GREGOR TOWNSEND has dropped some heavy hints that he is ready to shake up his team selection this week as he looks to resuscitate Scotland’s flagging Six Nations campaign against Wales on Saturday.
As a coach, he has forged a reputation for having the courage of his convictions when it comes to giving players a chance, however a devastating catalogue of injuries to key players has severely limited his options so far during this campaign. Until now. With several of his main men coming back into contention this week – including WP Nel, Hamish Watson, Sam Skinner and Finn Russell – the pressure has eased slightly, creating an opportunity for Townsend to tinker in positions where he has previously stayed loyal to the tried and tested.
The big question is: how far will he go?
Certainly, winger Darcy Graham didn’t do his chances of getting his first start any harm with an energetic showing off the bench for 16 minutes last time out.
The 21-year-old was part of the six-man cavalry charge of replacements just after the hour mark in Paris – alongside Ali Price, Gary Graham, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown and Alex Allan – which injected real impetus into Scotland’s attacking game for the first time in the match. Allan has since dropped out of the squad, but cases could be made for each of the five survivors of that sextet to start this week, as well as Adam Hastings and Ben Toolis, who had joined the fray slightly earlier.
“Whenever you get on, you are always looking to bring energy, trying to do something on the ball – you want to start every week and that [coming off the bench] is your chance to show what you can do, what you can bring to the team,” says Graham, when asked for his own take on that high-octane quarter of an hour in which he got his hand on the ball five time, carried for 48 metres and beat two defenders.
“It was quite amazing that all six of us came on at the same time. It was a bit different. I’d never really experienced that. We did all speak about bringing that energy in attack and defence. It was just hugely exciting for myself, coming on for my second runabout … that was energising for me!”
Facing down the dragon
Graham made his first Scotland appearance against Wales at the start of November, and he looked lively on that occasion, too; but he didn’t get another chance during that series. And while his form with Edinburgh during the last four months can only have strengthened the case for his elevation to starter status, Townsend has so far stuck with Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour as his go-to men on the wing.
“It is frustrating, but I’m young enough, I’ve got plenty of time,” he shrugs. “I just have to keep ticking over, learning all the time. And when I get my opportunity, hopefully I know what I’m doing. Hopefully I can be thrown in there and be okay – and Gregor has the trust in me to do that.”
“Sean and Tommy are both world-class players. I’ve watched them playing for years, so to go up against them, fighting for a spot, it’s quite breath-taking,” he adds. “Because I’ve watched them do so well in a Scotland jersey, I would like that chance to show what I can do, and hopefully bring something different.”
Some may question whether Graham has the size to survive in the land of giants, but his 5ft 7½ins and 11½ stone frame has never been a limiting factor as far as he is concerned. In fact, he believes it can be a benefit. “I don’t run at bodies, I’m actually trying to find the big men – that’s what I go out to do – find the big men and use my footwork up against them,” he reasons.
As for Wales’ vaunted kicking game, Graham’s athleticism and fearlessness competing in the air is bound to be tested, but he is confident that he’s got what it takes.“It is about generating that power to get up as high as possible, getting your hands up as well – not letting it into the bread-basket but getting as high above your head makes a huge difference,” he says. “It has been a huge work-on the last couple of seasons for me.”
Given what happened against France, his enthusiasm for chasing kicks ahead will be one factor weighing heavily in his favour as the selection panel finalise the team ahead of Thursday’s announcement. “It is about doing it together though, you can’t have one or two boys just flying out because that is what leads to dog legs,” he cautions. “If our boys are flying out for that chase, we need to work as a team and fill in behind him. That is where we let ourselves down in Paris, a couple of boys going in and leaving too big and the French did well to exploit that.”
Coming of age
Graham’s star quality has been evident since he was a kid coming through the ranks in Hawick, and started being noted beyond his hometown during the the first of his two seasons in the Scotland Under-20s set-up back in 2016, when he played alongside Jamie Ritchie, Hastings and Blair Kinghorn. While it has taken him slightly longer than that trio to establish himself in the senior set-up, he understands that he is now a more rounded player who is better equipped to deal with the challenges he will face on the international stage than he was when he signed his first pro contract with Edinburgh during the summer of 2017.
“Last year I had just come out of the Under-20s and I was raw,” he reflects. “I was trying to find my feet with Edinburgh and it was a huge step up, probably more off the pitch with all the learning, that is probably what I found the hardest, the number of moves and all that. It is all about game understanding and game awareness, it makes a huge difference.”
He has managed to smooth out the rough edges of his game, while not losing that pace and unpredictability which makes him such a handful in attack. Scotland seem to have lost a spark through November and into this Six Nations. Graham offers a point of difference, and could be the man to re-ignite their season.
Meanwhile, John Barclay and Duncan Taylor were involved with Scotland training yesterday, with the former taking a full part in the session at Heriot Watt University’s Riccarton Campus and the latter watching. Neither players is a member of the squad but they are being kept in the loop by head coach Gregor Townsend.