After two successive losses in the Six Nations, Gregor Townsend is hoping that he will be able to whistle up reinforcements from the ranks of the walking wounded who return to club duty this week.
The barrel-chested prop WP Nel starts for Edinburgh this afternoon just as Zander Fagerson does for Glasgow against Zebre a little later, offering the Scotland boss options at tighthead. Hamish Watson also has his first game for Edinburgh since breaking his hand against Montpellier in the Champions Cup tie on 18 January and, presuming he is up to speed, the flanker will be odds on to start against Wales next Saturday with the impressive Jamie Ritchie shuffling to the blind side of the scrum to make room for him.
And perhaps most important of all Finn Russell starts for Racing 92 in the early kick-off this afternoon against La Rochelle, a big game for the stand-off and for his coach who will be watching nervously.
“It is a boost to have Finn available for his club this week but he was available for his club two weeks ago and got injured so we will see what happens this weekend,” said Townsend.
“WP Nel and Hamish [Watson] are playing for Edinburgh, that is obviously a bonus for us and them, Ben Toolis has gone back to play for Edinburgh. All three of those players’ game time will be managed so that they contribute for their clubs and get match fitness but also with an eye to us involving them next week.
“Finn would have loved playing against France in Paris so that was a blow for him and for us. Having WP, who was playing really well for his club and played well for us in November, plus Hamish Watson almost the same description, playing well for his club and playing for us in November, they will add to the selection debate but we will have to see how they get through this weekend.”
It’s not been an easy road for the injury-ravaged Scotland squad who, in the absence of several key players, have probably not shown the best of themselves just yet and certainly not for the full 80 minutes.
On the downside Dave Rennie stated that Huw Jones is still sporting a knee brace and won’t take any further part in the Six Nations while Townsend revealed that Sam Skinner was training but not playing for Exeter this weekend. On the upside, the lock/flanker could be available for the final game against England, and when announcing his squad to play Zebre this evening, Rennie let slip that Stuart Hogg may be back in time for that Calcutta Cup match.
“Hoggy is a week by week process,” said the Glasgow coach. “Scotland haven’t ruled him out. They hope that he will return in time to play some Six Nations footy.”
In the absence of some big names Townsend, pictured, knows a little more about several fringe players which is useful with the World Cup just over the horizon. The coach even admitted that he now has one eye on next weekend, the other focused on Japan.
Meanwhile, Wales will travel to Edinburgh via cloud nine. Warren Gatland’s team are riding high, the only team able to win the Grand Slam and with a big chance of winning the championship. They have won a record 12 games on the bounce and will arrive at BT Murrayfield even more confident than usual, if that is possible.
The visitors’ optimism is built on solid foundations. On Gatland’s decade-long watch with Wales, they have only lost one game at Murrayfield, two years ago in 2017, when five penalties from the boot of Russell swung things Scotland’s way.
“Beating Wales at any time would be good,” replied Townsend when asked about the prospect of another Scotland win. “It is not something we have done that regularly over the last ten years. To take them on is a bigger challenge than at any point in the last ten years, they are probably playing as well as they have ever done, and have achieved history with the number of wins they have put back to back. They’re very confident in how they’re playing. You get a win against England and you know you’re doing things well. We will have to play much better than we have played in the last two weeks.
“They can now win the Grand Slam, the only team that can do that, and are favourites to win the championship. It is different for us, we want to win for our public, want to win for the fact we have not played at our best and for what sets us up for the following week and following six months. That is huge motivation for us but we realise there is a team coming here that will be playing close to their potential for different reasons.”