Hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn made Gregor Townsend and his assistants go for an extra day before making their final decision on selection, but they’ve stuck with the advance plan and the Edinburgh youngster drops to the bench for Saturday’s meeting with Ireland at Murrayfield.
Townsend said he always intended that Sean Maitland – no hat-tricks for Scotland but six tries in his last eight tests – would return in this game once he was over a hamstring injury, but Kinghorn’s star turn against Italy on Saturday, which won his the sponsors’ player of the week award, made them debate that decision for an extra 24 hours.
The team was revealed to the players only on Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday morning, and featured three other changes to the starting line-up; the return of Jonny Gray for Ben Toolis, and the two enforced by injury, Simon Berghan replacing calf-injury victim WP Nel and Josh Strauss at No 8 with Sam Skinner absent with an ankle injury.
But Kinghorn’s fate will be the most debated after the 22-year-old’s performance on Saturday, and it’s a big call for Townsend to have made.
“It is credit to Blair’s performance that people are saying this was a tough decision, but Sean is an excellent player who has shown his quality week in and week out with Saracens and also with Scotland,” said the coach.
“He has scored a lot of tries for Scotland in the last twelve months. He brings more than just the wing role of making breaks and scoring tries. He brings a lot of communication defensively, and his kick chase, he is one of the best for that.”
Maitland is also a key member of one of the squad’s study groups, having presented to the team on Wednesday on the kick cycle (fielding kicks in attack and defence, and what you do if you win the ball) which is likely to be a significant area of tomorrow’s game given Ireland’s preference – obsession some might say – with the box kick.
“The fact that we did not announce the team to the squad until Wednesday shows that the discussions lasted longer,” added Townsend “We all saw the positives of Blair starting and we saw the positives of Sean and Tommy.”
Experience has won out, as it has for the return of Gray to the starting team and the inclusion of Fraser Brown, Rob Harley and Peter Horne to the bench. The return of Gray breaks up the Edinburgh front five that has been going so strongly, but “Jonny is a very important player for us,” said Townsend.
“He has been consistently outstanding for Scotland for the last three or four years,” continued the coach. “This game is set for a Jonny Gray performance of effort in defence and ball carrying. Together with his experience of playing at international level he was always going to come back into the team if he was fit.
“Fraser, Sean and Peter are players who proven in the past that they can play very well and they’re leaders. It’s important when you’re playing against one of the best teams in the world, a team that has been consistent, that hasn’t lost many games over the past two or three years, that those players who know what it’s about and have been in these games for you.”
Scotland have a plan for what they believe will work against Ireland, but there is a Plan B based on the weather forecast, continued Townsend.
“Tomorrow’s team run looks to be nice with 40 mph winds and rain and it’s going to be very windy on Saturday,” he said. “It might be a different game than we played on Saturday against Italy when it was near perfect playing conditions.
“We have certain plays or certain styles of play that we’ve planned which might work against Ireland, but if it is very windy and we have to play against the wind or with the wind, we’d change things tactically.
“I feel our group have improved a lot tactically over the last few years. We have that experience through the spine of the team, the two hookers have played for us, the No 8s, the half-backs through to Stuart Hogg at 15.
“The conversations and communication in the field will be based on what they feel and see, what’s working for them. I have to say at the weekend Finn Russell’s decision making and tactical understanding were first class.”
Scotland’s injury issues have been well-documented, but Ireland are struggling a bit with this as well, Robbie Henshaw the latest top have been ruled out yesterday. But Townsend admires their strength in depth.
“The depth they have is amazing,” he said. “When it looked like (Garry) Ringrose was going to miss out you bring in Rob Kearney back in and put Henshaw to 13.
“Now he’s out, Chris Farrell comes in, he’s strong and when he played for Ireland last year I thought he was outstanding until he picked up an injury.
“They’ve still got the world’s best half backs in Murray and Sexton available to them and they can just swap in anybody in that pack; Sean O’Brien is playing, one of the best Irish forwards of recent times.
“They’ll want to get back to what they do best which is controlled possession, they’re a very good defensive team as well and they’ll challenge our contact. It’ll be a huge battle and within that there’s many battles around the restart, the kick cycle, the contact area, scrum and lineout.
“It’s something we can’t wait to get stuck into.”
Team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne); Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby), Josh Strauss (Sale).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), D’Arcy Rae (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh Rugby).