Gregor Townsend’s believes the Mission Impossible at Twickenham can be won – even if he was forced to make yet another change due to injury issues on selection day for Saturday’s final Guinness 6 Nations game against England.
If anything, the knock ruling out Jamie Ritchie – possibly the most consistent player in a Scotland jersey during the international season which ends tomorrow – helped Townsend in a difficult decision, but he was not shy of making a few more.
Out go Jonny Gray – perhaps an unthinkable decision only a few months ago – Josh Strauss and Pete Horne, in come Ben Toolis, Sam Skinner, and Sam Johnson, and it’s no surprise after his dynamic 20 minutes against Wales that Hamish Watson is back in the starting line-up.
Skinner, who has not played since injuring a knee barely minutes into the opening game of the championship against Italy, returns on the blindside. As expected, Sean Maitland is given the full-back jersey on his return from a calf problem, and Byron McGuigan retains his spot, for the absent Blair Kinghorn and Tommy Seymour.
The Scotland team trying to win at RFU HQ for the first time in 36 years bears absolutely no relation to most people’s first choice XV even back in January, but while the calamitous injury list has much to do with that, there are some choices made on pure form here.
Gray’s omission – on his 25th birthday – is really no surprise and perhaps overdue, as the Glasgow lock has not enjoyed his best season and the Edinburgh duo of Toolis and Grant Gilchrist are a more complimentary tandem in the second row, proven in the capital side’s wins over Gray’s Glasgow in December and their excellent European run.
Still, to decide to go without Gray’s famous industry in carrying and tackling is a major decision by Townsend and will not have been done lightly.
Even with so many changes, Townsend believes that his side can upset the considerable odds – England are 1-12 on to win – and back up last year’s thrilling 25-13 victory at Murrayfield.
“We are defending the Calcutta Cup and it took a lot of work to win that back,” he said. “It took 10 years, so we want to make sure we hold onto it for a bit longer.”
As for those who doubt his team and the weight of history on them, Townsend said that wasn’t a concern for the squad.
“We can’t really worry about that,” he said. “If no-one does think we’re going to win, then that’s fine. We believe we can win and that’s what we’re working to do this week.
“Scotland teams tend to be underdogs on a number of occasions and it usually brings the best out in them.”
Just three players survive – half-backs Ali Price and Finn Russell, and the returning Watson – from the starting team in the 61-21 humiliation on Scotland’s last visit to Twickenham, a game prior to which many north of the border harboured real hopes that the long drought in south west London might be broken.
“They have discussed (that game) as a playing group,” continued Townsend. “Those that were there two years ago certainly don’t want that to happen again.
“That was a tough day for everyone who is a Scotland rugby supporter and for the players who had to go through it.
We have to be much tougher to beat but we also have to take our game to the opposition as well.
“Any experience you have – whether positive or negative – you have to turn into a way of getting better, of being stronger, of using that experience to improve.”
Ritchie’s injury this week – a head/neck problem – is another addition to the huge casualty list that has afflicted Scotland this spring but it saved a tricky decision in how best to accommodate Watson, who simply had to come back. Magnus Bradbury goes to No 8.
With Toolis picked ahead of Gray, it’s an all-Edinburgh front five with no other changes.
“It is more a reflection on how Ben has been playing both for us against Italy and for his club in the fallow week, two or three weeks ago,” explained Townsend. “He has come off the bench and played well for us in the last two games.
“It an easy call bringing Hamish back with Jamie being injured. Hamish is a great man to replace him. I thought his impact against Wales was outstanding, the pace and power he brought in the last 20 minutes was great.”
While the half-back pairing remains the same, you’d have got astronomic odds two years ago on a Scottish three-quarter line of McGuigan, Johnson, Nick Grigg, Darcy Graham and Maitland the next time Scotland came to Twickenham.
Maitland, who is playing out of position and has started just one Scotland game at full-back at eleventh-hour notice against Australia three years ago, has 39 of the 60 caps across the quintet, with none of the other four in double figures.
Scotland team: Sean Maitland (Saracens); Darcy Graham (Edinburgh Rugby), Nick Grigg, Sam Johnson (both Glasgow Warriors), Byron McGuigan (Sale Sharks); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Allan Dell, Stuart McInally (capt), WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist (all Edinburgh Rugby); Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Hamish Watson, Magnus Bradbury (both Edinburgh Rugby).
Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (London Irish), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons).