Gregor Townsend defends use of residency rule as Scotland pick four South Africans

Another day, another South African. Jaco van der Walt will make his Scotland debut against Ireland on Saturday, joining compatriots Duhan van der Merwe, Oli Kebble and Willem Nel in the matchday 23 for the Autumn Nations Cup clash in Dublin.

Jaco van der Walt will make his Scotland debut against Ireland. Picture: Craig Williamson / SNS

Van der Walt, who will go up against Johnny Sexton, is Scotland’s fifth stand-off of the autumn and displaces Duncan Weir in the starting line-up. It’s tough luck on the Worcester man who doesn’t even make the bench after playing the full 80 against both Italy and France.

With no other recognised 10 in the squad, captain Stuart Hogg will deputise at stand-off should anything untoward happen to van der Walt. Hogg filled in at fly-half for the final 12 minutes of the win over Wales when both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings sustained injuries

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Van der Walt qualifies on residency grounds, having spent the requisite three years in Scotland. Born in Potchefstroom, he moved to the capital in November 2017.

Coach Gregor Townsend watches Jonny Gray in training at Oriam. Picture: Craig Williamson / SNS

Gregor Towsend describes him as one of the “best tackling stand-offs in world rugby” and the Scotland coach has no qualms about picking another player via the residency rule.

“Jaco’s been playing for Edinburgh the last three years and his play and performances have earned him the right to be considered,” said Townsend. “This will be our fifth stand-off – Finn, Adam, Duncan all came the Scottish system which is important, that players can see they can come through the system and play for Scotland. They’re great role models for young players.

“The way Jaco has integrated into Edinburgh and our group, he’s a very humble and hard-working player, puts his body on the line and he’s a great defender. And his great grandfather is from Aberdeen, so there is a Scottish connection. But that’s not necessary, we know the rules that other countries as well as ourselves have used. It’s up to those players that get capped through those residency mechanisms – they make a huge effort to play for that country. That’s what we’ve seen with Duhan and Oli, and we’ve seen in the past from WP Nel and Sam Johnson.

“The fact that someone is playing because he played all his life in Scotland or because his parents were Scottish, his grandparents were Scottish, because he was brought up somewhere and comes through residency does not come into selection thoughts.”

Duncan Weir has dropped out of the Scotland squad after playing the full 80 minutes against Italy and France. Picture: Craig Williamson / SNS

The residency rule is a flimsy one and will be extended to five years from the end of 2021. Scotland are not alone in exploiting it, of course, but in this international window they have introduced three new South Africans into the side, with van der Welt following van der Merwe and Kebble.

Townsend refutes the suggestion that such a policy is stifling homegrown talent, and points to the fact that a traditional Scottish rugby stronghold such as Hawick (pop: 14,000) supplies three players to the starting XV for the third-place play-off.

“I believe we’re producing players better than we’ve ever done before,” he countered. “And as you know we don’t have anything like the player numbers of any nation in the top 15 in the world. Italy and all those countries have many more players than us, so we have to work very hard at getting players to the highest level.

“Our depth’s at the best ever level, and there are players who have come through residency in that, but that’s always been the case over the years. Players who are second or third generation or those who have come to live in our country.

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“The real pleasing aspect is we have three players from a small town in the Borders who are all starting for Scotland. That’s not happened in the pro era. That’s a real success story.”

Van der Walt had been lined up to make his debut against Fiji before a Covid-19 outbreak in the Islanders squad scuppered that plan. Townsend rates him highly, although the absence of both Finn Russell and Adam Hastings likely fast-tracked his promotion.

“Plans change when you have injuries, we have two stand-offs injured, but it was certainly the plan to get him involved,” said the coach. “His performances have earned that right, and we were aware he was eligible now, so let’s get him involved in international rugby and see how he does as soon as possible.

“This year and last year he’s taken his game to another level. Defensively, he must be one of the best tackling stand-offs in world rugby. His passing and kicking are at a high level and he’ll be looking at ways to best influence the defence. Things will be just a little bit quicker at international level but we have a real belief and faith in his ability and in those around him to bring the best out of our backline this weekend.”

Van der Walt’s inclusion is one of six changes to side that lost 22-15 at home to France. Van der Merwe, his team-mate and compatriot, returns in place of Blair Kinghorn who broke his finger against the French.

At centre, Duncan Taylor makes his first Scotland start since last year’s World Cup. The Saracen comes in for Sam Johnson and will have James Lang outside him.

There are three changes in the pack, two of them in the front row. Rory Sutherland has recovered from the ankle injury he sustained against Italy and resumes at loosehead, with Kebble dropping to the bench. Zander Fagerson is named at tighthead, replacing Simon Berghan who drops out.

The back row has been reshuffled, with Blade Thomson returning to the starting lineup but as a blindside flanker rather than No 8. Jamie Ritchie shifts to openside to accommodate Thomson, with Matt Fagerson retaining the eight jersey.

On the bench, there are first sightings of the autumn of Glasgow centre Huw Jones and London Irish flanker Blair Cowan.

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