Not one to leave a team that could be tinkered with, Gregor Townsend has made three more changes to his starting line-up for the scheduled final Guinness Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday.
The six-day turnaround from the 28-17 victory over France was what primarily convinced Townsend to bring in Stuart McInally, Sam Skinner and Magnus Bradbury, in a game that remains on despite the rapidly-developing situation with the COVID-19 spread.
Whether this game should take place at all or be postponed to October like the rest of the Super Saturday finale to the 2020 championship is being questioned everywhere, but Townsend feels his opinion either way is irrelevant.
“We are at the behest of the policy-makers and so far things have been put in place that the game will go ahead,” he said. “We’ve followed all procedures and protocols regarding contact and washing hands, and we saw at the weekend what a fantastic spectacle that was and how great the Six Nations is.
“And we hope that we get to play this weekend. We understand if that’s not the case and it’s for serious reasons. I do understand that things move fast, but we’re two days away so it would be a surprise if the game was called off this late.”
Sport should be secondary in such serious situations, but when that judgement applied was for others to determine, he added.
“I think everyone involved in sport will know if it’s time to either not play the game or play the games behind closed doors, and that’s what we’ll follow,” he continued.
“Up until then, as a coach and as players, you’ve got to prepare to play a massive game at the weekend. We’re very close to that happening.”
Scotland are missing Nick Haining – feverish, but not coronavirus and could have even been fit for gameday – but the other two changes are not enforced. The switch of McInally and Fraser Brown was largely flagged by Townsend last week when he spoke about the six-day turnaround, and the position has been interchangeable for a while.
San Skinner’s inclusion for Scott Cummings is however somewhat surprising, given that the young Glasgow Warriors had been a highly effective ever-present in the first four games and was the chief lineout caller for the last two.
Townsend said that he wanted an element of rotation throughout the squad and a chance to showcase they have five strong second rows, although he notably hasn’t changed his props, his flankers and made just one change in the backline in the four games thus far.
But in the case of the props, no change had been a surprise to him, even given the faith they had in Rory Sutherland, who will now have started five games for Scotland and only two for Edinburgh this season.
“I suppose surprise would be the word you would use, but really impressed,” said the head coach of the prop. “Rory’s been one of our biggest bonuses in that he’s taken his chance and thrived at international level both at the set-piece, and in attack and defence.
“In the couple of games he did play for Edinburgh he’d looked solid and dominant in the scrum and he’s taken that into international level and done even better. It’s quite unusual to do that.
“We’d seen it in training and the feedback we got from Pieter (de Villiers) and Steve (Tandy) with fresh eyes convinced us he was ready. You picture it, and when it comes through it is brilliant.”
Even though Wales have lost three-in-a-row and Scotland have won their last two, Scotland’s poor record in Cardiff illustrates that the challenge is not any easier, he added.
“Wales are still the Six Nations champions and came very close to making a World Cup final,” he pointed out.
“They are a very experienced team, a very proud nation with an excellent record against us, so this is a huge challenge for us.
“They have been much more varied in their attack than in recent seasons. They will move the ball and given their home crowd we ca expect them to play with a lot of energy and test our defence.
“But so far we’ve shown that whatever teams have thrown at us, we’ve adapted well.”
And for the perennial question that applies in Cardiff, Scotland have decided – as is their right under Six Nations rules – to pay the £2.54 it costs to open the Principality Stadium roof.
“A couple of years ago I made an error on getting the roof closed because you don’t necessarily get better conditions,” he said. “The ball is slippy because of dew and condensation under the roof.
“It looks like it will be dry day so with the roof open it should be a dry ball.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Exeter Chiefs, capt); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Chris Harris (Gloucester), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors); Rory Sutherland (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors); Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Magnus Bradbury (Edinburgh).Replacements: Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Allan Dell (London Irish), WP Nel (Edinburgh), Scott Cummings (Glasgow Warriors), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), George Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Worcester Warriors), Kyle Steyn (Glasgow Warriors).