GREGOR TOWNSEND has demonstrated just how important Saturday’s clash against Fiji at Murrayfield is by throwing full-back Stuart Hogg straight back into Scotland’s starting XV after undergoing ankle surgery at the beginning of September, as well as re-installing both Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw at half-back.
Hogg’s initial prognosis was that he would be out for ten to 12 weeks, but he has now been deemed fit to play just seven weeks after the operation. Russell and Laidlaw were unavailable last Saturday because they are based in France and the Wales match was scheduled outside the international player release window.
With just over ten months to go before the World Cup kicks-off, this Autumn series presents an ideal opportunity to give emerging players important time in the saddle in order to build vital strength in depth for the tournament. Edinburgh full-back Blair Kinghorn, Glasgow Warriors stand-off Adam Hastings, and half-backs Ali Price and George Horne (both Warriors) are four players who fit into that category – but Townsend has gone for experience in all three of these key positions on this occasion.
Hastings and Horne are on the bench, while Kinghorn and Price drop out of the squad this week.
Townsend explained that Hogg’s previous experience of hitting the ground running after being out with injury has given him confidence that the 26-year-old is ready to jump right back into action in such a big match.
“Stuart has trained for two weeks now,” the coach explained. “He trained with his club and recorded some excellent speed times [last week] and he has trained fully with us all [this] week, so he looks good to go.
“We had experience last year when we brought him back from two injuries and [he] played in Champions Cup games, played very well, and then two weeks later he played Test level.
“Yeah, we could have kept him back a week or a few weeks, but he’s still going to be going into a Test match. Having watched him in training, we’ve seen he is ready to go.”
“We knew we’d have more players available this week with the guys who play outside of Scotland coming back in and someone like Stuart now back fit,” Townsend added. “And I’ve also looked at the four games and how we manage players through the campaign. We had a squad in mind for this weekend and we were just hoping everyone got through their games at the weekend so we could put that together.”
A second loss in seven days, after last week’s reversal against Wales, would leave Townsend and his squad facing a huge challenge to pick up wins against fifth ranked in the world South Africa and a resurgent Argentina in order to complete this November series with a 50 per cent winning record.
A losing series would not damage the team in a practical sense given that the draw for he World Cup is already complete, but it would be a significant set-back in terms of team morale and maintaining forward momentum at a crucial stage in the team’s development cycle.
Mixing it up
Townsend has made nine personnel and three positional changes in total to the starting fifteen which faced Wales last weekend.
In the pack, Glasgow Warriors hooker Fraser Brown swaps in with last week’s captain Stuart McInally, while it is all change in the second-row with Sam Skinner being handed his debut alongside Grant Gilchrist in place of Jonny Gray (who drops to the bench) and Ben Toolis.
Townsend hinted that new boy Skinner could end up in the back-row for Scotland on Saturday.
“We’re looking forward to seeing how he plays,” he said. “He’s trained really well and has performed well for Exeter over the last couple of seasons. He’s a very mobile second-row, he’s played a lot rugby in the back-row and finished a lot of games in the back-row for the Chiefs, so we’re keen to see that in action.
“A lot of his strengths align with what we’re looking for in our players – good-decision makers, skilful enough to run the right lines and make the right pass – but he also has experience from his team and the competition he plays in around the set-piece, and we’ve got to make sure we’re very strong in the set-piece this weekend.
Matt Fagerson is handed his second start at international level at number eight after a disappointing debut against the USA during the summer, with Ryan Wilson moving to blindside and Jamie Ritchie switching to open-side in place of the rested Hamish Watson.
“He [Fagerson] has stepped up in the big games for Glasgow, especially in the Champions Cup,” said Townsend. “He missed the start of the season with injury but as soon he got back into the swing of things he has played really well.
“He’s backed that up with big defensive performances against Saracens, been involved in attack and has also learned more about the game. He’s been in really good form so he’s earned his opportunity. I felt he did really well [off the bench] last weekend, so he’s got straight back into playing Test level rugby from his experience out in Houston and he’s looking to grab his chance this time.
The logic behind picking Laidlaw and Russell at nine and ten respectively is not hard to fathom, with both highly experienced and playing well for their French clubs this season.
“Finn has been playing regularly, which is great. He played very well at the weekend – I watched that game on Sunday with an eye on how he was performing but also checking that he got through the game okay – and he played very well. And he’s trained fully this week with us.
“Both Greig and Finn have been in excellent form, like Sean Maitland – although he didn’t play at the weekend for Saracens – so it is great to welcome those guys back.”
Huw Jones, who was singled out for criticism after two missed tackles allowed Wales in for tries last week, drops out of the squad, with Alex Dunbar switching to outside centre and Pete Horne inheriting the number 12 jersey.
“Huw is like a number of players we are managing through this period, so he is not involved,” said Townsend, when asked if the centre had been dropped. “He was close to being involved on the bench, but we just felt that with Chris [Harris] able to cover the wing, that was the decision around his involvement.
“We know the chances of getting injuries go up the more you play, and we have four games, so we need to keep everybody as fresh as possible to take on each game.”
Meanwhile, Fiji have also named their team, with former Glasgow Warriors favourite Leone Nakarawa and current Edinburgh star Viliame Mata in the line-up, as expected.
Coach John McKee has challenged his side to replicate their standards in training this week when run out at Murrayfield.
“We had success against Scotland in 2017 in Fiji but that counts for nothing here,” he said. “We will have to bring our best game if we want to achieve success, as anything less will not be good enough against this good Scotland team.
“Training this week has been good in preparation for this important Test match. The team can take confidence from our training and must now step up to impose our game-plan under the intensity of Test match rugby.
“Scotland have a strong set-piece. This will be a key area of the game. We will need to match them in the scrum and line-out, and stop their driving maul to be successful in this match.
“Scotland showed last week against Wales that they are willing to shift the ball and play an up tempo game. Our defence will have to be top class to deny Scotland opportunities to score.”
Scotland team (against Fiji at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, on Saturday 10th November at 2.30pm): S Hogg VC (Glasgow Warriors); T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors), S Maitland (Saracens); F Russell (Racing 92), G Laidlaw© (Clermont); A Dell (Edinburgh), F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), W Nel (Edinburgh), S Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh), R Wilson VC (Glasgow Warriors), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), M Fagerson (Glasgow Hawks). Subs: S McInally (Edinburgh), A Allan (Glasgow Warriors), S Berghan (Edinburgh), J Gray (Glasgow Warriors), J Strauss (Sale Sharks), G Horne (Glasgow Warriors), A Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), C Harris(Newcastle Falcons).
Fiji: S Tuicuva (Clermont); M Talebula (Bayonne), S Radradra (Bordeaux-Begles), J Vatabua (Pau), V Goneva (Newcastle Falcons); B Volavola (Racing 92), F Lomani (Fijian Drua); C Maafu (Leicester Tigers), M Saulo (London Irish), T Cavubati (Newcastle Falcons), L Nakarawa (Racing 92), D Waqaniburotu© (Brive), P Yato (Clermont), V Mata (Edinburgh). Subs: M Dolokoto (Fijian Drua), E Mawi (Fijian Drua), K Tawake (Biarritz), A Tuisue (Fijian Drua), S Kunatani (Harlequins), H Seniloli (Doncaster Knights), A Veitokani (Fijian Drua), E Vasiteri (Aix-en-Provence).