GREGOR TOWNSEND has handed Ali Price a shot at redemption by handing him the No 9 jersey for Saturday’s clash against Wales. The scrum-half had a terrible afternoon when Scotland lost in Cardiff at the beginning of last year’s Six Nations and he has spoken about the destabilising effect that experience had on his career for a few months afterwards, but he believes he is a stronger character and a better, more rounded player as a consequence, and the coach clearly shares that view.
Townsend pointed out that scrum-half Price started alongside Finn Russell at stand-off when Scotland defeated Wales at Murrayfield two years ago, and praised the 25-year-old’s recent form for Glasgow Warriors as well as his impact off the bench during this Six Nations when naming the team at lunchtime today.
“I believe so,” said Townsend, when asked if Price is more resilient now than he was 12-months ago. “Most players go through a period when things don’t go as well for them. He had been outstanding for Glasgow and for Scotland up until that point and started in this fixture two years ago against Wales. He started in our wins away and at home against Australia.
“I don’t think he lost confidence after the game,” the coach added. “During the game was tough for him – a pass he threw was intercepted and he got called for a not straight scrum feed – but the following week he came off the bench and played very well when we beat France. And he played really well off the bench against England and Italy. His form at club level wasn’t at the same level at the end of last year as it was at the beginning of the season, but he’s worked really hard at that over the summer and this season.
“Physically he has been in good shape and since November we have seen a very good step up in his form for Glasgow. I remember the game against Saracens down there in January and also his last game against Cardiff during the first fallow week.”
Don’t write off Laidlaw
Townsend added that the decision to drop skipper Greig Laidlaw – who has been blamed by some for Scotland’s lack of tempo in recent outings – should not be viewed as the beginning of the end of the 33-year-old’s illustrious international career. The Borderer has been written off before and has always bounced back to leave his detractors eating humble pie.
“We looked at every position and we also reflected on the fact we’re out of the championship so if someone has earned their opportunity, Ali Price for example, this is a good time to see if it helps the team win at the weekend,” said Townsend. “Greig is the only player who has started our last six Tests so he’s a key part of the squad. He will have a different role off the bench, but he will have an important part to play on Saturday.
“As you’d expect from someone who really wants to play for Scotland, he was disappointed [to be dropped]. He is determined to show that he should be starting, and he has been very professional in the build-up. He is still a key leader and he gives us leadership on the bench.
“Ali’s strengths are around that speed, whether it’s him getting the ball away quickly or having a run,” he continued. “And his support lines have been very good, the try he scored against France was very similar to the try he scored against Cardiff two weeks previously, so that’s something we want to see from him in the game. I also think his kicking has been good this season.
“Greig can play it very quickly, too. A lot of our better moments in the 6 Nations have been with him at nine. A few weeks ago, he got a nice break for Clermont that led to a try. He does have different strengths – his knowledge of the game, and his kicking game has been very consistent – so we want to make sure that we bring both their strengths out when they both play. It isn’t a reflection on how Greig is playing, it is a reflection of how Ali has been going. Ali deserved an opportunity to start at some stage and we believe this weekend is the right time to do it.”
Russell the leader
Russell has been named as vice-captain. The stand-off is a free spirit but commands the respect of the squad – as much for his bravery as his ability. He also has a strong affinity with Price, with the pair having played alongside each other at club level whilst sharing a flat in Glasgow for several seasons.
“Two years ago, when Greig got injured, Finn and Ali were the half-backs here against Wales,” said Townsend. “They went on to play together on that summer tour and the November Tests. They played well together. They led a lot of our attack meeting yesterday [Wednesday], watching training, reviewing training together and having these natural conversations you get between two good friends. And they know each other’s games really well.”
A tantalising match-up is in store on the wing, with the diminutive and inexperienced Darcy Graham, who will be earning his third cap and making his first start, up against the much taller, heavier and more experienced George North.
