Gregor Townsend defends under-fire Scotland coaches amid ‘dark arts’ debate and praise for landmark

15 changes in team to face USA in second match of Americas tour

Gregor Townsend has paid tribute to Jamie Ritchie as the back-row forward prepares to win his 50th Scotland cap in Friday’s tour match against the USA in Washington DC.

Ritchie, 27, has shown admirable tenacity over the course of a sometimes difficult season during which he lost the Scotland captaincy and was then dropped from the national side during the Six Nations. He recovered to finish the campaign strongly, prompting Townsend to note yesterday that the Edinburgh flanker was playing the best rugby of his career.

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The Scotland coach has changed his entire starting side for the match against the Americans which is the second leg of a four-Test tour and comes just six days after Canada were thrashed 73-12 in the opener in Ottawa. The US are likely to pose a sterner test and Townsend is taking nothing for granted given his last experience of leading the team against them on tour six years ago. On that occasion, Scotland followed up a convincing win over Canada with a shock defeat against the Americans in Houston.

Given the strength of the side the coach has selected for the rematch in Washington DC, a repeat result would come as a huge shock. Townsend gave the big beasts from Glasgow Warriors an extra week off to recover from their exploits in winning the United Rugby Championship but they return with a vengeance for this game. Ten of the 15 starters are Glasgow players, including Adam Hastings who recently rejoined the club from Gloucester.

There are four players from Edinburgh, including Ritchie whose strong campaign saw him named as one of only two Scots in the URC’s team of the season. He won more turnovers - 22 - than any other player in the league and now finds himself on the brink of his landmark 50th cap for Scotland, six years after making his international debut against Canada.

“It’s a great achievement for him and his family,” said Townsend. “He’s had a few injuries in his career, some serious ones - he’s put his body on the line for Scotland ever since he came through on the tour to North America six years ago.

“Talking about Jamie now, I felt his performances in the Six Nations and how he conducted himself in training and off-field when he wasn’t selected in a couple of matches was outstanding, a real credit to who he is as a person and a leader. Also he is playing probably the best rugby of his career. He finished the season in excellent form and he continued that in training. So he can go into the game with real confidence. It’s his 50th cap and he’s in great condition so there are many more to come.”

Jamie Ritchie is poised to win his 50th Scotland cap after being selected to start against the USA on Friday. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Jamie Ritchie is poised to win his 50th Scotland cap after being selected to start against the USA on Friday. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Jamie Ritchie is poised to win his 50th Scotland cap after being selected to start against the USA on Friday. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Townsend and his coaching team were accused by WP Nel earlier this month of lacking the “edge” needed to challenge for rugby’s biggest prizes. The 61-times capped prop, who retired from the sport at the end of the season, suggested Scotland were “too honest” and didn’t push the laws to the limits in the way the likes of South Africa and Ireland do.

This was put to Townsend on Wednesday and, while the coach responded diplomatically, he did say he and his assistants had been focusing more on the game’s “dark arts” since Scotland’s elimination from last year’s Rugby World Cup at the pool stage.

“I loved working with WP,” said Townsend. “He was someone we often highlighted as being a fantastic trainer and getting the most out of his game and his career. Regarding the coaching group, we have an outstanding coaching group. The assistants are brilliant not only in their way of coaching and the detail but also how they connect with the players and how they bring the best out of their players. People are entitled to their opinion but I think very highly of the coaching group.

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“In terms of the dark arts, it is something we talked about post-World Cup as part of our game we could improve, and we have. Those might be technical things or knowing how to push the edges of the game, but it is something that we practise and talk about and I believe we have the players to do that well.”

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend.

Glasgow’s stunning URC triumph which saw them beat Munster and the Bulls away from home in the semi and final respectively suggests Scottish players are able to tough it out against the best from Ireland and South Africa and the Warriors’ achievement is reflected in Townsend’s selection for the USA game.

Six of the seven backs are Glasgow players. Kyle Rowe starts at full-back where he performed effectively against Wales in the Six Nations opener. The wingers are Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe, the latter being the lone Edinburgh representative in the back division. Sione Tuipulotu reunites with his club-mate Huw Jones in the centre and the halfbacks are Hastings and George Horne, who both played in the 2018 loss to the US.

There are another four Glasgow players in the pack, along with three from Edinburgh and Alex Craig of the Scarlets who wins his third cap, three years after his last. The Dumfries-born lock partners Scott Cummings in the second row. The front row is formed of Pierre Schoeman at loosehead prop, Ewan Ashman at hooker and Murphy Walker at tighthead. Ritchie is picked at blindside flanker and is joined in the back row by Rory Darge and No 8 Matt Fagerson. Fagerson and Steyn came off the bench against Canada.

Darge and Tuipulotu have been named as co-captains, with Ritchie and Steyn vice-captains.

Kyle Rowe starts at full-back against the USA.Kyle Rowe starts at full-back against the USA.
Kyle Rowe starts at full-back against the USA.

Van der Merwe is one try away from equalling Stuart Hogg’s all-time Scotland record of 27 and will fancy his chances against a side ranked 18th in the world and who lost at home to Romania last week.

Scotland (v USA, Audi Field, Washington DC, Friday 12 July, 11:30pm BST): K Rowe (Glasgow); K Steyn (Glasgow), H Jones (Glasgow), S Tuipulotu (Glasgow; co-capt), D van der Merwe (Edinburgh); A Hastings (Glasgow), G Horne (Glasgow); P Schoeman (Edinburgh), E Ashman (Edinburgh), M Walker (Glasgow), A Craig ­(Scarlets), S Cummings (Glasgow), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), 7. Rory Darge (Glasgow; co-capt), M Fagerson (Glasgow).

Replacements: R Smith (Northampton), R Sutherland (Glasgow), E Millar Mills (Northampton), M Williamson (Glasgow), L Crosbie (Edinburgh), J Dobie (Glasgow), R Thompson (Edinburgh), M Currie (Edinburgh).

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