SCOTLAND head coach Gregor Townsend has tinkered with a winning formula by making four tactical changes to his starting XV, alongside the one alteration which has been forced upon him by the injury sustained by flanker Jamie Ritchie during last weekend’s Six Nations opening weekend victory over England.
Ritchie – who had been replaced in the back-row by Sam Skinner – has undergone surgery on a ruptured hamstring and Townsend is not expecting the player back before the summer.
“I’d say it would be domestic season ending,” said the coach. “He had surgery two days ago and that was successful, but it’s still months in the experience of players who’ve had that surgery before.
“With Mark Bennett, I remember, it was almost the same incident, a jackal and he got taken out in the ruck and suffered a torn hamstring. That was five or six months. So, it’s round about that timescale. Whether that rules him out of the tour [to Argentina] in July, possibly. We’ll need to see how he goes with the rehab. But I don’t think he’ll play again this season domestically and certainly not in the Six Nations.”
Three of Townsend’s four tactical changes are in the front-row, with the Edinburgh triumvirate which finished against England – loose-head Pierre Schoeman, hooker Stuart McInally and tight-head WP Nel – being given the chance to start ahead of Rory Sutherland, George Turner and Zander Fagerson, who all drop to the bench.
Scotland struggled at scrum-time throughout last week’s game but did win a crucial once the bench had been few penalty which allowed Finn Rusell to kick the match-winning points, and the pack then held out under serious set-piece pressure during the final minutes.
Furthermore, the starting front-row managed just six carries for a combined total of 17 metres during their 51 minutes on the park, while their replacements carried eight times to make 39 meters in their half hour.
“We’ve learned a lot of things over the last couple of years, and one learning from playing South Africa was their ability to have a strong front-row at the end of a game,” said Townsend. “We saw that last week when WP, Stuart and Pierre came on and really did a good job, both in the tight and the loose — and we see the same potentially happening [this week] with Rory, George and Zander who probably have been our starting front-row for the last couple of years when they’ve all been fit.
“We’ve now got a real depth in our front-row. We want to use them so they’re fresh and can take Wales on in the first half as well as the second half.”
Townsend acknowledged that center Sam Johnson is particularly unlucky to drop out of the match-day squad altogether after a solid defensive performance against England but few chances to show what he can do in attack – apart from with the quick ruck ball he delivered in midfield in the lead-up to Ben White’s first half try.
His No 12 jersey has been taken on by Glasgow Warriors clubmate Sione Tuipulotu, with Cam Redpath – who made a huge impact at inside-centre on his debut in that win against England at Twickenham at the start of last year’s Six Nations but then spent the best part of a year out injured – selected on the bench.
“We just feel that with the way Sione has been playing, what he does on the ball, and also Cam’s strengths, they were better suited for how we want to play this weekend against Wales,” reasoned Townsend.
“Sione is a very creative player, we love that about him,” he added. “Very detailed as well, very loud in attack and defense on the training field. He can bring others into play and he’s got his own running game which he has shown for Glasgow this season.
“So, all those things will be important, but defense is number one. When you come into our side and our midfield you know you have to defend very well, and he’s been doing really well in training.”
Meanwhile, Rory Darge is set to debut off the bench, with Townsend insisting that he has absolutely no concerns about the 21-year-old Glasgow Warriors back-rower’s readiness for the step-up.
“He’s certainly got the maturity. He started working with us more than 12 months ago – he came and trained with us before the start of the last Six Nations – and he was always a calm individual at training, very mature, takes detailed feedback and applies that to his training.
“He was captain of Scotland at under-20s level so I don’t think there’s any real concerns around the mind-set of Rory and what he can do to get himself right.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him have an impact both sides of the ball. He’s one of the best attacking back-rowers in terms of defenders beaten in Europe this season and he’s also very good at getting over ball.”
“We believe there is a good chance that the game will break up in the last 20 minutes so having players like Rory coming into a game like that should work in our favour.”
Scotland (v Wales at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff, on Saturday @ 2.15pm): S Hogg©; D Graham, C Harris, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell (VC), A Price; P Schoeman, S McInally, W Nel, J Gray, G Gilchrist (VC), S Skinner, H Watson, M Fagerson. Subs: G Turner, R Sutherland, Z Fagerson, M Bradbury, R Darge, B White, B Kinghorn, C Redpath.
Wales: L Williams; A Cuthbert, O Watkin, N Tompkins, L Rees-Zammit; D Biggar, T Williams; W Jones, R Elias, T Francis, W Rowlands, A Beard, T Basham, J Morgan, R Moriarty. Subs: D Lake, G Thomas, D Lewis, S Davies, A Wainwright, G Davies, C Sheedy, J Davies.