Gregor Townsend has preached consistency, and even making multiple changes he’s sticking to the plan.
Five changes to the Scotland team to play Italy in Rome in the 2018 NatWest 6 Nations finale might seem radical, but only one of them – the inclusion of Nick Grigg at inside centre – really can be regarded as adventurous.
The rest restore established, experienced players to the places they lost largely because of injury. Some of this, said Townsend, is about the particular challenge of the as-yet-winless Azzuri, some of it because he wants to keep the established hands missing until now fully involved.
Therefore despite their excellent campaigns in this year’s championship, Grant Gilchrist and Simon Berghan are axed entirely from the matchday 23, while Stuart McInally, Pete Horne and Blair Kinghorn drop to the bench.
Coming back are WP Nel, Fraser Brown, Tim Swinson and Tommy Seymour, all of them seasoned internationals. On the bench Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray, front line players through last year’s 6 Nations but absent this campaign due to injury, are back on active duty.
There’s an element of risk here but this is the most experienced team in terms of caps picked by Townsend since he took over 10 tests ago, so maybe not as much as at first glance.
“It’s partly because of who we are playing against, the challenges they present and the things we are looking to do in our gameplan,” said the head coach. “These players are suited to do that.
“We could go throughout the Six Nations and have not involved Zander or Richie, who were both starters for the team in the Six Nations last year, and have been excellent players for Scotland.
“Zander in training has shown enough in training to have confidence he’ll play well. And Richie has shown it in two games (for Toulouse).
“Grant (Gilchrist) and Simon (Berghan) has played well. What an encouraging situation we’re in with the tight-heads, with WP back, Zander back and Simon having played really well in this Championship. We have real depth there now.”
Seymour is straight back in the team after recovering from his back problem – “he would have been selected last week”, said Townsend – while the head coach’s comments about McInally’s “energy” off the bench tallies with the Edinburgh hooker looking spent after an hour on Saturday in Dublin.
Grigg for Horne is a different one, with Townsend feeling they need more a direct carrier at 12, with Alex Dunbar and Duncan Taylor still not available.
“It’s mostly down to the playing style of Italy and how they defend,” continued the coach. “They defend differently to England or Ireland, a bit more wide spaced so we’ve got to make sure we punch holes in that defence.
“Nick has shown off the bench that he carries the ball really well. We believe that (style) will be better for us this week. He’s earned his opportunity by what he’s done, but also by how we believe we should play this weekend.”
This will be Griggs fourth cap after replacement appearances against England and Ireland. He made his debut in the defeat to Fiji last summer.
Three wins in the championship will match the record he inherited, and these kind of campaigns don’t happen very often for Scotland, just twice in the 6 Nations in fact. But even more so, there’s a feeling that Scotland’s progress won’t look nearly so convincing if they don’t beat an Italian team that despite flashes of promise, has struggled so badly at times in this tournament.
“We hear it will be wet in Rome so there will be a different kind of game,” continued Townsend. “Italy play to their strengths around the set-piece, but they are also moving the ball wide at times.
“We want to give a picture of who we are. A lot of that is about out-working the opposition and showing effort off the ball, defending and making life hard for the opposition attack.
“It’s about manipulating defence and creating opportunities, and that can be done in more than one way. And of course it is about taking chances.”
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, N Grigg (all Glasgow Warriors), S Maitland (Saracens); F Russell (Glasgow Warriors), G Laidlaw (ASM Clermont-Auvergne); G Reid (London Irish), F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), WP Nel (Edinburgh Rugby); T Swinson, J Gray (both Glasgow Warriors); J Barclay (Scarlets), H Watson (Edinburgh Rugby), R Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: S McInally (Edinburgh Rugby), J Bhatti, Z Fagerson (both Glasgow Warriors), R Gray (Toulouse), D Denton (Worcester Warriors), A Price, P Horne (both Glasgow Warriors), B Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby).