Scotland pick 14 of the 15 who won at Twickenham but it wasn’t the easy decision you might imagine
Consistency of selection yielded rewards in 1996 when the same starting XV won their first three matches, against Ireland, France and Wales, before succumbing to England at the final hurdle in a tryless kick-fest at Murrayfield. It also paid dividends, famously, six years earlier when Scotland won the Grand Slam with an unchanged side in all four games.
Townsend’s only change for the visit of the Welsh to Murrayfield is the selection of Zander Fagerson who replaces WP Nel at tighthead prop, with the latter moving to the bench and Simon Berghan dropping out of the squad. Given Scotland opened the championship with a bonus-point win at Twickenham it might be assumed that picking 14 of the same 15 was an easy decision. Not so, said the coach. “No, it wasn’t. We actually delayed the [internal] team announcement because we had a few selections that we wanted to sleep on. I believe they have earned the right to get a second opportunity and build on that win, but the performance wasn’t at our best level. We’ve got players on the bench and outwith the 23 who are quality players, have played very well for us in the past or are itching for that opportunity. So it wasn’t an easy decision but these guys now have the opportunity to build on what happened last week.”
Townsend said he was comfortable with Fagerson stepping straight into a Test match after more than two months out with a torn hamstring. “He has been able to train, not fully, but do a lot of work in the gym and running over the past few weeks,” said the coach. “He has now trained fully for two weeks. Our experience of Zander in the past is when he has either been injured or missed a couple of games he is still been ready to come back in at a high level. He has been our starting tighthead for a number of years and brings much to us as a player. His contact work is the best we have in our squad. His ball-carrying, defence, and, the most important part, scrummaging is of such a high level and we feel if he is physically ready, which he is, he should start this week.”
There is no place in the squad for Hamish Watson, Scotland’s other long-term absentee, who made his comeback at club level for Edinburgh before the Six Nations following a concussion injury in the autumn international against New Zealand on November 13,. The performance of Luke Crosbie at Twickenham on his Six Nations debut persuaded Townsend to stick with the same back row of Jamie Ritchie, Crosbie and Matt Fagerson, with Jack Dempsey providing cover on the bench.
“Hamish came close,” said Townsend. “Jack came close as well. I felt he did really well off the bench and he has been in great form for Glasgow. For Hamish, it’s a tougher one when players are playing really well. Luke Crosbie has been playing well for Edinburgh, he made 20 tackles in less than an hour at the weekend and you get a feeling that playing that Test match will give him a lot of confidence, and to play a home Test now will bring the best out of him. It’s really competitive. It’s competitive around Jamie [Ritchie] as well. Jamie is our captain but he knows he has to play well to be in the back row. And I think that competition will bring the best out of the three guys who are starting.”
Wales have proved a tough opponent in recent years, with Scotland winning just two of the last 15 Six Nations matches between the sides. Both victories came when Warren Gatland was not in charge (against Rob Howley’s side in 2017 and Wayne Pivac’s in 2020) but the wily New Zealander is back in the hot-seat following the sacking of Pivac in December. Townsend has first-hand knowledge of Gatland having worked beside him on the 2021 Lions tour in South Africa and he played down his strong record against Scotland. “I imagine he has got a good record against a lot of teams,” said Townsend. “He has won a few grand slams and championships. He is a quality coach and has led his team to success for a number of years.”
Gatland was unable to prevent Wales sliding to a 34-10 home loss to Ireland last weekend in his first game back in charge after a spell coaching the Chiefs back home in New Zealand. The return to Super Rugby in his native Hamilton did not go well and neither, ultimately, did the last Lions tour which ended with the Springboks winning the series. While some of Gatland’s lustre might be have worn off, his past achievements with Wales should make Scotland wary.
“Coaches evolve,” added Townsend. “Since Gats last coached Wales he has coached the Lions with a different coaching group beside him, had two years in Super Rugby. Both of those are going to influence his views on the game. The game also changes year on year. The way his team played five years ago will be different to the way they played certainly last week. He thrives around the Test environment. His players know he has had success in the past so I am sure they believe they have the right players, the right coaching staff and the right game to win this weekend. Any team will have that in their minds going into such a big game.”
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