It’s a radical change that doesn’t even seem to have been on the agenda a few weeks ago, but Gregor Townsend indicated that a midfield combination of Adam Hastings and Finn Russell could take Scotland into the Six Nations.
Russell and Hastings the midfield for Argentina this weekend having combined briefly – and effectively – against Fiji two weeks ago, and somewhat less effectively for an even briefer spell at the end of the South Africa game last weekend.
Prior to that, they had a few minutes playing together in an 1872 Cup match at Murrayfield for Glasgow Warriors, which Townsend seems to have logged at the back of his mind and revisited this November.
Part of it is expediency – the head coach suggested that had Sam Johnson and Matt Scott been fit then it would have been between them for 12 in this game – but the head coach also seems intrigued at the combination of two fairly free-spirited players at the heart of Scotland’s attacking engine.
“I remembered that Edinburgh-Glasgow game when Adam came off the bench and they combined really well a couple of times,” said Townsend.
“Adam has been playing so well for Glasgow this year, and that’s put him in a position to compete for that ten jersey. We want to see Adam to continue to develop and we want to give him opportunities for that.
“I am not sure if this would have happened if we had Matt and Sam available as we would have probably given one of them an opportunity. But given Adam’s form, we would like to give him a second start and we feel having the experience of Finn and Greig (Laidlaw, skipper again) either side of him will help him a lot.”
Russell did play 12 for Scotland Under 20s and then when he started at Glasgow, but now he earns nearly €1 million a year to play 10 at Racing 92 in Paris, which seems to say something about how Townsend rates Hastings’ potential.
“They’ve got their own abilities to run and that’s exciting in the positions they play in, but for me their first role from an attacking point of view is to make sure they are putting other players in space,” added the coach.
“So, to have two people who can do that in that first receiver or second receiver position has a lot of potential.”
Even before we consider defence, aren’t Scotland losing the forceful kind of carrying at 12 that a Pete Horne or an Alex Dunbar – on the bench – brings? Apparently not.
“Finn’s got to carry ball as second receiver and we want him getting as many touches as first receiver as he can,” continued Townsend.
“We should see other aspects of his game which are strong points, (such as) his carrying game, which we didn’t get to see last week or don’t get to see enough when he’s playing 10.
“Finn is a strong ball-carrier, he’s hard to put down, he’s got a good off-loading game, he’s got a good awareness of defences to pick the right running lines. He should certainly get opportunities to carry this week.”
Townsend agreed the selection was not without risk, and that it was experimental, but still worth trying as it might provide something extra.
“If this had been a Six Nations game it might not have been the selection we put out there – but if they go well, it could be the selection we put out there for a Six Nations game,” he mused.
“November does give us an opportunity to look at different things, but we’re looking at these things because we believe they’ll work.”
There are nine changes in all from the Springbok game – although, with rotation, it doesn’t seem such a radically different selection, the midfield aside. Notably Josh Strauss, not in the squad until the second week of the series, gets his first start since Fiji in Suva last year.
“Josh was in the Six Nations training squad, and we’d watched him closely, but other players had come through and grabbed their opportunities like Dave Denton during the Six Nations and others on the summer tour.
“But we believe Josh has got the focus right to play well. He’s got himself in good physical condition, he’s really keen to play for Scotland, he impacted the game against Fiji in the first half when he came on.
“Now he’s got the opportunity to start to show he should be starting at No 8 for us when we play Italy in a few months’ time.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne, capt); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks).
Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Alex Allan (Glasgow), WP Nel (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow), George Horne (Glasgow), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks).