After all the analysis and “where did we go wrong” navel-gazing about the Cardiff debacle, Gregor Townsend offered a conclusive answer in selecting 160 caps worth of extra experience for Scotland’s second NatWest 6 Nations game against France on Sunday.
Six changes bring back the reassuring presence of Greig Laidlaw, Ryan Wilson, Peter Horne, Grant Gilchrist and Sean Maitland, all senior players with some degree of leadership skill.
The only man to replace someone with more caps is Simon Berghan, fast-tracked back into the team at tight head despite not having played since stamping on Fraser Brown’s head and incurring a six week suspension before Christmas.
David Denton, who hasn’t played since the Japan tour of 2016, returns on the bench and the only daring choice this week, in contrast to last, is the 20-year-old Edinburgh back Blair Kinghorn also among the replacements.
Laidlaw, returning to the Scotland almost exactly a year after injury against France in Paris, is a vice captain as John Barclay retains the lead job. But the veteran scrum-half also brings knowledge of the French – four of his Clermont-Auvergne team mates are in their side – and authority.
Bringing in Horne – Alex Dunbar is still unavailable – not only releases Huw Jones to the outside centre role where he is more effective but also, with Laidlaw, a minder on each side for Finn Russell. The mercurial stand-off now has two of the squad’s premier communicators and tacticians to guide him.
“We saw Greig at training doing well and could just tell with his energy around the group, when he came on he was one of the players in that second half who was taking the game to Wales,” said Townsend.
“He’s back in form and it’s a credit to him it is so quickly (after injury). He is an important player for Scotland given that he was captain for a long time. He’s there to help John Barclay in the leadership, and already you can tell at training, the talking and getting points across.
“I think it can help Finn, it can help the team. It’s important whoever is playing inside and outside Finn are helping him through attack or defence. We are fortunate in a lot of ways that we have a lot of cohesion in our group, whether it’s the Glasgow guys playing together or Finn and Greig having played a number of times (in tandem) for Scotland.
“It always helps in decision-making that he can speak to someone with that amount of experience, advising, ‘what are you seeing in terms of their defence?’ Greig should have the right answers.”
But Townsend wasn’t getting away from the fact that some players had dropped to the bench or out of the 23 altogether for blunter reasons.
“Those players at the weekend had an opportunity and we played nowhere near as well as we could have,” he said. “Sometimes that means someone else gets the opportunity the week after, especially if they have shown throughout training or coming on the field that they are on good form.”
There is a perception that Scotland will lose something in the scrum – a French strength – with Berghan starting instead of Jon Welsh, despite the Edinburgh prop’s more dynamic presence about the field.
“It’s for Simon to show that we’re not (weaker in the scrummage),” said Townsend. That’s a challenge he and the other guys in the front row have against what we know will be a strong French
Raising morale after Cardiff has been a challenge, but even greater is trying to figure out what the French might do with just one game to go on since they changed their coaching team wholesale.
“There’s a certain expectation for the French national team to play a certain way and there’s certain fundamentals in the their game,” said Townsend, who spent five years as a player in the Top 14.
“The combat as they call it, the forward exchanges are very important to them, setpiece, the big hits around the tackle area. They also compete for ball post-tackle more than other teams, so we’ll need to watch out for that.
“It was a brutally physical game against them last year, there were a lot of collisions. That can take a lot out of them, if that’s the strategy they want to play.
“If they choose a huge team, then it will be more likely that they want to use route one and be direct.
“We’ve got to adapt to that. And, when we’ve got the ball, we move them around. We take them to places they don’t want to go.”
For Scotland, the overriding emotion is putting Cardiff behind them as quickly as possible.
“The underlying theme and message is that we have to be more accurate, it was the inaccuracies that cost us opportunities we created but also gave the ball to Wales and gave them good positions to attack against us and put us under more pressure,” continued Townsend.
“Of course the players are angry when they see that game, why didn’t we do that properly, why didn’t we communicate better.
“You have to be tough to beat and we weren’t at the weekend. We pride ourselves on defence, and that was the most disappointing aspect for me, that we certainly made it such easier than we’ve shown before.
“We are determined to recapture how we played in 2017 – and not what we’ve shown so far in 2018.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Peter Horne (all Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne); Gordon Reid (London Irish), Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan; Grant Gilchrist (all Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); John Barclay (Scarlets, captain), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Scott Lawson (Newcastle Falcons), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), David Denton (Worcester Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby).