Scotland v England: Rory Darge and Cam Redpath absences explained as Gregor Townsend sticks with tried and trusted for Calcutta Cup
In naming a side with a combined total of 562 Scotland caps Gregor Townsend has picked a Calcutta Cup team long on experience but, more importantly, one which has learned how to win big games.
There is no experimentation, no tinkering - this is as strong a side as Townsend could have selected.
One defeat in four against England is a record unmatched by any other Scotland coach in the professional era and the current incumbent will look to improve on it when Eddie Jones’ side visit on Saturday.
England’s XV can muster only 452 international appearances, with seven of the starters having ten caps or fewer. In the absence of Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes they are led by Tom Curry who, at 23, is their youngest captain since Will Carling in 1988.
Jones, the irascible England coach, expects Murrayfield to be “hostile” and has questioned the hosts’ ability to carry the burden of expectation, but Townsend is too long in the tooth to be drawn into a phoney hype war.
He preferred instead to focus on the strength of his squad and the decision-making process as he whittled down the names for the Six Nations opener.
“The [initial] squad of 39 was very difficult to select, to leave key players out,” Townsend said. “The 23 was difficult to select, and there was some real debate over a couple of positions in the starting 15.
“But a lot of those guys in the starting 15 have played well for Scotland in big victories, so they have the right to that jersey.
“Having said that, there are some players outside the squad that have been exceptional. Rory Darge [is] one of them - he’s shown what a special player he is.
“But we’ve got players in that team that have been exceptional for Scotland, and we think physically are in form, so they get the opportunity this week because they’ve deserved it.”
Darge is not even among the replacements and will have to exercise a little more patience as he awaits his first cap.
The trouble for the Glasgow Warriors openside is that Hamish Watson is blocking his path and how can Townsend contemplate dropping last season’s Player of the Six Nations?
It is Magnus Bradbury who will provide back-row cover from the bench, reward for his excellent form for Edinburgh and a nod to his versatility.
Also returning are seasoned forwards Rory Sutherland and Jonny Gray, both of whom missed the autumn series through injury. The former’s inclusion in the starting XV means Pierre Schoeman drops to the bench.
Sutherland has moved from Edinburgh to Worcester and won Lions Tests caps since his last Scotland appearances and Townsend has been impressed by the prop’s recent form in the English Premiership.
“He is in great physical shape and he was very strong at scrum time at the weekend for Worcester even although his team was on the back foot [in losing to Northampton],” said the coach.
“This will be the first time we have Pierre and Rory in the same squad. Pierre has had a good season and made a big impression in the autumn and that makes that position even more competitive which we need with Jamie Bhatti being out injured.”
Gray is similarly welcomed back into the fold and the Exeter lock will partner Grant Gilchrist in the second row, with Sam Skinner among the substitutes. Scott Cummings misses out.
“He sets the standards with his workrate, especially defensively, but also his knowledge around the players he is up against and the lineout,” Townsend said of Gray. “It is great to have him there. We have a very competitive group of second rows with a lot of experience so to get Jonny and Gilcho together - for the first time since the World Cup I think - it will be great to see them go.”
Townsend resisted the temptation to throw Cam Redpath in at inside centre, sticking instead with Sam Johnson, but the coach suggested the Bath man will have a role to play in the coming weeks. Redpath has only recently returned from a serious knee injury and there will be no repeat of his Calcutta Cup heroics of last season.
“He came very close,” said the Scotland coach. “A couple of weeks ago we didn’t feel he would have had the game time to be in the mix for this opening game, but in those last two games [for Bath], especially the last game against Harlequins, he showed his quality, getting back into a rhythm.
“But it’s a big jump to go from 50 minutes, 70 minutes, I think, to 80 minutes, to suddenly a Test match after being out for eight months. I’m sure he would have been able to do it, because he’s such a good player, and we know how well he played for us last year. But we feel that the right thing for him and the team is to get him another game. We’ll see where he is for next week.
“We also feel Sam Johnson has done really well for us. So we know we’ve got some quality centres competing hard for that 12 jersey.”
Sione Tuipulotu, who made his Scotland debut against Tonga in October, is the substitute centre, Townsend highlighting his ability to play inside and outside.
The bench is split five-three in favour of the forwards, with Edinburgh trio Stuart McInally, Schoeman and WP Neil covering the front row, Skinner the second and Bradbury the back.
Blair Kinghorn’s ability to play stand-off, wing and full-back make him invaluable and he will be joined in the replacements by Ben White, the uncapped London Irish scrum-half who gets the nod ahead of Edinburgh’s Ben Vellacott.
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