Gregor Townsend has picked the most experienced international team in Scottish rugby history for the biggest game of his coaching career so far, Sunday’s Rugby World Cup opener against Ireland in Yokohama.
Townsend’s starting team has a collective 630 caps – averaging 42 a man – and that comfortably is the biggest total Scotland have ever run out for the anthem. It beats the previous best of 581, both also in pool games at the World Cup, against France in 2003 and against England in 2011.
Townsend’s decision to recall Ryan Wilson, John Barclay and Tommy Seymour to arms helps the cap count considerably. Barclay leads the team with 74 caps – remember he actually missed the 2015 World Cup – Greig Laidlaw has 73 and Stuart Hogg wins his 70th on Sunday.
“It’s experience, yes, but we want to see those players’ strengths,” said Townsend, explaining the preferences of Wilson to newcomer Blade Thomson and Seymour to the livewire fan favourite Darcy Graham.
“Ryan has a number of strengths he brings to the team, he played really well against Ireland in the spring; he went off at half-time and we didn’t play as well in the second half. Some part of that was that Ryan’s influence.
“He has captained the team and has played really well in a couple of games in our warm-up series so we feel he has earned that spot. Given his experience he can really help prepare the team well.
“It is similar with Tommy. He has played really well for Scotland and he is in great physical condition.
“Tommy brings a lot of strengths, one of them being in the air. We know Ireland, like a number of teams, will use the kicking game. We use the kicking game more and more now, and we see Tommy and Sean (Maitland) being real weapons there.”
Wilson is certainly a Townsend favourite, if not entirely one of the support, but the head coach relies on him to do a job which sometimes is destructive to allow others in his team to flourish.
“He is an emotional leader, he is the person who sets the energy off the field and in the changing room before a game,” said the head coach. “But he is also a very intelligent rugby player. If you ask (defence coach) Danny Wilson he will say he is one of the best lineout forwards he’s ever worked with.
“His tactical nous is very similar to John Barclay’s in terms of knowing the opposition and knowing what we need to do to win. If you have more players like that in your group before a big game like this it really helps planning and gives others confidence.”
The only surprise choices are on the bench, with Berghan preferred to Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings to Ben Toolis, and Chris Harris to Horne. Blair Kinghorn, who might have been a bench option, has felt some delayed symptoms from his concussion sustained against Georgia, and with nien days between the Ireland game and the meeting with Samoa it is thought politic to leave him out.
“It is really down to Scott’s form,” said Townsend of the young Glasgow second row, who hadn’t been capped prior to the warm-ups.
“Scott has grabbed his opportunity to take the game to the opposition and build on his end-of-season form. We believe that off the bench, as he showed in Georgia and Nice, he can make a real impact.”
Ireland, as had been expected, have a recast backline with Rob Kearney and Keith Earls – a recent dagger to Scottish hearts with three tries in the last four meetings – ruled out alongside Robbie Henshaw, who was confirmed out earlier in the week.
Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway take the veterans’ places, with Garry Ringrose replacing Henshaw. It means the Irish have a collective 679 caps, and that’s without the 173 removed because of Kearney and Earls dropping out.
Scotland team Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors) , Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne); Allan Dell (London Irish), Stuart McInally (capt, Edinburgh), Willem Nel (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); John Barclay (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors). Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors) , Blade Thomson (Scarlets), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh)
Ireland: J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: R Scannell, D Kilcoyne, W Porter, T Beirne, J Conan, L McGrath, J Carty, C Farrell.