Gregor Townsend is hoping that he’ll have serious selection questions bothering him after the first Guinness 6 Nations match as the indications were it was all too convenient as he named the team to play Italy.
Six more injuries – to add to the 20 announced with the squad two weeks ago – left Townsend with rather simpler choices to make for the opening game.
Australian-born Sam Johnson was, as largely expected, confirmed at inside centre with Pete Horne struggling with a knee injury. Jonny Gray’s continuing – although, we are assured, not worrying – shoulder issue means the discussion about whether to split up Edinburgh’s pairing of Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis was a short one.
Sean Maitland’s hamstring means that Blair Kinghorn can be included without having to intentionally split up a back-three strike team who have scored 41 tries in five years together.
Johnson probably would have been picked at least once in the three Autumn tests had he not suffered an injury on the eve of the series, but Townsend was non-committal whether he would have been ahead of the experienced Horne – an important organiser in Scotland’s backline – for this game.
“Sam only came back these last two or three weeks,” said the coach. “He has an opportunity this week. “Peter will be back some stage, in the next week or two. He has played a lot of rugby at 12 for Scotland but Sam has an opportunity now to make it difficult for Pete to get back into the team.”
Townsend signed Johnson for Glasgow but not as a future international prospect, he said.
“I thought he would improve Glasgow, he was the type of player we were looking for, a 12 who can pass and defend well, carry the ball and make good decisions, which is what he’s done,” continued the coach.
“That is part of the way we want to play rugby with Scotland so he fits in very well. His running lines and passing have always impressed us, his defence had got better and we have seen his running game come to the fore this season.”
Johnson, 25, became eligible after completing three years in Scotland in the summer.
There were doubts from some about Huw Jones perceived lack of form and starts for Glasgow, but Townsend has none.
“Sam and Huw know each other, they play at club level together and played a couple of times before the November Tests and combined really well,” he said. “Huw has been excellent for Scotland, most of his games he’s played very well, and the game against South Africa was a recent case in point.
“Although Huw hasn’t played that much for Glasgow since November, that was partly due to the rib injury he picked up in the 1872 Cup game.
“We felt that in his last game coming off the bench fairly early against Saracens he looked in form, did some good things and we feel the way he’s trained he’s ready to go again with Scotland.”
Townsend agreed that decisions became “easy” because of players being ruled out through injury.
“The balance of the bench, the balance of the back row, the easy decisions are ones when players rule themselves out through injury, and it becomes straight forward which happened in a couple of positions,” he said.
“The situation with Jonny (Gray) would certainly have been a more difficult selection, because Ben and Grant have been playing very well and Jonny’s an outstanding international player, one of our best players of the last few years.
“We will come to that discussion hopefully next week, but Jonny has a lot of credit in the bank with what he’s done with Scotland.
“He has been carrying a little shoulder niggle for a few weeks now and we believe the right thing for him this last two weeks has been to make sure he’s in the best possible position if he’s available next week or against France.”
Similarly, Hamish Watson’s absence with a hand injury served to clarify one or two issues in other positions around the back row.
“Sam (Skinner) has been playing in the back row for Exeter, probably 75 per cent of the time since the November Tests,” pointed out Townsend. “When we first selected Sam at blindside flanker against South Africa it was partly down to the strength of the South Africa but also what we had seen from Sam in training.
“We felt he could adapt to that position. Since then he’s played regularly at 6 so it’s an easier decision for us.
“It also means we have five lineout options; Ryan Wilson and Jamie Ritchie are excellent lineout forwards. To have Jamie playing at 7 and have him as a lineout option is a bonus. Sam is a second row and lineout caller.
“We’ve got to make sure we are accurate with our lineout but if we can pressurise the Italian lineout and stop them getting front-foot ball whether it’s off the top or getting their driving maul into the game that will take a fair bit away from what they base their game on.”
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Sam Johnson (Glasgow Warriors), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont-Auvergne, capt); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh); Ben Toolis (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh); Sam Skinner (Exeter), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: Jake Kerr (Leicester), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Gary Graham (Newcastle), Josh Strauss (Sale), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Adam Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), Chris Harris (Newcastle).
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