GREGOR TOWNSEND believes that Scotland should be prepared for an aerial bombardment at the Principality Stadium on Saturday and has backed rookie full-back Kyle Rowe – who has started only one game at full-back in his professional career, for Edinburgh against Scarlets in the Rainbow Cup back in 2021 – to be equal to the task.
The 25-year-old generally plays on the wing but has been pressed into action at No 15 for his second cap and first international start after knee injuries suffered by Ollie Smith (long-term) and Blair Kinghorn (hopefully short-term) left the national team short of choices.
“We did consider Huw Jones going to full-back, but we feel with the amount of kicking Wales have done in recent games, having a traditional back-three player is better suited at full-back,” explained Townsend.
“Kyle is really good in the air – he will relish that challenge if it comes – but with a lot of the bombs and high balls now, they don’t tend to go to full-back. Tens tend to be in backfield and they are sometimes kicked over to the wing. The four players who tend to be in the backfield are the wingers, ten and 15. They all need to be ready for the high balls.
“Kyle trained all last week at full-back. Harry Paterson also did half a session on Friday as well. I think everyone sees Kyle as a winger who can play full-back as well. He’s so good in the air and has a very good kicking game.”
Paterson has started only eight pro games for Edinburgh – five at full-back and three on the wing – but Townsend insisted that the 22-year-old was a genuine contender to play this weekend.
“He [Paterson] picked up a quad injury which meant he missed Edinburgh’s last game before we came into camp and that probably meant that if Blair did pick up an injury we saw Kyle as the next player to move over there, but since then Harry has trained really well this week,” said Townsend. “He actually got trainer of the week, voted by the players, so he’s really taken to the Test environment in terms of training and we really see him improving over the next few months.”
Townsend added that he is hopeful of Kinghorn being fit again from the MCL injury which has ruled him out of both this weekend’s match and next weekend’s visit of France in time to face England in round three of the Six Nations on 24th February – in three weeks’ time – but it looks like being touch and go.
“With Blair, we believe it is a three- to four-week injury, so if he progresses well with his rehab and recovery he should be available for England,” explained the coach.
The other area where Scotland’s depth is being tested is at prop, with two debutants named on the bench.
Alec Hepburn – an Australian-born 30-year-old who has been capped by England but qualifies for Scotland through his father and has completed World Rugby’s three year stand-down requirement which allows him to switch allegiance – is covering loose-head.
Meanwhile, Elliot Millar-Mills – a 31-year-old who has previously played for England Counties and had two uneventful spells at Edinburgh during a peripatetic career which eventually led to Northampton Saints this season where he has made 15 appearances and two starts – is the tight-head back-up.
“We’ve got experience in Elliot and Alec in terms of their age and in terms of how many games of rugby they’ve played,” said Townsend, who added that both Jamie Bhatti and Javan Sebastian were fit to play in this game, although the latter is short of game-time following his knee injury in mid-December and would have been a “risk” in the event of Zander Fagerson picking up an knock.
“Alec brings real energy with his speed and his carrying. We know he’ll add something off the bench in that last quarter of the game. He has obviously played international rugby before,” added Townsend.
“He’s got a strong Scottish connection. He didn’t have any England qualification – he was here for his last year of school and qualified for England on residency. He’s not played for England for a number of years, and he’s known about his Scottish qualification for a while, and when the law changed so that you could play for another country with a three-year stand-down, that was in his mind.
“He had to go through some time away from rugby because of illness and that’s when he thought long and hard about if this opportunity did come along in the future, he would make the most of it.
“He was very surprised – he said overwhelmed – when he got his call-up to the squad. So, then to be in the team is a really good news story for him and I think he’ll make the most of it.
“Elliot has also been in excellent form for Northampton this year,” Townsend added. “A lot of that has been off the bench. But that’s good for us as he’s off the bench this week, so he is used to performing that role.
“He offers something more than just the scrum. He’s got skill and can win the ball back in defence.
“In terms of tighthead, we felt that Javan was potentially going to be a risk this week. If you’ve not played for six weeks and Zander was to go down in the first few minutes [then it’s a risk]. So we didn’t really consider him [Sebastian]. His goal is to compete for a place next week.
In contrast, Townsend can consider himself spoilt for choice in the back-row, with in-form duo Andy Christie of Saracens and Josh Bayliss missing out, while co-captain Rory Darge‘s recovery from a knee injury suffered at the end of December came just a few days too late.
“They [Christie and Bayliss] made it difficult for us,” acknowledged Townsend. “Andy more so than Josh, who has been out injured for the last three months and only made it back for the last two weeks, although he has played really well in those two games.
“Andy has played really well throughout the season. First of all we are delighted for him. He missed out on the World Cup because of an arm injury which then required surgery which had complications. So, to see him come back and play is great, and to see him play at that level, week in and week out at six, seven or eight, is very encouraging – and he got very close to the team.
“But you want the best for everyone. You want Jamie Ritchie to respond and play well as someone who has played very well for his country over the last number of years, you want Luke Crosbie to play well, Matt Fagerson, Jack Dempsey, Rory Darge – you want them all to play well, so that it makes it more difficult for us as coaches.
“These [Crosbie, Ritchie and Fagerson] are the three who are selected, and one [Dempsey] on the bench, so they are the ones feeling positive about the opportunity they have been presented with – and the others will have to keep knocking on the door.”
“Rory is good now,” Townsend added. “You will see him training tomorrow if you are at the team run, so he’s ticked everything off. This game came a few days too soon for him, but he’ll be training next week.”