CONTINUITY was the key for Vern Cotter when deciding who to select at stand-off for Scotland against Italy tomorrow. The head coach could have selected captain Greig Laidlaw, who although playing at scrum-half has substantial experience in the No 10 jersey. He could have chosen full-back Stuart Hogg, who has played in the position for the Lions. And he could have opted for Edinburgh No 10 Greig Tonks.
Instead, once Finn Russell’s suspension was confirmed by a Six Nations appeals panel on Wednesday night, Cotter decided that the Glasgow player’s replacement for the RBS Six Nations Championship match should be team-mate Peter Horne, and that Tonks should be on the bench. While Horne has been playing well individually, the fact he has been playing alongside centres Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett at club level was critical in winning him preference over Tonks, according to Cotter. And although both Laidlaw and Hogg are more experienced, choosing either of them would mean disrupting the back line more than the coach thought necessary or desirable.
“It was a tough call,” Cotter said yesterday after announcing a starting line-up with four changes from the side defeated by Wales 12 days ago. “We had to wait until Wednesday to discover if Finn was going to be available, but his suspension was maintained.
“We have trained all three players [ie Horne, Tonks and Russell] earlier in the week, but Peter gets the nod due to his last two performances with Glasgow. It’s also due to his experience and the fact he plays with the two players outside him at club level. With Greig [Tonks], we know what he gives us and that’s the possibility to cover No 10 as well as 15 off the bench. So that’s why Peter was the best choice.
“Greig is a good player who has a good skill set and can attack. He’s got a good kick on him as well. We also feel we have players on the bench who can offer some punch and pace.”
Although the choice of Hogg for No 10 never looked more than a hypothetical possibility given the form he is in as an attacking full-back, Laidlaw looked a more plausible choice, especially once back-up scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne was declared fit after being observed under the concussion protocol. But Cotter explained that he had never seriously contemplated switching his captain from nine to 10.
“Moving Greig over wasn’t even discussed: we didn’t believe it was a possibility. Greig has been playing well at No 9, and rather than change two playmakers we decided only to change the one.”
As Russell’s ban applies only to playing in games, he was able to train with the squad, and remained in consideration until that ban was ratified. Cotter refused to say whether he was disappointed by that outcome – “I have no comment on the appeal”, he said – but, having shown great faith in Russell, he looks set to welcome him back for the remaining matches in the championship against England and Ireland.
Even so, with the World Cup coming up later in the year, Cotter explained that tomorrow’s home game could be the ideal opportunity for Horne to prove himself worthy of involvement at this level in his preferred position. “This is a big year of rugby, and Peter knows it’s going to be an important game for him and for us.
“He’s played well in the last two outings for Glasgow at first five (stand-off) and he controlled play. He offers another profile and we’re all backing him.
“Peter is just one of a number of players who can come in and one of the players we need to see in a situation where there’s a bit of pressure on. We need a robust and large group of quality players.
“We’ve lost Richie Gray but Tim Swinson comes in and he has a bit of experience and gives us energy. He was injured when the original squad was announced. Tommy Seymour also comes back as we have injuries to Sean Maitland, and a few of the front-row guys. It’s so important to have depth. Peter is now one of those players who can cover two positions.”
In addition to Horne, Swinson and Seymour – who replaces Tim Visser on the wing – the fourth change sees Euan Murray, who refused on religious grounds to play on a Sunday against Wales, replace Geoff Cross at tighthead prop. Cross and Ryan Grant are the props on the bench instead of Gordon Reid and Jon Welsh, both of whom were injured in the 26-23 defeat by the Welsh.
Two Edinburgh players make the bench for the first time: lock Ben Toolis, who takes over from the injured Jim Hamilton, and openside Hamish Watson, who is preferred to Alasdair Strokosch. The No 8s David Denton and Adam Ashe, both of whom were called up to the squad as they come close to completing a return from injury, have been released back to their clubs. “They’ve gone back to get game time,” Cotter explained. “They’ll be back with us next week.”
“If we keep developing our attitude to the game and our standards we’ll get what we’re aiming for, which is the win.”Vern Cotter
When Maitland missed the start of the tournament with a shoulder injury, the prognosis was that he could return for later matches. Yesterday, however, Cotter suggested that was now unlikely. “It’ll be very tight for him to make the Six Nations,” he said. “He’s back running, but won’t be back in full training for a few weeks.”
Scotland: S Hogg, T Seymour, M Bennett, A Dunbar, A Lamont, P Horne, G Laidlaw; A Dickinson, R Ford, E Murray, T Swinson, J Gray, R Harley, B Cowan, J Beattie. Replacements: F Brown, R Grant, G Cross, B Toolis, H Watson, S Hidalgo-Clyne, G Tonks, M Scott.
Italy: L McLean, M Visentin, L Morisi, E Bacchin, G Venditti, K Haimona, E Gori; M Aguero, L Ghiraldini, D Chistolini, G Biagi, J Furno, F Minto, S Favaro, S Parisse. Replacements: A Manici, A De Marchi, L Cittadini, M Fuser, S Vunisa, G Palazzani, T Allan, G Bisegni.
• Italy have recorded just one win at Murrayfield - a 37-17 victory in 2007
• Jacques Brunel’s side have won seven of their 22 meetings with the Scots, their most recent win coming in Rome in 2012. Scotland have 15 victories
• Italy fly-half Tommaso Allan’s uncle John won nine caps for Scotland
• Scotland are currently placed 9th in the World Rugby Rankings, five places ahead of Italy in 14th
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