Sam Skinner is the most glaring alteration in Gregor Townsend’s grand plan for the Autumn Tests as he is retained in the Scotland team but at blindside flanker for the visit of South Africa on Saturday.
Skinner won his first cap – and the man of the match award – against Fiji playing lock for 70 minutes and on the flank for the last 10, an arrangement that often occurs when he plays for his club Exeter Chiefs.
Townsend is on record as wanting as many locks to be able to double-up for back row duty as possible – Rob Harley, Tim Swinson, Lewis Carmichael (currently injured) fit this bill – with the World Cup in mind and he appears to be grooming Skinner for this kind of role already.
“He took the game to the opposition and looked comfortable at test level,” said the head coach of Skinner’s debut. “We have seen a lot of him in training that he could go well at back row.
“He came up at Exeter Chiefs in the back row and often moves from second row to back row in games,” said Townsend.
Extra ballast in the pack won’t be unhelpful against the Springboks as will Skinner’s considerable lineout and mauling presence, but he’s there for more than those manful tasks.
“He has a real presence in the set-piece but he is a very good decision maker in attack,” continued Townsend. “You saw that at the weekend. I never thought I would see a kick from him but it shows what goes through his mind.
“He played 10 until the age of 16 and whether you have four or six or 13 on your back, we demand from our players the ability to recognise a situation and carry, pass or even kick if it’s the right option.
“Sam knows the challenge is bigger and that he will have to keep his level of performance up for 80 minutes but we are looking forward to see him starting in the back row.”
The plan prior to the Autumn Series remains “roughly 80 per cent” the same now they’ve reached what figures to be the toughest of the four tests. Skinner at 6 is an obvious change of mind, and probably the other is Pete Horne retaining the 12 shirt at the expense of Alex Dunbar a decision wholly merited on the form of the first two games.
Stuart McInally, Ben Toolis, Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and notably Huw Jones are restored to the team after playing in Wales and missing last week.
Definitely pre-planned is the return of Gordon Reid to provide stability in the scrummage at loose head, even if the former Glasgow Warrior is playing down a level in the English Championship with London Irish.
“Gordie is a very honest guy and he says his scrums are as hard, at Championship level as they are Premiership level,” said Townsend. “He is encountering different kinds of props – very big, heavy men.
“Gordie did a really good job for us last year, started every game in the Six Nations and our scrum was a really strong part of what we did well last year.
“It was always part of the plan. One of the biggest threats is what South Africa pose around the scrum. In the first half of the first game, they really took on that English pack and drove them off the ball a couple of times, so for us to play the sort of rugby we aspire to play we’ve got to have our set-piece ball, we’ve got to make sure the opposition don’t get to dominate scrum, maul or win easy line-out ball off us.”
Townsend also noted the Springboks gave up 21 turnovers and missed 22 tackles against France on Saturday night, and wouldn’t mind those figures being repeated.
“France played really well, they matched South Africa physically,” he said. “But the longer the game went on South Africa came back into it.
“I remember when I played in South Africa (for the Natal Sharks) when things aren’t going well for a them they go back to their strengths.
“I remember games when John Smit was my captain at the Sharks and I was saying ‘maybe we should move the ball here,’ and he would say ‘no, no Gregor, we are going to run even harder into this area.’
“It’s a massive part of their game. They will believe they will be able to out-muscle any team they play against and that was how they got back in the game against France, the forwards started to maul stronger and stronger as the game went on and they ended up getting the win.”
Not unlike the way Scotland beat France and Italy in the spring, perhaps? But this challenge is a much more significant test of the team’s ability to play the varied sort of game.
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Peter Horne (Glasgow), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne, capt); Gordon Reid, Stuart McInally, WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Jonny Gray; Sam Skinner, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson.
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Josh Strauss, Jamie Ritchie, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris.