Gregor Townsend explains Scotland selection decisions for Wales

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Head Coach Gregor Townsend has explained his Scotland selection decisions ahead of their Six Nations finale against Wales in Llanelli tomorrow (Saturday).

Scotland have made four changes, with captain Stuart Hogg and his Exeter Chiefs team-mate Jonny Gray back after helping the club to the Heineken Champions Cup and Gallagher Premiership titles.

Finn Russell and Blade Thomson return to the starting line-up for the first time since the Rugby World Cup, the former having come off the bench last week, and Thomson having caught the eye playing for Scarlets.

Scotland’s chances of winning the Guinness Six Nations are over for another year, but Townsend wants to see his side end their 18-year winless run in Wales.

Finishing on a high

“We want to finish the Six Nations with our best performance.

“We want to finish off with an away win and see where that leaves us in the table. Obviously, we want to finish as high as we can. That might be out of our hands, but we can go down there and do all we can to get the win. That’s what we were working on in March and what we have been working on these past two weeks.

“We have three players this week who have just joined the camp who has done really well and two of them [Hogg and Gray] are in our starting lineup, but we will be up against a highly motivated Welsh side.

“They have got some great players in their team, they have won championships and they are playing for the win too.

“Whether you are at home with 70,000 or seven people there, you do all you can to win for your country.”

Here is what Townsend had to say about his selection decisions.

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Thomson in to anchor the scrum

Injury to Matt Fagerson – his second in as many Scotland appearances at BT Murrayfield – opened the door for Thomson to return and play at Parc y Scarlets, a venue the Scarlets man knows well.

“Matt Fagerson started last week when we had both Nick [Haining] and Cornell [du Preez] on the bench.

“One reason for having both of them there and allowing Blade to play in Treviso for Scarlets was to see how they got on. Matt unfortunately picked up an injury which rules him out for a couple more weeks.

“It was an opportunity for one of the three to grab and we felt that Blade grabbed the opportunity.

“Blade has a lineout presence and an awareness of a few of the players in the opposition team. Also, I thought he had a very good World Cup for Scotland and this is the first time he has been available since then.

“We see him having a big impact. We also see Cornell having a major role to play off the bench.

He is one of our strongest ball carriers and strongest defenders and given the weather forecast we believe a lot of the game will be around the tight areas.”

Experienced trio back in the mix for Scotland selection

Hogg, Gray and Russell are all over the 50-cap mark, and Townsend was delighted to have their experience back in the starting XV as Scotland look to win in Wales for the first time since 2002.

Townsend said: “Jonny, Finn and Hoggy have been in really good form.

“The Exeter guys have won a couple finals in the past two weeks and they have well over 50 caps so they know the rugby we set out to play. We don’t see it being an issue that they have not had as much training as other players.

“Finn has had an extra week training and was involved in our squad last week. He is coming back into working with us again in terms of what we do in attack and defence and you saw from his performance off the bench against Georgia that he is full of confidence.”

Kinghorn onto the wing ahead of Duhan van der Merwe

Despite a try-scoring debut against Georgia, Duhan van der Merwe is moved to the bench, with Blair Kinghorn moving from fullback to wing.

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Was that a selection based around the weather forecast, with Wales expected to kick a lot?

“We see Duhan as really good in the air as well, he has made good strides in that area, I think it is reward for how Blair has played for us in the Six Nations.

“He really took to playing on the wing and the way he defends as a winger, I thought he was one of our best players in the Six Nations and he did some good things from full-back against Georgia and if there is more high balls and kicking then having played at full-back he can help in that regard, but we see Duhan coming on and making an impact whether it is on the ball or fielding kicks and chasing kicks, he can get involved.”

Midfield combination given another opportunity

Townsend has opted to keep James Lang and Chris Harris in the midfield, with the pair in good form for their clubs coming into the camp.

He said: “I thought they performed their jobs well against Georgia. It was a different sort of test match and they were maybe not tested the same way in the backline as we will likely get against Wales this week.

“We have real confidence in James and Chris as a partnership. They get on well together and they have defended and attacked well. We are looking to see them build on what they have been doing. Chris has been one of the best players of the past couple of seasons and given the weather forecast it is likely that workrate in defence will be a key factor.

“We debate every position. Adam [Hastings] played half-hour at 12. Sam Johnson was back playing for Glasgow and they are all in the mix. But we feel that James and Chris are the best players for us this weekend.

“Sam was available but we feel that he’s not up to the requisite match fitness yet. He played his first game in seven, eight months at the weekend, did some really good things in that game for the first half-hour when Glasgow were outstanding, really sharp in attack, and Sam was a big part of that. But it’s a big jump up to go Test level the following week, and we knew it would be a surprise or a real bonus if Sam was to be at Test-match fitness after one game.

“But we do see him having a big part to play in our Autumn Nations Cup. He’ll get another game this weekend and we can assess where he is after then.”

Hastings omission a difficult decision in Scotland selection

Adam Hastings returns to the bench having worn the number 10 jersey for Scotland since the World Cup following Russell’s fall-out with Townsend.

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The Racing 92 man is back now, relationship mended, but Townsend admitted it was a difficult decision to drop the Glasgow stand-off.

“It is difficult to leave out someone who has played a part in the team’s progress during the Six Nations and who has come back into form in the past two or three weeks.

“On the flip side you have someone who can really add something when he comes on whether a 10 or 12. It is good to know we have players of high-quality on the bench.”

“I think he has been unlucky because of the performances he has had for us in the Six Nations, but over the past few weeks Finn’s form has been really good for his club on a consistent basis in some high-level games and we were certainly satisfied by his performance when he came on against Georgia and by what he is doing in training.”

Scott Steele prepares for Test debut

Townsend sprung a Scotland selection surprise on the bench, including uncapped 27-year-old Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele ahead of George Horne.

It caps a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the Dumfries-born ex-London Irish man, who was without a club when lockdown hit.

Townsend explained that decision: “There was a tactical decision around where we see the game this weekend. George has got some tremendous strengths to his game, and parts of his game he’s been working on he’s really improved.

“I think his kicking has been outstanding this year, from what we see in training but also in games. And he’s one of the best in the world at adding tempo and supporting line breaks.

“Scott has different strengths. He must be one of the best defending 9s in world rugby from what we’ve seen with Harlequins over the last few weeks, and we feel that this weekend that could be more of an impact off the bench given the weather – it does look like it might be one of those games.

“So that’s great that we Scott being able to make that impact, and both of them are very good 9s anyway. In game management and making decisions in whatever scenario is ahead of them, we have real faith in them.

“But we do see an opportunity for Scott, and it’s a really good story that someone that didn’t have a contract as we went into lockdown has earned a starting spot with Harlequins, has got into the Scotland squad and now could get his first cap. It’s a real testament to the hard work and his character.”

Where does this leave Huw Jones?

Jones has fallen behind Chris Harris in the number 13 pecking order, and has moved to fullback for Glasgow Warriors, but he remains very much in Townsend’s plans.

“Again he was in the mix. We’ve obviously had Stuart Hogg coming back in this week. We feel with Blair’s ability to cover full-back and Adam’s ability to cover centre, that Duhan on the bench could make a real big impact playing on the wing and other players can move around if we have to move them because of injury or tactical changes.

“Huw played well at the weekend. He’s building his game really well, playing at full-back, full of confidence, and we do still see him as an option at 13. So it adds more depth in both positions, a confident Huw Jones – which he has certainly been in the last few weeks.”

Route back in for Maitland despite Barbarians antics?

Townsend admitted he was “very disappointed” after 13 Barbarians players – including wing Sean Maitland, released from the Scotland camp to play – broke COVID protocols on Barbarians duty.

It denied ex-Scotland boss Vern Cotter, and former Scotland lock Nathan Hines, a chance to coach the world famous invitational side, while Scottish referee Mike Adamson had been due to officiate the match against England at Twickenham.

However, Townsend insisted the door is not closed on Maitland’s international career.

“Sean was very disappointed in himself, he showed lots of contrition and understands the situation was a serious one. Everyone makes mistakes, so not being involved this week is a blow for him and he’ll come back into our squad when he is next available.

“He has been a good player fort us over the last few years, he is close to 50 caps, he had an outstanding game in the [Champions Cup] quarter-final when the Saracens beat Leinster and he was good again in the semi-final loss to Racing, so he is still in very good form and we do see him coming back into the squad.”

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