Gregor Townsend didn’t give a second thought to the selection of his third residency-qualified player during the Autumn Nations Cup by promoting newly-eligible Jaco van der Walt to his first Scotland cap.
The 26-year-old South African-born stand-off starts his international career with a formidable test against British and Irish legend Jonny Sexton in the final ANC game against Ireland in Dublin.
He replaces Duncan Weir, who himself replaced the injured Finn Russell and Adam Hastings in the first two games of the November tournament.
Van der Walt was first available to Scotland last week and was slated to play a part in the Fiji test cancelled because of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Islanders’ squad. Now with one game left, the coach feels he wants to see how the Edinburgh 10 goes in the international arena.
Van der Walt follows Duhan van der Merwe and Oli Kebble as South African-born players making their debuts for Scotland this autumn after completing the three-year residency qualification.
In Saturday’s 23-man squad there are 12 players who had their primary development in rugby outside Scotland – four residency-qualified, and eight more who are eligible through parents or grandparents.
Scottish development is `better than ever’
Townsend feels that Scotland are doing “better than ever” at producing players, and said a player’s origin or birth had no bearing whatsoever on whether they were selected.
“The fact that someone is playing because he played all his life in Scotland or because his parents were Scottish, his grandparents were Scottish, because he was brought up somewhere and comes through residency, does not come into selection thoughts,” he said.
“As you know we don’t have anything like the player numbers of any nation in the Top 15 in the world, Italy and all those countries have many more players than us.
‘A real success story’
“Our depth is at the best ever level, and there’s players who have come through residency in that, but that’s always been the case.
Three starters from Hawick – there are also three born in Dundee – suggested all was well, he added.
“It’s a really pleasing aspect to have three players from a small town in the Borders who are all starting for Scotland. That’s not happened in the pro era.
“Those who said rugby would struggle in the Borders and Scotland in the pro era and loss of the Borders pro team. Now here’s three guys who didn’t play for the Borders because it didn’t exist, and now they’re playing for Scotland. That’s a real success story.”
Van der Walt has earned selection
The intention had been to play van der Walt against Fiji, but there was no reason not to blood him now, said Townsend.
“Jaco’s been playing for Edinburgh the last 3 years and his play and performances have earned him the right to be considered,” he said.
“This year and last year he’s taken his game to another level. Defensively, he must be one of the best tackling stand-offs in world rugby.
“Duncan (Weir) has put a huge effort into his game and would have loved to have built on those two games, but it does create competition and depth. We think Jaco’s close to playing international level already, so it’ll be interesting to see how he goes.”
The ANC has added even more depth to Townsend’s options
“We’ve had 36 players who’ve played during this campaign,” said the head coach. “It’ll be 37 with Jaco and more if Huw [Jones] and Blair [Cowan] get on at the weekend. That’s quite a number and we’ve played well during this period.
“We’ll have our fifth stand-off in five games this weekend, if you count Hoggy’s 12 minutes down at Llanelli. I don’t think I’d have ever thought we’d have five stand-offs (available) playing international rugby.
“We certainly have depth in one or two positions which is very exciting, particularly in the second row where it is really impressive.
“Ultimately you want probably your top 30 players to be at a very high level where those two players challenging for a position can be up there with the best in the world. We’re moving towards that but certainly we can be better in that regard.”
Watson “fine” but rested, Taylor, Darcy, Zander, Thomson and Sutherland all return
Hamish Watson “has been one of our best players” said Townsend, but they wanted to look at Blade Thomson with combating Ireland’s excellent lineout with an extra jumper the primary reason.
A finger injury to Blair Kinghorn made Darcy Graham’s return a simple choice. Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris form a physically imposing centre partnership to combat Ireland’s Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw.
Rory Sutherland’s quick recovery from what appeared to be a serious ankle injury against Italy was a bonus. Zander Fagerson is restored on the other side of the front row.
Townsend said they’d wanted all year to select Blair Cowan, for the first time since 2016. With Huw Jones and Sean Maitland the backfield replacements, Stuart Hogg will go to 10 if injury befalls van der Walt.
Team: Stuart Hogg (capt); Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Duncan Taylor, Duhan van der Merwe; Jaco van der Walt, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson; Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray; Blade Thomson, Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Stuart McInally, Oli Kebble, WP Nel, Sam Skinner, Blair Cowan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Huw Jones, Sean Maitland.