IT would be misleading to say that Gregor Townsend has rolled the dice with his matchday squad selection for Saturday’s Autumn Test series opener against Tonga at Murrayfield. The line-up announced at lunchtime today [Wednesday] was largely predicated on the options available to the coach once the 11 English and French based players in his training squad had been removed from the equation.
The real gamble was taking on this match in the first place. In the end, the prize of swelling Murrayfield coffers and creating an opportunity for Townsend to test out some fringe and emerging players who would never otherwise get anywhere near the Test squad trumped the inherent danger of going into a contest against dangerous opposition only half-cocked.
Tonga’s preparation has been far from ideal, limited to selecting only northern hemisphere based players and with very little time together, but those who don’t recognise the threat the Pacific Islander can pose this Saturday were not at Pittodrie on 24th November 2012.
Scotland should have enough class and firepower to get their November schedule off to a fairly comfortable winning start, but is there sufficient experience to steady the ship if the team encounter some expected big waves on Saturday?
Only three members of the starting XV – scrum-half and co-captain Ali Price (42 caps for Scotland and three for the Lions this summer), tight-head Zander Fagerson (38 caps) and flanker Hamish Watson (41 caps for Scotland one one for the Lions this summer) – have more than 30 international appearances to their name, while the average across the team is just over 17.5 caps per head. Coming off the bench, the average is just under 10 caps per player, and that drops to five caps per player if you take the 40 Scotland appearances of former captain Stuart McInally out of the equation.
The only two backs on the bench are Glasgow youngsters Jamie Dobie and Ross Thompson, so it seems likely that there will be four uncapped players and Kyle Steyn with one cap among the seven backs on the pitch at the end of this match.
It is a similar situation up front where McInally and back-up loose-head Jamie Bhatti with 18 caps are the only two of the six forward replacements to have reached double-digits in appearances. Oli Kebble and Nick Haining have eight appearances apiece to their name, while Marshall Sykes and Luke Crosbie are uncapped.
One player who could have added plenty of experience and a physical presence is Glasgow Warriors second-row Richie Gray, but the 32-year-old with 67 Scotland caps and one Lions appearance against Australia in 2013 rendered himself unavailable for this match.
“Richie feels that he has had a lot of rugby – seven games in a row – and he didn’t feel he was in the right condition to be available for this game,” explained Townsend. “Whether that continues over the next few weeks we will see. He was certainly someone I spoke to about coming into camp.”
Fellow second-row Grant Gilchrist – the 31-years-old former Scotland captain with 41 caps to his name – is also missing, although his absence is by mutual consent.
“Grant had a big week with becoming a dad for the second time,” said Townend. “He has played a lot of rugby – five weeks on the bounce – and we obviously have an eye on the next three Tests. He trained this week and was available but we decided to give him another weekend off.”
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Meanwhile, Townsend explained that Watson’s selection at open-side – having not played since touring with the Lions this summer due to a long-standing groin issue – was partially forced upon him by the unavailability of another potential debutant in the shape of in-form Glasgow Warrior Rory Darge.
“We’re not expecting Hamish, or we certainly don’t want him, to play 80 minutes at the weekend,” the coach explained. “He’s back into full training now and we did look at options of whether Hamish would be available this week or play a training game. But we feel the way he trained, and also with Rory’s injury, it’s an opportunity for Hamish to continue back from his period off.
“Rory has an ankle injury,” Townsend added. “He’s had a scan and needs to see a surgeon just to get his expertise around how long that will be, but in our minds it’s going to be this week and next week that he’ll be unavailable.”
Townsend kept his cards close to his chest when asked whether playing Blair Kinghorn at stand-off for the first time at this level in his 26th match for Scotland is a horses-for-courses selection or part of a longer-term strategy aimed at the 24-year-old becoming a regular challenger to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings for the No10 jersey.
“I certainly see him as 10 with lots of potential,” said the coach. “I’ve seen that in his training sessions, and for Edinburgh in the first game of the season against a Scarlets team that came out to attack he had some great touches – lovely movement for his try when he put Mark Bennett through a space and then got the ball back himself.
“His game management in attack and knowing when to take on the defence was very good. The kicking side, we know he’s got that ability. But putting that into playing 10 will take some time.
“We know he’s one of our best defenders on the wing given his pace, the size he is and his reads, but it’ll take a little while to get used to defending at first receiver.
“I see Blair having the ability to play anywhere from 10 backwards. You could see him step up at 13.
Meanwhile, Darcy Graham’s shift from the wing to full-back appears to be more of a one-off move.
“We were really keen to see all three players in the back three involved and looked at different ways we could do that,” said Townsend. “Darcy has been a key player for us last couple of seasons, Rufus McLean would have got his opportunity in the summer and is playing really well, and Kyle Steyn had a great debut for us the last time we had crowds at BT Murrayfield when he came off the bench and played really well and was going to be involved the following week against Wales.
“We know Darcy’s played a bit of full back for Edinburgh and that helped for selection, and it helps his development playing full-back and reading the game from there. When he does go back to wing it’ll help him connect even better with our full backs.”