Picking a shadow team with 14 changes does not mean Scotland are taking Russia lightly as they go in search of an essential bonus point in their third Rugby World Cup pool game in Shizuoka, said head coach Gregor Townsend.
As largely expected with a four-day turnaround from this game to the potentially pivotal final match against Japan in Yokohama, Townsend has opted to rest as many of his frontline starters as possible, “the Kobe eight” as they’ve been called within the squad.
Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland, Sam Johnson, Finn Russell, Allan Dell, WP Nel, Jonny Gray and Blade Thomson have all been left out.
To give some of the back rowers less time on the pitch, Townsend will field hooker Fraser Brown at openside for only the second time in his 45-cap career. The Glasgow Warrior started in that position against Argentina on tour in the summer of 2018, and also replaced the injured Hamish Watson at open side half an hour into the opening pool game against Ireland.
The only player to be retained to start from the team that began the 34-0 win against Samoa is wing Darcy Graham. Blair Kinghorn, Peter Horne, George Turner and Ben Toolis will all feature for the first time in the tournament.
““We have a job to do, that much is clear,” said Townsend. “Russia have gained in confidence and they look a fit team.
“They have kept on going the longer they tournament has gone on. They were leading at halftime against Samoa, they were just trailing against Japan and they had 90 per cent tackle completion against Ireland.
“They have a very good scrum and an excellent kicking game – I thought the ten who played against Ireland was outstanding in his kicking. Seven and eight are also excellent players, while the tighthead one of the players of the tournament in the scrum.
“They will put everything into this. It’s their last game, their last for four years in a World Cup or longer if they do not qualify next time.
“We are expecting as good a performance as they gave against Ireland, maybe even a level up. We have got Japan in the back of our minds, but Russia at front of minds – if we don’t get a bonus point then challenge against Japan is even more difficult, and if we don’t win against Russia we are out of the tournament.”
Such was the focus that Townsend doesn’t even want Wednesday’s team to be playing for a chance to play the Japanese on Sunday.
“That’s not really what we want them thinking about,” he said. “We want them thinking about their role as an individual in executing what we believe will be the right gameplan to win this game, but also helping the team win.
“Last week our performance against Samoa owed a lot to our our non-starters who really helped raise the quality of training and were really behind the team. I am sure if they had had the opportunity to start it would have been just as good a performance as we delivered.”
He has no doubts about starting Brown out of position – the player began his career as an openside before switching to hooker.
“He’s equally adept at playing seven and hooker,” continued Townsend “The positions are very similar now in defence, either at tail of lineout or as last man. Hookers now have to be as effective in the loose and ball-carrying as back rows.”
There’s a rare split of six forwards and just two backs – Henry Pyrgos and Chris Harris – on the bench as an attempt to “share the load” of the work to be done over the next week.
“There may be some strategies you will see with the subs coming on at different times in the game, as long as the team is delivering and we are moving towards a good win,” he said.
“You have an ideal scenario with 6-2 when you see the game being more of a forwards game – so sharing the load and having an impact is important.”
Scotland team: Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Pete Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Darcy Graham (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors); Gordon Reid (Ayrshire Bulls), George Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors); Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh); John Barclay (Edinburgh, capt), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Henry Pyrgos (Edinburgh), Chris Harris (Gloucester).