Three weeks after Scotland’s nail-biting quarter-final defeat in the World Cup, Gregor Townsend has whistled up the remainder of his international players for this afternoon’s trip to Cardiff. The last six unused players have now joined the squad one week ahead of the European Cup kick-off.
Jonny Gray takes over the captaincy for the first time since this week’s announcement that he has the post permanently, Josh Strauss does a shift in the No 6 shirt and prop forward Ryan Grant starts on the bench.
A hooking crisis, one has undergone surgery, two may need it, means that the newbie James Malcolm keeps his place on the bench although Townsend admitted that he was close to signing more experienced cover.
In the backs, Finn Russell takes the No 10 shirt from Duncan Weir, Stuart Hogg’s return to full-back means a switch back to the wing for Tommy Seymour and Mark Bennett renews an international partnership with Peter Horne that was last seen squaring up to the Wallabies in that Twickenham humdinger.
Townsend was quick to praise the attitude of the returning players who have rolled up their sleeves and showed no signs of any post-World Cup hangover.
Instead he declared himself delighted with the way that Glasgow international contingent, all 21 of them, had bought into the club culture he has been promoting these last three years.
The coach was backed by Bennett when when the “hangover” question was put to the Scottish centre, especially following the controversial nature of Scotland’s World Cup exit. “I think its quite the opposite,” the centre insisted. “I was watching the Glasgow game last Sunday and wishing I was out there. I just enjoy playing. I know it sounds daft but I just enjoy playing with my mates. I just want to get out there,
“Also having played a game I think it will put to bed what has happened [in the quarter-final]. It means it’s gone, there is no link back to it. I am looking forward to that as much as anything.”
Incidentally, Bennett finds himself marking Rey Lee-Lo this afternoon for the first time since the Samoan centre ripped the Scottish defence to shreds at Newcastle, scoring one try himself and spreading panic almost every time he touched the ball.
Cardiff Blues at home will be a tricky one to negotiate if only because the Welsh region will be desperate to make amends having lost to Treviso last weekend. They too welcome some big Test names back to their starting XV, with the likes of Sam Warburton, Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins all in today’s line-up.
The Blues will enjoy their first game on their own plastic pitch after five weeks on the road because the Arms Park was utilised as a Fan Zone during the Rugby World Cup. They were beaten in all five matches but losing bonus points against Connacht and Ulster suggest that they are not too far off the Pro 12 pace.
“We’re expecting a tough game,” says Bennett. “They’ll be up for it especially after a disappointing loss to Zebre last week. They’ll want a strong performance and they haven’t played at home in a long time so they’ll want to put in a good one this weekend.”
The Scot comes back into club action with his reputation nicely burnished by several stand-out performances in the World Cup. He scored a brace of tries against Japan before adding what might have proved the winner against Australia at Twickenham.
So far his six touchdowns in just 13 international matches are just one of the reasons he was recently named as one of three nominees for World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year award.
In the event the gong went to All Black winger Nehe Milner Skudder, and who can argue with that, but it did offer Bennett the chance to rub shoulders with some childhood heroes on the Sunday night following the final.
“I was over the moon,” he says of the nomination. “It was a bit of a strange one because I didn’t even know that award existed! I got an email and thought, ‘Ok, that’s quite cool’.
“And the night itself was amazing. I was there with my girlfriend Katrina and the fact that we were mingling with legends of the game, I was like a kid in a toy shop, ‘look who that is, look who that is!’
“I got to speak to Brian O’Driscoll. I never got the chance to play against him so we have never met and to be there at the same event and chat to him as a peer was really cool.”
It would be nice to think that BOD almighty is saying the same about the young Scot even now.
Elsewhere in the Glasgow team, Grayson Hart replaces Mike Blair at scrumhalf and the man known as “Big T”, Australian/Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, starts on the right wing so ensuring Cuthbert isn’t the only giant tearing up the touchlines.