Gregor Townsend sifted among the injured and unavailable and has come up with what he believes is a solution to Scotland’s front row “crisis” and a backline strong on both sides of the ball for the NatWest 6 Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff.
After all the talk of Scotland’s seven absent props, the combination for the Principality Stadium is actually the most experienced duo Scotland have fielded in the front row since the 2016 summer tour to Japan.
Gordon Reid, with 27 caps, returns on the loose head while Jon Welsh, with 11 caps, is on the tight-head after his – for many long overdue – recall. Welsh’s Newcastle clubmate Chris Harris is the major surprise in selection at outside centre, with both Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor ruled out.
Of the other contentious issues, Ali Price as expected retains the 9 shirt ahead of the returning Greig Laidlaw, Byron McGuigan is rewarded for his 11th hour, two-try performance against Australia with a second start in preference to Sean Maitland, and Cornell de Preez starts with Ryan Wilson regarded as not quite ready after a six-week injury lay-off.
The three not selected are all on a formidable-looking and vastly experienced bench with just one novice in the Dunfermline RFC and Strathallan School product Murray McCallum, the sole uncapped player in the 23.
“We have had injuries, but players coming back who were previously unavailable to us,” said Townsend, answering Wales’ stated aim to target the Scots in the depleted front row. “Gordon Reid specifically, while Jon Welsh has been very consistent for Newcastle and he can’t wait to play for Scotland again.
“Gordy has really hit form since he missed November with being out for three months and we’ve been really impressed with his scrummaging.
“We believe we’ve got a really strong scrummaging unit, with two players that can scrum and also add impact off the bench in Jamie and Murray McCallum in the loose in the second half.”
Harris had “really impressed” at Newcastle especially in his defence, and had shown to be a good combination in training with Huw Jones, added Townsend.
As for the question of Laidlaw and Price, it was “always going to be tight” for the former skipper, who played his first full 80 minutes after recovering from a broken leg only last Sunday.
“He’s done very well to be in our squad, and to come back from injury a week ago, ahead of schedule, which was great,” said Townsend. “To play 80 minutes at the weekend showed to us that he was capable of coming back into our squad, which was good news for Greig and good news for us.”
There are six changes from the team that routed Australia in the final game of the autumn campaign, with Stuart Hogg, a late call-off from that game, unsurprisingly returning at full-back.