Gregor Townsend's bold Scotland team selection is based on fitness and form but key omissions are disconcerting
All four played when Scotland retained the Calcutta Cup last year with a 20-17 win at Murrayfield and all four were in the starting line-up in 2021 when Townsend’s side pulled off a rare victory at Twickenham.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s match has come too soon for Watson and Fagerson. Despite an upbeat assessment from Scotland forwards coach John Dalziel earlier in the week, Townsend has exercised caution. Dalziel said Fagerson was “good to go” but the reality of coming back in a Test match against England after two months out with a torn hamstring has persuaded Townsend to leave him out. WP Nel, 36 years young, starts in his place, with Simon Berghan providing tighthead cover on the bench. Fagerson will come into contention for next weekend’s home game against Wales.
Watson played the full match for Edinburgh against Sharks last week, his first since suffering concussion against New Zealand on November 13, but again Townsend felt the step up at Twickenham was too much, too soon. It opens the door for Luke Crosbie to make his first Six Nations appearance, reward for the Edinburgh’s flanker’s excellent form, most notably in the recent Champions Cup win over Saracens.
“He plays one way, go forward,” Townsend said of Crosbie, “in attack really hard at the opposition and in defence through big hits. He has developed really well in decision making and technical ability around the breakdown. We saw that when Edinburgh took on Saracens a few weeks ago.”
While no-one could question the openside’s abrasive attributes, Crosbie lacks experience at Test level. His only previous start came in the dispiriting first Test defeat in Argentina in the summer. While the absence of Fagerson and Watson can be put down to medical reasons, the omission of Price and Harris is based on form. Price, a mainstay at scrum-half since the last World Cup, is not even on the bench, paying the price for an indifferent season with Glasgow Warriors during which he has had to play second fiddle to George Horne. Horne’s reward is a place among the replacements but it is London Irish’s Ben White who will wear the No 9 jersey against England. It will be his second start for Scotland, and his first alongside Finn Russell. White had a huge impact in this fixture last year, coming on as a temporary replacement for Price and scoring a wonderful try before returning to the bench and then reappearing late in the game.
Much will depend on the Russell-White combination. As ever, the lavishly gifted stand-off holds the key for Scotland and is well used to working alongside Price after their years together at Glasgow and Scotland. White will need to get onto Russell’s wavelength but the scrum-half impressed Townsend during the second Test win over Argentina in the summer - his one previous start - and the coach talked up White’s kicking game during Thursday’s team announcement press conference. Price, meanwhile, finds himself at something of a crossroads with the World Cup looming.
“Ben’s been really consistent ever since he came into the squad,” said Townsend. “He’s had more game time for London Irish this year. He started the majority of games, his kicking game has been outstanding. He’s very competitive, he showed that in his start in the second test in Argentina in the summer. He’s just grown in confidence.”
Harris at least gets a place on the bench. The Gloucester outside centre has been Townsend’s defensive bulwark for the past four years but now finds himself behind Huw Jones in the pecking order. Jones links up in the midfield with Sione Tuipulotu and the Glasgow pair have combined well for their club this season, most notably in the win over the Stormers, last year’s URC champions. Jones has more attacking thrust than Harris so this could be deemed a bold call by Townsend. The Edinburgh-born centre also boasts an excellent strike-rate against England, with four tries in four games.
The other big decision is the selection of Kyle Steyn. With Darcy Graham ruled out, probably until the Ireland match in round 4, Townsend has picked the Glasgow winger ahead of Sean Maitland and Ruaridh McConnochie, neither of whom make the match-day 23. “I feel he’s brought a real edge to his game, running hard, breaking tackles, being aggressive in defence,” Townsend said of Steyn. “So we’re delighted to be able to start him this time.” Blair Kinghorn is on the bench and will cover the wing berths as well as stand-off and full back.
Unlike Watson and Zander Fagerson, Stuart Hogg and Duhan van der Merwe have been deemed fit enough to start despite neither having played much rugby of late. Respective heel and ankle injuries have kept them out but both get the nod for Twickenham and Townsend is confident they will be up to speed. “They have not been out too long, just three or four weeks. It is different when you have an injury like a torn hamstring. They have not missed too much training, whereas Zander had to start from scratch.”
The absence of Fagerson, Watson, Price and Harris takes out four of Scotland’s 2021 Lions from the starting side. A fifth, Rory Sutherland, is also missing, with Pierre Schoeman retaining the No 1 jersey and Jamie Bhatti providing loosehead cover on the bench. If there is a sense of a changing of the guard it is offset slightly by the presence of Richie Gray, who remarkably, played in the Lions Test team in 2013 and continues to enjoy an international revival. Younger brother Jonny is on the bench, fit again after a whiplash injury, and will likely replace Richie in the second half as Scotland seek a third successive win over England for the first time in over 50 years.
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