‘It’s a great turnaround - a testament to his character’ - Gregor Townsend hails new Scotland captain Fraser Brown

A new skipper, a first cap for the latest South African import and the return of an old favourite on the bench were the headlines as Gregor Townsend named his side to face Georgia at BT Murrayfield on Friday in the first installment of Scotland’s six-match autumn series.

Fraser Brown, centre, prepares for the Georgia game during a training session at Oriam. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Hooker Fraser Brown has been entrusted with the captaincy on the occasion of his 51st appearance for the national side and it is a fitting reward for a player who has had to battle back from career-threatening injuries and work through bouts of depression.

The one new face in the starting XV is Duhan van der Merwe, Edinburgh’s explosive winger, who qualified to play for Scotland during the long lay-off after fulfilling the three-year residency requirement. The Guinness Pro14 player of the season will offer a muscular threat against the equally powerful Georgians. Another South African, Oli Kebble, is also in line to win his first cap after the Glasgow prop was named on the bench. He too qualifies on residency grounds.

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Townsend has resisted the temptation to throw Finn Russell straight back into his side. The Scotland coach is sticking with Adam Hastings as his starting stand-off, with Russell among the replacements.

Adam Hastings has retained the No 10 jersey for the Georgia game. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The Racing 92 playmaker has not played for his country in over a year but has been reintegrated into the set-up this week following his well-documented banishment on the eve of the Six Nations for a “breach of team protocol”.

There is also a return for Darcy Graham who will start against Georgia after missing the four Six Nations games with damaged knee ligaments. The winger will line up in an all-Edinburgh back three alongside van der Merwe and full-back Blair Kinghorn.

There is nothing experimental about the team selection as Townsend looks to kick-start the autumn programme before next weekend’s trip to Llanelli to finish off last season’s Six Nations Championship.

“We wanted to put out our strongest team available and build that cohesion straight away,” said the Scotland coach. “We’ve had a week and a half of training but nothing beats a game to see where you are and how up to speed you are with the rugby we’ve been practising in training.”

Duhan van der Merwe will win his first Scotland cap against Georgia. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

With regular skipper Stuart Hogg absent as he prepares with Exeter Chiefs for Saturday’s English Premiership final against Wasps, Townsend said he and his fellow coaches had no hesitation in turning to Brown.

“We were just thinking about what a great captain he’s been for Glasgow and he’s in the form of his life,” reasoned the coach.

“We’re just looking for him to continue that. He’s thriving in the role. He’s come out of that lockdown period in fantastic physical shape and he’s a top-quality, experienced player.”

Brown has had to overcome setbacks on and off the rugby pitch and his fortitude has not been lost on Townsend

“When you put it in the perspective of where he was six, seven years ago and before when it didn’t look like he’d play again, it’s a great turnaround,” said the Scotland boss.

“It’s a testament to his character and his determination to get back and make the most of his rugby career. He’s someone who will be very tough and committed on the field and bring the best out of others by leading by example.”

He will be assisted in that area by two new vice-captains, scrum-half Ali Price and flanker Jamie Ritchie.

Richie is just 24 but has matured into one of Scotland’s most important players and one Townsend sees as a potential captain of the future.

“He’s still a young man, he’s developing as a leader. Obviously, he developed really fast as a player over the last couple of years, and it’s been interesting and encouraging to see players that are given more leadership responsibility - that it doesn’t affect their game and they actually thrive on it, like Fraser has done at Glasgow this year, like Jamie did during the Six Nations.”

Townsend spoke last week about his own development and how lockdown had given him time to reflect on his fractured relationship with Russell and think about things he might have done differently during the whole sorry saga.

The player rejoined the squad on Sunday, the day after playing in Racing’s Heineken Champions Cup final defeat by Exeter. He produced some wonderfully creative flourishes in the match but was also guilty of gifting the Chiefs a try.

Townsend, no stranger to such up-and-down moments in his own glittering career as a high-class stand-off, stressed there would be no attempt to curb Russell’s risk-taking.

“Any game you play there is going to be errors, and especially when you’re a 10 – and I should know that,” said the coach.

“We don’t want to take away from any of our players the ability to seize opportunities and make those decisions that they believe are right.

“It’s great to see players having the courage to go for what they believe is right and with someone like Finn with his experience and skill set, those decisions will be the right ones far more often than they’re not.”

There is a suspicion that Russell is being held in reserve for the Wales game which would be tough on Hastings who impressed in Scotland’s last two matches before lockdown, the wins over Italy and France.

Townsend reported that Hastings was “in great spirits”. “We’re enjoying seeing him in that No 10 jersey but there’s a lot of competition there - he knows that. We’re looking for competition with Finn and Duncy Weir to bring out the best in him, and bring out the best in the three of them.”

Grant Gilchrist and Damien Hoyland have both been ruled out of the autumn matches. Neither player has experienced much luck with injuries in recent years and on this occasion it’s a groin problem which has laid Gilchrist low while Hoyland hurt his ankle in training.

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