Barely seven weeks after ankle surgery, Stuart Hogg will return to the Scotland team to play Fiji in the second Autumn Test at BT Murrayfield as a proven “fast-starter”.
Gregor Townsend saw the talismanic full-back come back twice from injury virtually straight into the Scotland team last season, and has no reason to believe that the Warriors full-back needs any further seasoning before returning to his full blend of fiery-hot ability.
Hogg’s return is one of nine changes made from the team that lost to Wales a week ago, with three further players switching positions. These alterations are almost entirely by prior design as Townsend looks to shuffle in new players like Sam Skinner and Matt Fagerson and build his depth over the next 12 months prior to the World Cup.
Hogg’s welfare for that event is paramount, but there is no risk in giving the player – clearly desperate to get back on the pitch – an early recall.
“When you’ve had experience of someone who has played well (immediately) after being out with injury, like Stuart did twice last year, then you’ll play them,” reasoned Townsend.
“But it’s also about how the player is feeling, what the medics and the strength and conditioning team are telling you, what you’re seeing with your own eyes – that all gets added to the mix.
“Stuart’s trained really well. He’s recorded speed times that are faster than most players have done in Scotland this year, so physically he’s back at a very high level. That gives us confidence that he’ll play well at the weekend.”
Hogg has never really been away from the squad the whole time, Townsend continued, giving a clear indication that bringing him back during the Autumn Tests was always going to happen.
“He’s been bending the medics’ ears more than mine,” he continued. “He was at St Andrews as part of our leadership group along with John Barclay, though he didn’t train.
“We’ve watched closely what he’s been doing in training, we’ve been in close contact with Glasgow and see the GPS report on what he’s done.
“We can see with logic and science what he’s done and what his body has told him the day after training.
“Two weeks ago he started full running, and both him and the medical team were saying Fiji was a possibility – we had initially thought South Africa would be it given his diagnosis.
“He still had markers to pass on his ankle and how his body reacts and copes with different stresses and he’s come through that very well.”
But the rotation of personnel means that even Jonny Gray – a staple for his entire career other when forcibly required to stay home from the summer tour – must take off-time, even if it’s only on the bench.
“We have to manage Jonny, like a number of players, as this game will be demanding,” continued Townsend. “Last week was very demanding for the players and South Africa and Argentina will be huge challenges.
“We believe this squad is a blend of experienced players, players who didn’t play last week coming back into the team, with players like Matt Fagerson and Sam Skinner who haven’t played that often or at all. It’s a good time to bring them into the team with that experience around them.”
Skinner makes his first start and Fagerson his first at home. Recalls come for Hogg, Fraser Brown, Grant Gilchrist, the half-back pairing of Greig Laidlaw (restored as captain after an 18-test gap) and Finn Russell, as well as Peter Horne and Sean Maitland in the backs.
Jamie Ritchie switches from blindside flanker to openside, Ryan Wilson from No 8 to blindside, and Alex Dunbar moves to outside centre from inside.
On the bench Josh Strauss, newly recalled to the squad just this week, returns as back row cover, and Newcastle’s Chris Harris gets another look.
Fiji represent a significant challenge that cannot be understimated, as they have improved since last year.
“That game should inform our players of the threat that Fiji bring but they’re better than they were then,” he said.
“Ireland beat everybody last year in the November Tests and Six Nations and the team that pushed them closest was Fiji, losing just 23-20 in November.
“They’re a quality side and their players individually are getting better and better, more and more of them are professional are playing at top clubs.
“Our players – and a number of them played in Suva – are very aware of the threats Fiji pose and how they’ll be looking for another big scalp. It’s an opportunity for them to beat a Tier One nation away from home.”
Team: S Hogg; T Seymour, A Dunbar, P Horne (all Glasgow), S Maitland (Saracens); F Russell (Racing 92), G Laidlaw (Clermont-Ferrand); A Dell (Edinburgh), F Brown (Glasgow), WP Nel (Edinburgh); S Skinner (Exeter), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh); R Wilson (Glasgow), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), M Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: S McInally (Edinburgh), A Allan (Glasgow), S Berghan (Edinburgh), J Gray (Glasgow), J Strauss (Sale), G Horne (Glasgow), C Harris (Newcastle).