Scotland’s focus is squarely on reaching the final of the Autumn Nations Cup and not on record winning runs going into Sunday’s visit of France to BT Murrayfield.
With next week’s game against Fiji cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak in the Pacific Islanders’ squad, the second meeting with France this year – Scotland won 28-17 in the Six Nations at Murrayfield in March – becomes a virtual semi-final for the new post-lockdown competition.
A win would also mean the Scots’ sixth successive victory, matching the all-time record (it was previously reached by the Grand Slam teams of 1925 and 1990, as well as two occasions in the late 19th century) but the team seem uninterested.
“We’ve never mentioned it in at any of our meetings or among the coaches,” said Townsend. “I couldn’t tell you if the players talk about it.
“But whether it’s on the back of six defeats, one win, or no wins – this is a great game for us to get stuck into.
“The opportunity is about winning this game and what that would mean to this group in terms of getting into the final to play for first or second in a couple of weeks’ time.
“We know what a challenge France are going to bring – one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the world right now, so that’s all we’re thinking about.”
Townsend made five changes to the team that defeated Italy in Florence last week, before he knew for certain that the Fiji game was off. Here are the main talking points from selection:
Matt Fagerson has a chance to nail down the problem No 8 position
The younger Fagerson brother has been injured early in both his starts at Murrayfield for Scotland, but no-one has grabbed the spot between sure-picks Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson yet.
“Matt started against Georgia, picked up an injury, has done really well to come back and was available last week after a full week of training,” said Townsend.
“We were pleased with how Blade (Thomson) played in the last two games. He’s been involved more and more, especially in the last 20 minutes of the Italy game where he was excellent in defence.
“Now it’s up to Matt to show what he can do. He’s been in excellent form for his club and he works really hard in attack and defence and we’ll need that from him this weekend.”
Rory Sutherland’s ankle injury is not as bad as feared
Oli Kebble has done well in three replacement appearances and was an obvious choice to play in Sutherland’s absence, although it will be the Glsgow prop’s first start since completing residency qualification.
“Better news – a lot better than we were expecting,” said Townsend of Sutherland. “It’s hard to put a timeline on it: let’s call it two to three weeks, maybe more, maybe less.
“We’re not ruling him out for the rest of this tournament. We have one game left in a couple of weeks, so we’ll just see how he goes once when he starts to move around again. I think we’re all feeling it could have been a lot worse.”
Sean Maitland is back and his experience is vital
Maitland was disciplined for being part of the group that breached coronavirus protocols while with the Barbarians, but is on the bench and has been “a very important player for us over the last couple of years,” said Townsend.
“He understood the consequences of his actions and how it let down a number of people,” continued the coach. “But he said straightaway that if he does get the opportunity to be back involved then he would get his head down and work hard in training, and he has done.
“He’s scored a number of crucial tries including the two against France in March. Just having his experience and his determination to be involved is a great thing for us.
“With Duncan Taylor on the bench as well, we know we have two players who will get into the game straightaway if they get the chance to come on.”
It might have been a different side had the Fiji game not been cancelled
Fiji had 29 Covid-19 positives in their squad last week, and all three of their pool games in the competition have been cancelled.
“Would we have changed things? Maybe, yes,” said Townsend. “We’d looked at this campaign as an opportunity to see other players play.
“It has been disappointing for some of our players in that they have worked hard and not going to get the chance. We had hinted to some that they would play against Fiji.”
It has logistical issues as well, with Scotland players representing 10 different clubs who might like their players back for a weekend.
“We’d obviously all like to carry on being together, but we’ll see how we manage that,” he continued. “We’ve been together now for almost seven weeks. It was going to be an intense training week going into that Fiji game, but now we have that two-week build-up to the finals weekend.”
An empty Murrayfield is “strange” but the Scots have been working on that
The contrast between 67,000 roaring on Scotland in March and this game behind closed doors will be stark, but Townsend says they’ve made adjustments.
“I found (the Georgia game) a very strange atmosphere,” he said.
“We learned from that that we have to do more as staff and subs to create that energy for the players and I feel we’ve done that well in the past two games, in Wales and Italy.
“It is about responding to moments in games, whether we win a scrum penalty or we’ve had a good defensive set. We want the team to encourage each other on the field, but also those not in the 15 or 23, including the management.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter, capt); Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Duhan Van der Merwe (Edinburgh); Duncan Weir (Worcester), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Oli Kebble (Glasgow Warriors), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Jonny Gray (Exeter); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Bhatti (Edinburgh), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Skinner (Exeter) Blade Thomson (Scarlets), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Exeter), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Sean Maitland (Saracens).