GREGOR TOWNSEND has taken a horses for courses approach to his match-day squad selection for this weekend’s Six Nations clash against Wales at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, with strong winds and thundery showers forecast for Saturday afternoon.
The return of team captain Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell was essential given that they are two of the most dangerous attacking players in European rugby at the moment, and provide talismanic value to any team they play in.
In a similar vein, Jonny Gray has been the beating heart of the Scottish pack since making his debut in November 2013, and the 26-year-old has been playing at the peak of his powers since joining Exeter Chiefs during the summer, meaning that Ben Toolis had to make way, no matter how well the big Australian played against Georgia last weekend.
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“Jonny, Finn and Hoggy have been in really good form,” said Townsend. “The Exeter guys [Hogg and Gray] have won a couple finals in the past two weeks and they have well over 50 caps so they know the rugby we set out to play. We don’t see it being an issue that they have not had as much training as other players.
“Finn has had an extra week training and was involved in our squad last week. He is coming back into working with us again [after missing the pre-lockdown section of the Six Nations] in terms of what we do in attack and defence, and you saw from his performance off the bench against Georgia that he is full of confidence.”
Russell’s inclusion means that Adam Hastings drops to the bench, with James Lang retained at outside centre, despite an unmemorable first home match for Scotland against Georgia at Murrayfield last weekend, when a dead leg suffered fairly early on may have limited his contribution before he was replaced on 55 minutes.
“The centres have worked very well in training and I thought they performed their jobs well against Georgia,” reasoned Townsend. “It was a different sort of Test match and they were maybe not tested the same way in the backline as we will likely get against Wales this week.
“We have real confidence in James and Chris [Harris] as a partnership. They get on well together and they have defended and attacked well. We are looking to see them build on what they have been doing. Chris has been one of the best players of the past couple of seasons and given the weather forecast it is likely that work-rate in defence will be a key factor.
“We debate every position” he continued. “Adam played half an hour at 12, Sam Johnson was back playing for Glasgow and they are both in the mix – but we feel that James and Chris are the best players for us this weekend.
“Sam was available but we feel that he’s not up to the requisite match fitness yet. He played his first game in seven or eight months at the weekend, did some really good things in that game for the first half-hour when Glasgow were outstanding, they were really sharp in attack, and Sam was a big part of that. But it’s a big jump up to go Test level the following week.
“We do see him having a big part to play in our autumn Nations Cup schedule. He’ll get another game this weekend and we can assess where he is after then.”
In truth, the prospect of Hastings at No12 and Russell at No10 was always an unlikely starting option in a game of this magnitude against a Welsh side which will be far more ruthless than their recent results suggest. But it could still happen at some point with Townsend insisting that he doesn’t share the view expressed by England head coach Eddie Jones earlier this week that the line-speed of defence in the modern game means a ball-carrier rather than a second five-eighth is required at inside centre.
“No, not at all – actually, I probably think the opposite [to Jones],” said Townsend. “I see more decision-makers in the team, whether they’re passers or kickers, [means] you can have more ways of getting behind the defence.
“Now defences are getting so strong in the front line that I can see why Eddie is saying you need power to break that, but there’s other ways to get behind that defence which could be on skill, with passing, but more increasingly it’s on finding space behind the defence through kicking.
“So, if you can have someone in your centres that can add to that, whether through passing or kicking or both, that’s another way to get behind the defence.
“If you go with power … of course you play to the strengths that you’ve got and that could certainly cause defences problems.”
Meanwhile, Blade Thomson gets the nod in place of the injured Matt Fagerson at No8 as the victor in a three-way shoot-out against Nick Haining and Cornell du Preez, partially because he plays his club rugby for Scarlets alongside several members of the Welsh team and at the venue where this game is going to be played.
“Matt started last week when we had both Nick and Cornell on the bench, and one reason for having both of them there and allowing Blade to play in Treviso for Scarlet’s was to see how they all got on,” explained Townsend. “Matt unfortunately picked up an injury which rules him out for a couple more weeks, so it was an opportunity for one of those three to grab and we felt that Blade grabbed the opportunity.
“We saw him play 80 minutes against Treviso at the weekend and he’d been with us for the two weeks prior to that game so that was enough for us to say he’s ready. We feel his line-out presence can add another weapon to the way we’re going to play this weekend and he has an awareness of a few of the players in the opposition team.
“I thought he had a very good World Cup for Scotland and this is the first time he has been available since then. We see him having a big impact.
“We also see Cornell having a major role to play off the bench. He is one of our strongest ball-carriers and strongest defenders [in the squad] and given the weather forecast we believe a lot of the game will be around the tight areas.”
Perhaps the most eye-raising selection call was on the bench, where uncapped Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele gets the nod ahead of George Horne.
“There was a tactical decision around where we see the game this weekend,” explained Townsend. “George has got some tremendous strengths to his game, and parts of his game he’s been working on he’s really improved. I think his kicking has been outstanding this year, from what we see in training but also in games. And he’s one of the best in the world at adding tempo and supporting line-breaks.
“Scott has different strengths. He must be one of the best defending 9s in world rugby from what we’ve seen with Harlequins over the last few weeks, and we feel that this weekend that could be more of an impact off the bench given the weather – it does look like it might be one of those games.
“So, it’s great that we have Scott being able to make that impact, and both of them are very good 9s. In game management and making decisions in whatever scenario is ahead of them, we have real faith in them.
“But we do see an opportunity for Scott, and it’s a really good story that someone that didn’t have a contract as we went into lockdown has earned a starting spot with Harlequins, has got into the Scotland squad and now could get his first cap. It’s a real testament to the hard work and his character.”
Scotland (v Wales at Parc y Scarlets, Saturday @ 2.15pm): S Hogg©; D Graham, C Harris, J Lang, B Kinghorn; F Russell, A Price; R Sutherland, F Brown (VC), Z Fagerson, S Cummings, J Gray, J Ritchie (VC), H Watson, B Thomson. Substitutes: S McInally, O Kebble, S Berghan, B Toolis, C du Preez, S Steele, A Hastings, D van der Merwe.
Wales: L Halfpenny; L (Liam) Williams, J (Jonathan) Davies, O Watkin, J Adams; D Biggar, G Davies; R Carre, R Elias, T Francis, W Rowlands, AW Jones, S Lewis-Hughes, J Tipuric, T Faletau. Substitutes: S Parry, W Jones, D Lewis, C Hill, J (James) Davies, L (Lloyd) Williams, R Patchell, N Tompkins.
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)