Stuart Hogg will start at 10 for the first time for Scotland – and the first time since 2013 – in the headline change of seven in Gregor Townsend’s team to take on Italy on Saturday in the Guinness Six Nations.
Hogg last started at 10 at the top level for the Lions in a tour game in Australia seven years ago. Yet moving forward from full-back twice recently, against Wales in November and Ireland last week, offers greater continuity than picking a full-time 10 in Jaco van der Walt, said Townsend.
The shake-up in selection after the 24-27 defeat to Ireland might reflect the poor performance last Sunday but Townsend dressed the seven personnel changes as part rotation – even though Scotland still don’t know if they will play France next week.
Here’s the five main takes from Townsend’s selection decisions:
Hogg may have a future role at 10, although he’s a 15 first
Finn Russell’s absence – and that of Adam Hastings – has accelerated this decision, but it appears to have been brewing in Townsend’s mind for a bit.
“It was a close decision but we feel this is a good time now for Stuart to play longer at 10,” said Townsend. “We’ll then see if that is an option when we have to put a squad together, whether he covers 10 or we have Jaco or Adam on the bench.
“Jaco on the bench gives us security, let’s say, in that he’s someone playing regularly at 10, goal kicker, a good defender.”
With Hogg new to the role, it didn’t matter if Scott Steele got his chance at scrum-half now, he reasoned.
“We’ll play with a similar mindset and strategy to what we’ve had so far in the championship,” he said.
“A lot of that is where the space is, how to create that space. That could be moving the ball in a certain way or it could be kicking. Stuart’s got a very good kicking game.”
Finn Russell was less than two hours away from being picked
Russell has had no concussion symptoms since failing his HIA during Sunday’s game, but less than six days between games meant he had no chance of playing against Italy.
“He was probably two hours away,” said the coach. “Because of the protocols, the Ireland game kicking off later than this weekend – the six days was actually less than six days.
“Finn has gone through all the various stages, which included training with us today. He will do contact tomorrow and be available after Saturday.”
Four new front-five players might have happened anyway
“We would have looked to manage players, anyway,” said Townsend, who couldn’t call on last week’s starting locks Scott Cummings and Jonny Gray.
“Three games in 19 games mean the recovery time between Ireland and Italy is six days, so it was putting players on the bench or giving players opportunities, as we’ve done with Dave Cherry.
“Grant (Gilchrist) and Sam (Skinner) are experienced players who have done really well for us in the past. Alex (Craig) is a player we have high hopes for, he’s been playing really well for Gloucester and we feel he can make a big impact off the bench.”
Jonny Gray should return if there is a game in Paris next week.
Similar “rotations” at scrum-half and centre
“Huw Jones has earned his right by his performances at 13 for Glasgow, and his impact off the bench,” continued the head coach. “We’re managing resources a bit there, with Chris having played a lot of rugby for us.
“Chris Harris and Ali Price have played the last eight games I think. – so they have been regulars in our team.
“Scott has come into our squad and come off the bench on three occasions, but only once at scrum-half and that performance was excellent down at Twickenham when he really helped control those last 10-15 minutes.
“We believe this is the right time for him to get that opportunity. His work-rate, defensive attributes and all-round skills should see him go well.”
Italy deserve to be in the Six Nations
Townsend has no doubts about the Italian’s place in the championship, despite recent struggles – their last win was at Murrayfield in 2015.
“I think they’ve been a fantastic addition to the Championship and have beaten us a few times over the years,” he said. “Their inclusion makes the Championship richer.
“Although we can’t enjoy it at the moment with supporters, it is wonderful to have Rome involved.
“I believe Italy are playing some of the most attractive rugby in the tournament. Yes, they’ve not won a game yet but they’re playing with ambition.
“We want to show a truer picture of what the players are capable of. We set the bar at a high level in the first game and the first 30 minutes of the second game, but we’ve not backed it up.
“We’re expecting a lot tougher game than people are predicting. Italy caused England a lot of problems and I’m expecting that level of performance again with the ambitious way they play.”