receiver a lot now in training and games, and I thought he played well there when we lost Finn and Adam [Hastings] against Wales in October,” reasoned Townsend. “As a captain, if he does have to come in closer to the ball then it is no bad thing to have him there to lead the attack. It’s not something we want to work towards but if it does happen then we have all confidence in Stuart’s ability to step up.”
Meanwhile, Townsend said that Cameron Redpath is doing well after picking up nerve injury in his neck during a highly impressive international debut against England at the start of this Six Nations, but is not shaping up to be fit to play any more part in this campaign.
“He is making progress but it’s not enough to be available this week,” said Townsend. “We’ll see how it goes next week, but we don’t expect him back in full training for a week or two at the very earliest. With these [nerve] injuries there is not a set timeline, it is just about seeing how your body recovers fully.”
The coach also said that Northampton Saints midfielder Rory Hutchinson could still be involved in this year’s Championship – especially if, as expected, Scotland’s postponed game against France gets played on 26th March, which would mean three international matches being played with only six-day intervals between them.
“Definitely not,” replied Townsend, when asked if Hutchinson’s boat has sailed. “It is partly about the players in the squad who are available, training well and playing well, and we have not had any injuries there.
“I thought last week was the best defensive performance we’ve seen from Rory this season and we are in regular communication with him.
“We have been bringing in players who are based outside Scotland who we think are going to make the 15 or the 23. In different circumstances I’m sure Rory would be training with us. He has been in the squad before and he knows there are areas to work on and we are seeing progress there. We do expect changes in the squad when we play three test matches back-to-back.”
Sam Skinner is a player based outside Scotland who was brought in last week but did not make the 23, so will play for Exeter Chiefs against Harlequins instead this afternoon.
“There would be a number of factors go into selection – form, would be one, what they’ve done for the team in the past, and also what the opposition is we’re up against this weekend,” reasoned Townsend. “So, that’s why we’ve gone with Grant Gilchrist and Nick Haining above the likes of Sam and others who were in the mix.
“Alex Craig has been in our squad, Cornell du Preez and also Robert Harley, so we’ve got good competition there. He [Skinner] was very close to making that 23, we’ve not called up that many English-based players during this period unless they were in the mix to make the 23, so Sam’s aware of that and he’s just got to build on a good performance last weekend and see where he stands next week.”
Scroll down to continue reading:
Scotland have lost five games on the bounce against Ireland since Townsend took up the reins in the summer of 2017, making them the only Six Nations team he has not managed to mastermind a victory over. Having lost their first two Championship games for the first time since 1998, Andy Farrell’s ageing side look more vulnerable than ever before in living memory, but they picked up a confidence-boosting 48-10 victory over Italy a fortnight ago and are certain to bring an intensity to this game which Scotland must be able to match over the course of the full 80 minutes.
“They are the benchmark because they have been probably one of the best performing sides in the Northern hemisphere over the past 10 years,” acknowledged Townsend. “They have been a challenge for us over the past five years and we know it will take a huge effort this week and a real 80-minute performance to get the win.
“I think Ireland played really well when a man down against Wales in round two. The energy went from them at times in the second half, which is understandable, but straight after the red card they dominated possession, got ahead on the scoreboard, then brought the energy back up again at the end of the game and had a big chance at the end with the penalty to the corner. They could easily have won that game despite being a man down for the majority of it.
“Against France in round one, it was a real arm wrestle,” he added. “The conditions weren’t great and there was a lot of kicking. They have been very close to winning all three of their games so that shows the quality they possess and also shows the close nature of this competition this year.”
Turning his attention to Scotland’s outstanding Six Nations round three clash against France, Townsend rejected the suggestion that his team should be awarded a 28-0 walkover win on the basis that the game had to be postponed due to a Covid breach in the opposition camp, and added that he is happy for his team to play three games inside 12 days so long as his English and French based players are made available.
“I know that’s the day [26th March] which will be acceptable to everyone – French rugby, Scottish rugby, Six Nations and the broadcasters – but there are still discussions about player release which are ongoing,” he explained.
“For a tournament of the standing of the 6 Nations you need the best players playing against the best available. Sometimes you get injuries, but we certainly want to have a full group of players to select from, and that’s what everyone is working towards.
“We were all aware of the rules going into the championship, that it was going to be a delay or postponement,” he added. “We want the game played, so do France, so let’s hope it’s played in the next few weeks.”
Scotland (v Ireland on Sunday, at Murrayfield Stadium, kick-off 3pm GMT): S Hogg©; S Maitland, C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; F Russell, A Price; R Sutherland, G Turner, W Nel, S Cummings, J Gray, J Ritchie, H Watson, M Fagerson. Substitutes: D Cherry, J Bhatti, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, N Haining, S Steele, H Jones, D Graham.
Ireland: H Keenan; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton©, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, R Herring, T Furlong, I Henderson, J Ryan, T Beirne, W Connors, C Stander. Substitutes: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, R Baird, J Conan, C Murray, B Burns, J Larmour.