GREGOR TOWNSEND is looking for a ‘bomb squad’ style impact from Rory Sutherland, George Turner and Zander Fagerson against Wales on Saturday, after switching them to the bench and promoting Edinburgh triumvirate Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally and WP Nel to the starting front-row in their place.
Scotland struggled at scrum-time during last week’s victory over England but did win a crucial penalty after Schoeman, McInally and Nel’s appearance off the bench, which allowed Finn Russell to kick the match-winning points, and the pack then held out under serious set-piece pressure during the final few minutes.
Furthermore, the starting front-row managed just six carries for a combined total of 17 metres during their 51 minutes on the park, while their replacements carried eight times to make 39 metres in their half hour, which will have been another factor in the decision to shake things up at the pit-face.
However, it is an 80 minute game, and Townsend explained that this particular selection call was inspired by the now fabled ‘bomb squad’ which has been such an important asset for the world champion Springboks in recent years.
“We’ve learned a lot of things over the last couple of years, and one learning from playing South Africa was their ability to have a strong front-row at the end of a game,” said Townsend. “We saw that last week when WP, Stuart and Pierre came on and really did a good job, both in the tight and the loose – and we see the same potentially happening [this week] with Rory, George and Zander who probably have been our starting front-row for the last couple of years when they’ve all been fit.
“We’ve now got a real depth in our front-row,” he added. “We want to use them so they’re fresh and can take Wales on in the first half as well as the second half.”
The other change in the pack was enforced by the injury to Jamie Ritchie – set to rule the flanker out for the rest of the season – which sees Sam Skinner take over the No 6 jersey.
“I’d say it would be domestic season ending,” explained Townsend when asked for a fuller prognosis on Ritchie than was provided in lunch-time’s team announcement press release. “He had surgery two days ago and that was successful, but it’s still months in the experience of players who’ve had that surgery before.
“With Mark Bennett, I remember, it was almost the same incident, a jackal and he got taken out in the ruck and suffered a torn hamstring. That was five or six months. So, it’s round about that timescale. Whether that rules him out of the tour [to Argentina] in July, possibly. We’ll need to see how he goes with the rehab. But I don’t think he’ll play again this season domestically and certainly not in the Six Nations.
“Jamie has been a key player for us over the last few seasons, but Sam has also done really well in our big games,” Townsend added. “I thought he made a huge impact at the weekend with a line-break and also a line-out steel.
“We know that Jamie has been a key line-out player for us as well, and Magnus Bradbury [who retains his place on the bench] can also perform that role. So, we were able to select from a position of strength with either Magnus or Sam – but we feel Sam is better suited to this weekend.”
Season Appeal 2022
We hope you are enjoying our unrivalled coverage of Scottish Rugby. While mainstream media continues to reduce its interest in the rugby family in Scotland, The Offside Line does its very best to make sure all levels of the domestic game are reported.
Our commitment to the game and sharing its stories means that we do not have a paywall, so we would ask you (only if you can!) to support The Offside Line, either with a one off donation, or with a monthly contribution.
We have been keeping Scottish rugby in the news since 2016 and will have 3 million page views this year, making The Offside Line first for Scottish rugby.
The one change behind the scrum sees Sam Johnson drop out of the match-day squad altogether, which Townsend acknowledged must have been tough for the player to swallow after he registered a solid defensive performance against England but had few chances to show what he can do in attack – apart from the quick ruck ball he delivered in midfield in the lead-up to Ben White’s first half try.
His No 12 jersey has been taken on by Glasgow Warriors clubmate Sione Tuipulotu, with Cam Redpath – who made a huge impact at inside-centre on his debut in that win against England at Twickenham at the start of last year’s Six Nations but then spent the best part of a year out injured – selected on the bench.
“We just feel that with the way Sione has been playing, what he does on the ball, and also Cam’s strengths, they were better suited for how we want to play this weekend against Wales,” reasoned Townsend.
“Sione is a very creative player, we love that about him,” he added. “Very detailed as well, very loud in attack and defence on the training field. He can bring others into play and he’s got his own running game which he has shown for Glasgow this season.
“So, all those things will be important, but defence is number one. When you come into our side and our midfield you know you have to defend very well, and he’s been doing really well in training.”
Meanwhile, Rory Darge is set to make his long-awaited debut off the bench, having missed out on a first cap last summer die to Covid wrecking Scotland’s schedule, and then being injured during the Autumh.
“He started working with us more than 12 months ago – he came and trained with us before the start of the last Six Nations – and he was always a calm individual at training, very mature, takes detailed feedback and applies that to his training,” said Townsend. “He was captain of Scotland at under-20s level so I don’t think there’s any real concerns around the mind-set of Rory and what he can do to get himself right.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him have an impact both sides of the ball. He’s one of the best attacking back-rowers in terms of defenders beaten in Europe this season and he’s also very good at getting over ball.
“We believe there is a good chance that the game will break up in the last 20 minutes so having players like Rory coming into a game like that should work in our favour.”
The fact that Townsend ahas chosen to make four tactical changes, on top of one enforced change, to a winning team, underlines his assertion that Scotland did not reach their full potential last weekend despite achieving a excellent result. In fact, the head coach rated it as only a seven out of ten showing by his side.
These changes also reinforce his oft-repeated mantra that there is greater strength in depth in the squad now than ever before.
“We know we could have played much better than our performance last week,” he said. “It was a great occasion and a very good win and there were some elements of that win that were very encouraging, like our resilience, our effort and our ability to find a way to win.
“But there was a lot that didn’t go as well as we know we’re capable of. The focus is on us getting better. Our players have talked this week about not reading all the positive comments this week and suddenly thinking we’ve cracked it.
“We know how much effort went into last week’s game and it was still a seven out of 10 performance. We’ve got to be delivering eight and nine out of 10s if we’re going to win games like we’re facing this weekend.
“It’s great that we are in this position with Scottish rugby that we are winning against England, and that players who don’t make our squad would have played for us in years gone by or played for other teams,”he added. “That shows you the depth of competition, but the teams we are up against are quality, quality sides. Ireland beat the All Blacks, France beat the All Blacks, Wales won the championship last year and the Grand Slam two years before that.
“So, we know that competition has gone up across the board, and we’re just delighted that we are in that mix.”