Ali Price will replace the totemic Greig Laidlaw for only the second time – when there’s been a choice – as Gregor Townsend’s shake-up of Scotland for the visit of Wales turned out to be a lot less dramatic than it appeared.
Head coach Townsend tried to paint fielding Price instead of the 34-year-old captain, goal-kicker and all-round reliable to be a simple matter of giving the younger man a chance with the championship gone, and nothing to do with the wide perception that Price’s quicker game will release Scotland’s back play, which has been pretty much stuck in the blocks for the last two games.
One game after he moved into second place on Scotland’s all-time scoring list, Laidlaw is on the bench with Townsend promising that the 34-year-old still has a big part to play on Saturday as well as in the next year.
But as George Horne – currently injured – also offers a greater pace and a running threat some consider to be even superior to Price, it seems the two younger 9s are better suited than the veteran to Townsend’s preferred “quick and quicker” style, and a changing of the guard may be at hand.
Certainly Price has only been preferred once before to Laidlaw when both have been fit, in the 6 Nations opener in Cardiff last year. That was something of a personal disaster for the 25-year-old, and it led to him failing out of favour not just with Scotland but with Glasgow.
“That game was tough for him,” agreed Townsend. “A pass he threw was intercepted and he got called for a not straight scrum feed, those were two things at the start of the game that went against him.
“But the following week he came off the bench and played very well when we beat France, and he played really well off the bench against England and Italy, he helped us win those games.
“He worked hard in the summer and started this season in very good form. He’s got a real competition on his hands at club level and international level, played a lot of the big games for Glasgow over the last couple of months he’s played really well.”
But yes, Price’s speed of delivery and threat to break – Laidlaw has made just seven runs and only 12 metres in three games – is a strength, agreed the coach.
“We want to see the strengths of each player when we select them, and Ali’s strengths are around that speed, whether it’s him just getting the ball way quicker, or him having a run, too,” he continued. “His support lines have been very good, as in the try he scored against France, so that’s something we want to see from him in the game.”
“Greig can play it very quickly, too, but he does have different strengths – the knowledge of the game, his kicking game has been very consistent. We want to make sure that we bring both their strengths out when they both play.
“Greig’s disappointed, as you’d expect. We know Greig is determined to play his best, play well for Scotland and win for Scotland. He is the only player who has started the last six games which shows how important a member of our squad he is.”
There are three other changes as well as the headline-maker, with Finn Russell and WP Nel returning, as expected. Peter Horne moves to 12 to accommodate Russell and Sam Johnson (“it’s tough on him”, agreed Townsend) drops out. The other change is enforced, with Darcy Graham replacing the injured Sean Maitland on the wing.
WATCH | Gregor Townsend talks about the changes made to the team to face Wales this Saturday at BT Murrayfield and pays tribute to the Glasgow Warriors pair that will make their 50th appearance #AsOne pic.twitter.com/Kxe9HyUgUd
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) March 7, 2019
However, that’s the extent of the changes. The pack remains the same other than Nel in for Simon Berghan, with Hamish Watson held on the bench mainly due to lack of matches. Nick Grigg is given another chance in the centre despite a performance in Paris that had L’Equipe, the bible of French sport, giving him just two out of ten in their player ratings.
“Nick defended well, made 18 tackles, he worked hard, and he was disappointed on a couple of occasions when he lost the ball in contact,” said Townsend. “But that’s normally a strength of his, he’s a very good ball carrier and we know he’s capable of more this weekend.”
Certainly Scotland need much more from outside centre in an attacking sense. Grigg made only a handful of metres with ball in hand – and was stripped of the ball twice – in Paris while Huw Jones was fairly becalmed in the first two games as well.
It’s not the biggest backline either – Blair Kinghorn at full back is the only player who matches the big Welsh threequarters physically – but they all tackle above their weight, particularly Graham, who will make his first start.
“Darcy’s come on in both of his games from the bench and taken the game to the opposition by making breaks in both those games,” said Townsend.
“He’s been in excellent form for his club. He gives you energy and he gets stuck in defensively. He may not be as tall as George North but he gets off the ground and wins ball in air.
“He’s gone up against some very big wingers this year and done really well, and he’s a dangerous attacker. We love his attitude, we love his ability, and it’s great he’s getting a chance to start for Scotland.”
Scotland team: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh Rugby); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Allan Dell (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby, capt), WP Nel (Edinburgh Rugby); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh Rugby), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh Rugby), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Bryon McGuigan (Sale Sharks).