To say 2019 was an annus horribilis for the Scotland rugby team would be a gross exaggeration, but it was peppered with enough bum notes to mean change had to come.
A thrilling and for-the-ages fightback against England at Twickenham for a famous 38-38 draw, a couple of shut-out wins over minor nations in Pool A do not a successful year make, however.
As a player, and as a coach, Gregor Townsend has always been proactive rather than reactive and, after freshening up his management team and appointing a new captain in the shape of Stuart Hogg, has selected a team for the crunch Guinness Six Nations opener against Ireland in Dublin tomorrow that has “new broom” written all over it.
After a challenging year gone, the Finn Russell fiasco was the worst possible way to start the new one but new dawns break, the sun rises again and Scotland have no option other than to roll up their sleeves and give their best in the daunting arena of Ireland’s Aviva Stadium fortress.
“Just now, the mood of the players in the camp is good,” said Townsend from Spain, where the squad have been training this week before flying to Dublin yesterday afternoon.
“We had a tough session this morning, the players were leading in the meetings and on the training field, and that’s what you want from a coaching perspective.
“We’ve done the detail. There is a bit of a hard edge around defence and the players are the ones doing the talking. The game is in 48 hours’ time so it’s now up to us all, but especially the players, that we are ready for a huge challenge – that we are confident and ready to work very hard for 80 minutes.”
Ten changes have been made to the XV who started that tumultuous game against inspired hosts Japan in the wake of devastating Typhoon Hagibis in Yokohama which led to a tournament-ending 28-21 defeat.
As expected, young Adam Hastings is given the playmaker responsibility following Russell’s de-selection for this match due to a disciplinary breach surrounding over-drinking upon checking into the team hotel a week past Sunday and failing to show for training the next day.
Other notable aspects of Townsend’s sweeping changes include a debut for Australia-born Edinburgh No 8 Nick Haining, a first Six Nations start for Glasgow lock Scott Cummings, the surprise omission of second-row Grant Gilchrist and a return on the bench for back-rower Cornell du Preez, loosehead prop Rory Sutherland’s first cap in three and a half years and the absence of tighthead WP Nel.
Amid all the changes a pattern can be seen. Townsend, inset, has always placed great faith in well-honed club combinations and that is again evident in this team that will run out tomorrow searching for a first-ever win at the revamped home of Irish rugby.
Centre Huw Jones has been rewarded for his return to form over the past few weeks and is paired with Scotstoun team-mate Sam Johnson in midfield. Ali Price forms the half-back pairing with Hastings. Sutherland aside it is an all-Glasgow front-five, with the Edinburgh trio of Haining, Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie at the back of the scrum.
“The cohesion there between second-rows and hooker is an important one,” said Townsend. “But there are players who have been very close to selection, like Stuart McInally, who has trained full-out the last two or three weeks with an injury, and we have three very good hookers in the squad with the way George Turner has been playing.
“Hamish is an out-and-out seven, Jamie played Six Nations for us last year and a number of games at the World Cup as a seven but also has the ability in the lineout and with ball-carrying to be a very good six.
“It is good to have them both available and fit. And probably good for Nick Haining to be between those two clubmates of his. We’ll have a tough challenge around the back-row and the breakdown given who Ireland have selected, but these three men are ready for that battle.”
After his 2008 Calcutta Cup heroics, the stellar start to centre Jones’ Test career foundered but he has looked sharp of late, making improvements on his defensive game and Townsend said: “Huw has played more regularly for his club and he has been playing really well. His form over the last two months has been excellent. A lot of credit goes to Huw for that, for working hard on aspects of the game that he needed to improve. He is playing with real confidence in defence and attack, I know from the feedback at Glasgow how well he has been training and also contributing to meetings. We’ve seen that here over the past two weeks.
“Sometimes players have to go through adversity at times in their careers. It has been great to see the character of Huw to get through that and be back enjoying his rugby again.”
It will be a special moment for Haining, the 29-year-old from Fremantle, Western Australia, who took a punt and headed to the northern hemisphere after being released by the Perth-based Force Super Rugby academy. Spells at Jersey and Bristol ended with a move to the land of his Dundonian grandmother when he signed for Edinburgh.
An impressive string of displays for Richard Cockerill’s side led to Townsend including him as one of six uncapped players in his initial 44-man training squad and the No 8 has clearly grasped that chance and impressed in training the last couple of weeks.