“Darcy has had the opportunity to play Wales away and France away and took that game to the opposition by making breaks in both those games,” said Townsend. “He’s been in excellent form for his club. He gives you energy, he gets stuck in defensively. He may not be as tall as George North but he gets off the ground and wins ball in air. He’s gone up against some very big wingers this year and done really well, and he’s a dangerous attacker. We love his attitude, we love his ability, and its great he’s getting a chance to start for Scotland.
Meanwhile, Townsend said the Scotland selectors considered the possibility of switching Sam Johnson from inside to outside centre to accommodate Pete Horne and the returning Russell at 12 and 10 respectively.
“Moving to 13 would be a stretch for Sam at this point in his career,” he said.“He’s done it a couple of times for Glasgow but given the experience he’s up against in the Welsh team in that area we didn’t think it was the right time. Also, we’re giving Nick Grigg another opportunity. He defended well, made 18 tackles, he worked hard, he was disappointed on a couple of occasions when he lost the ball in contact, but that’s normally a strength of his. He’s a very good ball carrier and we know he’s capable of more this weekend.
“It’s tough on Sam,” Townsend ended. “He didn’t have his best game against France, but that’s understandable. A player just starting his international career and in a new environment and the team not playing as well, too. We know he’s going to be a quality player, he’s shown that against Ireland and Italy.
“We just feel that Peter is the right player for this game. He did a lot of good things when he moved to 12, and that was quite early in the match, about 52 minutes. He had a couple of line breaks and showed really good effort. He’s played very well for Scotland in the past. For Sam, we know he’s going to be a quality player, he’s shown that against Ireland and Italy. We know it’s tough on Sam, but we believe in Peter as well, that he can deliver a very good performance.
Nel gets the nod while Watson waits in the wings
Tight-head prop WP Nel comes straight back into the starting XV after missing the Ireland and Italy defeats with a calf injury, underlining his importance to the side, but Hamish Watson – who has been out slightly longer (six weeks) with a broken hand – only makes the bench.
“I believe the back-row are playing well,” explained Townsend. “Josh Strauss has been in the best form of his international career the last few weeks. Two games ago he had one of the best performances I’ve seen by a Scottish backrower with tackles and ball carrying against Ireland. Jamie Ritchie has been in great form. And Magnus Bradbury we believe deserves another opportunity because he’s played two games in the last four months and one of them was a Test match away to France, which was a solid performance we believe he’ll be even better this week. Hamish can have a really good impact from the bench, he’s been out two months, so he’s short of match fitness, so we believe the balance is better with him coming off the bench rather than starting.”
Too soon for Skinner
A similar sort of rationale was behind the decision not to name Sam Skinner – who injured his ankle against Italy – in the match-day squad.
“This was his first full week of training,” said Townsend. “It’s a credit to him and Exeter that they got him to a situation where he could start full training this week and he looked good in Monday’s session, but we just feel this is a game too soon for him.
“I’m not sure whether he will be playing for Exeter at the weekend – I think their team gets announced tomorrow [Friday] – but if he does that’s great, he can get game time this weekend, and if he doesn’t he can at least carry on with his training.”
Loose-head prop Gordon Reid, who was only added to the training squad at the start of this week, is on the bench.
“He was coming back from injury but he had been back a couple of weeks before we named the initial squad so he wasn’t selected. He played for us against South Africa [in November] and after that went back to his club and had a knee injury, but he’s come back in really good form, he’s played regularly over the last few weeks for London Irish and we believe his strengths around the set-piece could be an important factor later in the match on Saturday.”
Townsend added that he doesn’t believe the current confusion over the future of regional rugby in Wales will have an effect on the way the visitors will go about Saturday’s task.
“Given the fact that they’re up here together as a squad, and it’s not a fallow week that this all came out, their focus will be clear,” he reasoned. “They’ll be doing all they can to win this game. They’ve got a chance to win the Grand Slam. It doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think it will affect them. If anything it might bring them closer together, that they know things are not going well back home so let’s produce a performance that lifts everyone’s spirits on Saturday.”