Matt Scott will make his first test appearance for more than four years as one of four changes made in a surprising starting XV for Scotland’s third Autumn Test Series against South Africa.
The Leicester centre hasn’t started for Scotland since Gregor Townsend’s first game as national head coach, against Italy in Singapore in 2017. He replaces Sam Johnson, who is not injured and drops out of the 23.
Similarly Darcy Graham and Kyle Steyn are fit but drop out of the squad that faced Australia. Youngster Rufus McLean will win his second cap on the wing. Blair Kinghorn comes on to the bench, ostensibly as back three cover.
In the pack Hamish Watson, man of the match against the Wallabies, is only on the bench. Nick Haining starts at six and Jamie Ritchie moves to open-side.
Stuart McInally returns at hooker with try-scoring debutant Ewan Ashman holding his place on the bench. McInally missed last week’s game with non-Covid sickness.
Stuart Hogg will captain the side and win his 87th cap, bringing him alongside Scott Murray in fourth place in the all-time list.
Scott’s improved defence is the key
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 11, 2021
Scott’s strengths are well known – ball-carrying and the kick-chase – but it is his improved defence that has been the key. Prone to jumping out of the line at times for Scotland in the past, his discipline in defence for Leicester has been excellent.
“He’s not been involved at times and at others picked up injuries at the wrong time,” said Townsend of the four-year gap. “There were areas of his game he had to work on, and we needed to see him improve. He’s done that.
“He gives us his strengths, which are carrying and work rate. Defensively he’s really improved over the past few months. Those three elements are going to be massive this weekend.”
Scottish fans’ eyebrows will be halfway up their heads at Watson riding the bench. But the dynamic ‘Mish’ needs care with only 100 minutes of rugby this season, says the coach, and Haining has never let Scotland down.
Managing Watson’s workload
“Nick played a very physical team in Paris at the end of the Six Nations, and he was a big part of our win,” said Townsend. “That and his debut in Dublin 18 months ago were in our minds. He’s got an edge and he’s skilful with ball in hand.
“It’s what’s best for Hamish too. He hadn’t had any rugby before Tonga and we got him through 40 minutes, and he played well (for an hour) at the weekend.
“We have to have a view on where he is after so little rugby. We also believe he can make a big impact sometime in the second half or earlier if he has to. This game is likely to be decided by how well the teams play in the last 20 minutes as much as the first 20.”
McLean has impressed for Glasgow and with his two-try show against Tonga, and the coaching team think his contact work and kick-chase are “exceptional”, said Townsend.
“We believe he is ready and offers something different,” said the head coach. “We want to give players opportunities that we feel deserve them, to push for a starting place in the Six Nations or even a World Cup squad.
“If we just went through November picking the same team…yes it’s cohesive and there’s positives in that.
“But we’re not getting to learn about other people and how they either thrive or don’t play as well when they get that opportunity. So far this Autumn everyone’s grabbed their opportunity.”
No real pointers from the summer
The summer’s Lions Tour, when Townsend was involved, does not make this match “unfinished business” for him. It’s a different team with different strengths, he says.
“That business finished in the summer,” he said. “We didn’t finish off opportunities (the Springboks) were deserving winners, they did enough to win the two tests.
“This is a different team on a different journey. This is probably our biggest challenge over the last two years, taking on one of the top sides in the world, world champions, just off No 1 right now.
“I always feel you have to play to your strengths. We’ve a number of players who thrive when the game’s faster, when they can make decisions in attack.
“Our players have matured, especially our key decision makers. They’re now in their late 20s with a lot of experience. They can do what’s right for the team at any moment.
“They know they’ve got the freedom to make those choices. Whatever’s right before a game and what’s working during a game.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter); Rufus McLean (Glasgow), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Matt Scott (Leicester), Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow); Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow); Sam Skinner (Exeter), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Nick Haining (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: Ewan Ashman (Sale), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow), Oli Kebble (Glasgow), Jamie Hodgson (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), George Horne (Glasgow), Adam Hastings (Gloucester), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh)