Hamish Watson, Stuart Hogg and Ali Price: Experience key as Scotland aim to ride wave of momentum against France

Gregor Townsend has backed a highly motivated Hamish Watson to put Scotland on the front foot against France on Sunday after restoring the Edinburgh flanker to his side for the match in Paris.

Watson’s inclusion at the expense of his club-mate Luke Crosbie is the only change to the XV which dismantled Wales at Murrayfield a fortnight ago as the Scots look to ride the momentum of their best ever start to a Six Nations campaign. Townsend’s side have entered uncharted territory: never before have they won their opening two games in the championship since it was expanded to include Italy in 2000, so the prospect of a third victory on the bounce is one which excites and daunts in equal measure.

Watson missed the wins over England and Wales as he felt his way back following a head injury sustained against New Zealand in November but Townsend feels he is now ready to return at Test level and believes his experience, particularly against France, could be invaluable.

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“Hamish dropped out of the team through no fault of his own,” said the coach. “Luke got himself into the team by what he has been doing for Edinburgh, he’s defended really well for us in the opening two games but Hamish is now back fully fit so it becomes a discussion around who is right for this weekend and not as much about who’s played better the week before.

“We feel Hamish has gone well against France in the past, he’s gone well against a lot of teams. He’s highly motivated after having missed out in these last two weeks and the speed he trains at means he’ll add to that attack and defensively there could be opportunities if the referee allows jackals to go for the ball like last year at Murrayfield.”

Townsend said Watson was disappointed to miss the opening rounds but has remained a contributor to the squad’s leadership group. “He’s very well respected and he knows there’s huge competition now. Jamie Ritchie has played number seven, Crosbie has played seven for the last two weeks and Rory Darge is coming back [for Glasgow] this weekend and he was outstanding for us last year. Hamish and those other guys know they have to play well to stay in the team and he has the opportunity this weekend.”

Townsend has selected the same backline for the third game in a row which means Stuart Hogg is fit to start and will win his 99th Scotland cap. The full-back lasted only 13 minutes against Wales due to a head injury and was replaced by Blair Kinghorn. Hogg, who has also been troubled by a heel problem, has passed the return to play protocols and Townsend believes, as with Watson, his experience will be key.

“Stuart played well during the 13 minutes he was on the field, he broke two or three tackles on one of his carries,” said Townsend. “There was a doubt coming into the tournament about where he would be physically but he’s shown in training and against England and in the brief time he was on against Wales, that he’s fully match fit.”

Ali Price is back in the Scotland match-day squad. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)Ali Price is back in the Scotland match-day squad. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Ali Price is back in the Scotland match-day squad. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Kinghorn, who scored a try against the Welsh and impressed generally, is back on the bench. “Blair, coming on early against Wales, showed what he can do,” added Townsend. “He has been great and he's been breaking records in the gym and also out on the training field with his speed. Knowing we have someone who can cover at ten, in the back three and is in really good form but also physically in such good shape is a positive for us. I think Blair can take a lot of confidence over how he's played at full-back and how he helped us win the game, absolutely. But Stuart has done very well for us in the past and he's good to go this weekend. I think in those big games, the challenges at Twickenham and in Paris, Stuart has been a big influence on how we have won those games.”

The consistency of selection - Townsend has changed only one player per game in his starting side - shows that Scotland have been fortunate so far with injuries and there was more good news last weekend when Racing 92 decided to leave Finn Russell on the bench for their game against Brive and Exeter Chiefs didn’t have a game. It means Russell, Hogg and substitute lock Jonny Gray all arrived in camp as fresh as the Scottish-based players.

While it might be tempting to suggest this all feeds into the notion that this could be Scotland’s year, Townsend is under no illusions about how tough it will be in Paris. Last season’s grand slam champions may have made an indifferent start to the defence of their crown, scraping a win over Italy and being well beaten by Ireland, but Townsend is wary, particularly on their return to play in Paris for the first time in this season’s championship.

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“You’re playing a team that didn’t lose a game last year,” stressed Townsend. “They’re back at home for the first time since November, a team that has great strength in depth and on their day can score tries from anywhere, like they did in Dublin. But also a team that we’ve come up against a few times in the last few years. We know what works for us and how to be a threat to them. We know what makes it easy for them to get at us. We obviously want more of the former than the latter.”

Hamish Watson has not played for Scotland since suffering a head injury against New Zealand in November. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)Hamish Watson has not played for Scotland since suffering a head injury against New Zealand in November. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)
Hamish Watson has not played for Scotland since suffering a head injury against New Zealand in November. (Photo by Ross Parker / SNS Group)

In keeping with the theme of experience, Townsend has opted to bring Ali Price back to the fold, selecting the scrum-half on the bench in place of George Horne.

Scotland team (v France, Guinness Six Nations, Sunday, Stade de France, 3pm GMT):

15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Kyle Steyn, 13. Huw Jones, 12. Sione Tuipulotu, 11. Duhan van der Merwe; 10. Finn Russell, 9. Ben White; 1. Pierre Schoeman, 2. George Turner, 3. Zander Fagerson, 4. Richie Gray, 5. Grant Gilchrist, 6. Jamie Ritchie (capt), 7. Hamish Watson, 8. Matt Fagerson.

Replacements: 16. Fraser Brown, 17. Jamie Bhatti, 18. WP Nel, 19. Jonny Gray, 20. Sam Skinner, 21. Jack Dempsey, 22. Ali Price, 23. Blair Kinghorn.



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