Scotland will at last get a close look at Blade Thomson with a place on the plane to the World Cup wide open for the former Hurricanes No 8 as he makes his debut against France on Saturday in the second World Cup warm up game.
Gregor Townsend mostly stuck to his plan to give everyone one opportunity in the first two games, with 14 changes from the team that went down meekly 32-3 to the French in Nice last weekend. The only player retained in the starting XV is Stuart Hogg, reunited with his old firm of Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland in the back three.
The only other divergence from what was scripted probably a month or two ago is enforced with Jonny Gray having a slight hamstring “tweak”, so Scott Cummings has his first start and Sam Skinner, who is regarded as a lock who can play blindside rather than vice versa, are in the engine room.
Gray will play either or both of the two games to come against Georgia and even though he was left out of the starting team in the last competition game at Twickenham in March, nobody is suggesting he won’t be on the plane to Japan.
There’s also a first start of the summer for Greig Laidlaw – as captain – and Finn Russell, the return of WP Nel, and of Hamish Watson.
New Zealand-born Thomson should have made his debut for Scotland nine months ago before a concussion playing for Scarlets against Edinburgh at Murrayfield – of all places – had him miss much of the season. Townsend and his management team never wavered from his inclusion in the squad, and now comes his big chance to claim the No 8 jersey.
“He would have played in November,” said Townsend. “We were hoping he would recover to be maybe be part of our 6 Nations squad.
“He has been with us right from the start of pre-season training and he has improved in terms of his conditioning, we know that through testing and through what we do with our GPS tracking.
“He is a very skilful player who can offload the ball well and make good decisions over when to pass and when to carry. He is an excellent line out forward and he has an edge about him which we have to see this week from all our forwards, all our team.”
Ryan Wilson plays at six but the two are similar in style and will interchange, added the coach.
Townsend made clear that this weekend is the last of the interchanging and from next week, things get increasingly serious in whittling the current 40 players down to the regulated 31 who will travel to Japan.
“It could be the last game for some players because we only have one game left,” said the head coach. “We are not going to Georgia (next week) with the aim of seeing who can still play their way in.
“There might be one or two decisions we yet have to take because of what has happened in the first two games. We will look at what they have done against France, what they have done before in a Scotland jersey, and what they have done in training.”
Hogg gets a second start because he came off earlier than expected at the weekend with cramp issues, which the management team are putting down to the Stade Allianz Riviera pitch rather than the return of an old problem that affected the star full-back at the last World Cup.
Similarly, John Barclay is on the bench because he had to come off early, but there have been no ill effects from the incident involving Paul Gabrillagues, which resulted in the French lock being handed a six-week suspension for a dangerous clear-out with the shoulder to the head.
“Initially he wasn’t going to play this week, like Stuart Hogg,” said Townsend. “Both he and Stuart were already saying to me straight after the game ‘we’d love to play next week’ but we had to wait and see if both of them were fully fit.
“Both trained yesterday, they weren’t really meant to do contact but both got stuck in and John has recovered really well from what was a pretty nasty knock to the head.”
Townsend fully accepted that the buck stopped with him as regards last weekend’s performance, and said it had “narrowed the minds” of the coaching team and players.
“We’ve reflected a lot on the build-up to the game – the week’s training, the day itself, what we could have done differently as coaches,” he said. “We also realise that France played really well.
“It was a painful lesson for players and coaches that we have to do much better in the build-up, and we have to deliver a much better performance in the game.
“It will be right throughout the squad us fronting up in the physical areas. We were not at the standards required last week but get a chance this weekend.
“The physical drive is usually led by the players in the front five and the back row, but it has to be right across the team because France have got a physical back line too.
“Last week was a reminder to us all that if you don’t bring that physicality, you are going to suffer a big loss.
“We don’t need another reminder. We have seen the training, we have seen the talk, we know the players well and we are looking forward to seeing what they can do at the weekend.”
Team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne, capt); Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), WP Nell (Edinburgh); Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Skinner (Exeter); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Blade Thomson (Scarlets).
Replacements: Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), John Barclay (Edinburgh), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Rory Hutchinson (Northampton), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh).