MOST of the Scotland players who wrapped up a winless EMC Autumn Test series with a demoralising defeat to Tonga last weekend will return to RaboDirect PRO12 action for their clubs tomorrow.
It is usual for the internationalists to have at least a week off after the physical pounding of the autumn Tests, but such is the depth of feeling and embarrassment at having let themselves and supporters down that the Scots are determined to start the process of restoring faith immediately.
Alastair Kellock is back to lead Glasgow against Munster at Thomond Park this weekend and he is joined by Stuart Hogg, Sean Lamont, Henry Pyrgos, Dougie Hall and John Barclay, who all played against Tonga. There is an intriguing switch for Hogg to outside centre, a role in which he could bring more potency to both the Warriors and Scotland back lines, and both club and country supporters will be delighted also to see the return of Duncan Weir after more than two months out injured.
Weir was similarly pleased to be speaking to the media yesterday with his name back on a team sheet, and could even laugh at the bizarre nature of the injury that at first seemed minor but became major enough to end his hopes of continuing a three Test summer tour success with autumn wins.
“The knee is good now and stronger than ever, so I’m itching to get back out there,” he said. “It’s been nine weeks and a bit frustrating at how it all came about. It was a bit of kick-tennis on a Monday morning as a wee warm-up drill, and, me training full intensity on a wet morning, I went sliding and collided with a goal-post, and it was a bit unfortunate that the injury was a bit more serious than what you’d expect from just sliding into the post. It was a game of nines versus tens [scrum-halves v stand-offs] and I wasn’t going to let the nines win, and one thing led to another and I came out on the wrong side.”
Many supporters may take succour from that last bit of detail, that Weir was at least showing his typical commitment and desire to win, even if it was just kick-tennis. The frustration it built in the talented prospect ran deep, however. “The timing of the injury wasn’t perfect at all with the autumn coming up and me feeling that my game was developing under Gregor [Townsend], and playing some of the best running rugby I feel I’ve played. I was quite happy with the way I was going in the first three games and I’ve added a more attacking mindset to my game this year with Gregor coming in and was getting comfortable moving onto the ball, feeding Peter Horne with the inside ball and really challenging the defensive line.
“I was starting to understand Scott Johnson [new Scotland attack coach] through the summer tour and what he expects, which was a big learning curve for me because he brought a lot of new ideas I hadn’t heard before, but as a developing ten with a guy of that experience was great for me.
“In the years before that [at Glasgow] we had a big philosophy about playing in the right areas, and that was maybe in the forefront of my mind, and the attacking side of what I should be doing, moving onto the ball and attracting people on to me wasn’t in the forefront of my mind, but it certainly is now with Gregor being a ten that used to attack the line well, and Johnno [Scott Johnson] wanting the same from his ten so it’s understanding when it’s on for me to do it and when it’s on to feed it someone else to let them attack the line and draw people on to them.
“And then it’s adding those new things to the parts of my game I was quite happy with, like kicking for territory. So it was bad timing. But I’m just happy to get back training for two full weeks now, and get my match sharpness back, and I’m itching to get out there and give a good performance because I know there are two guys [Scott Wight and Ruaridh Jackson] knocking at the door there as well. With all the big games coming up in December it’s a good time to be back and see if I can start all these big games.”
Townsend is hoping his squad can bounce back quickly from defeat, albeit their first in seven games, and acknowledged that Hogg’s move to centre – from where he scored three tries in the same fixture last year – with Peter Murchie at full-back and Lamont and DTH van der Merwe back on the wings, could help.
Townsend said: “He played very well at 13 last year; obviously the game at Munster was a standout. He brings a lot of ball- playing ability anywhere in the backline and we’re looking for Stuart to get involved as a first or second receiver. At full-back he gets a lot of touches, but you get more at centre – or at least you should from set piece moves. But I expect a high involvement rate from all of our backs. When they get on the ball good things happen.”
Up front, Barclay replaces the injured Chris Fusaro at openside flanker to make up a powerful back row with Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson, captain Kellock partners Tim Swinson at lock and Ryan Grant, Hall and Mike Cusack present a formidable front row unit.
Munster’s Test men Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donncha Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne are also back this weekend, as is James Coughlan after a long injury, and CJ Stander. With Munster dropping to sixth in the table if the Ospreys beat Cardiff earlier in the day, this battle for points should be as intense as any witnessed at Thomond Park.