Scotland added two players to their squad for the week’s preparations for the third Guinness Six Nations match against Italy in Rome but neither is rebel stand-off Finn Russell.
Russell, omitted from the squad before a ball was kicked in this year’s championship, played for Racing 92 in Paris against reigning French champions Toulouse yesterday and had a mixed game as his side won 30-27 with the winning try scored in added time.
Russell had outstanding pass to set up a try but also delivered an interception returned 80 metres by centre Sofiane Guitoune for a Toulouse score.
Given the exchanges in the media, it was always unlikely that Russell and head coach Gregor Townsend would have successfully addressed their differences and instead the head coach called up two forwards to the training group.
Sam Skinner and Matt Fagerson, who would have been in the original squad but for injury, were both called to the training base at Oriam after they completed Friday matches for their clubs without incident.
Skinner, who suffered a hamstring tear in the World Cup warm-up game against France in September and missed the trip to Japan, only returned for Exeter three weeks ago after that injury and was a replacement for the Chiefs when they won at Gloucester on Friday night.
Fagerson narrowly missed the cut for Japan but was due to be in the Six Nations squad until he picked up a rib injury the week before it was announced. He played a busy 50 minutes and scored a try for Glasgow against Zebre at Scotstoun on Friday night.
With their call-up, lock Alex Craig has returned to Gloucester leaving Skinner as part of the second row mix to replace the injured Jonny Gray with Scott Cummings – who has started both games so far – Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist. Skinner can also play back row and has started at No 8 for Exeter since his injury comeback.
Toolis would appear to be next in line having been on the bench for the games against Ireland and England but the Edinburgh forward isn’t taking anything for granted even if Gilchrist was sent back to play for Edinburgh at Scarlets on Saturday.
“I guess one of us had to be held back and I had been on the bench twice and Gilcho hasn’t played in the last couple of weeks so we both need game time,” he said. “I feel for Jonny missing out, he is pretty gutted but I guess it is an opportunity for the rest of us.
“Jonny is a massive loss to us, especially in defence. He has a wealth of experience and is a good bloke. He loves playing for Scotland and it’s up to us to push forward now and get the wins.”
Despite the two losses and off-field disruption morale remains high in the camp, said Toolis.
“I think even before the start of the Six Nations there was a pressure to perform after a poor World Cup,” he continued.
“Morale has been fine, it has been good. We had a close loss to Irish when we could have, and maybe should have, beaten them, then England at home is very tough game against a side that reached the World Cup Final, and we probably just made too many errors, which didn’t help.
“We just need to cut those small things. Little tweaks will get us close to where we want to be.”
The squad are under no illusions that the game in Rome needs to be won if the pressure is not going to become overwhelming.
“We need to get momentum for those last two games, I’m sure we will be ready to go next week,” said Toolis.
“You don’t know what Italy will bring. Sometimes they’ll have different gameplans and they’ll surprise you. Against Wales they weren’t too good, but last week against France they had glimpses of brilliance
“I think most teams are trying to speed up their game-play, and Italy seem to have an off-loading game now. The best teams in the world score through chaotic pressure with heaps of off-loads.
“It is a tough place to play and they are passionate. We know what is at stake.”
Darcy Graham, also absent for the first two games of the championship with a knee injury sustained in training, returned to the squad at full-tilt in Friday’s session at Oriam and will be considered for next week’s game.