Return of Duncan Taylor offers crumb of comfort on bleak night for Scotland

Neither the score nor the performance in Scotland’s first World Cup warm-up against France was anything close to what Gregor Townsend had hoped for. But, on a dispiriting evening in Nice, there was nonetheless one very significant positive aspect in the return of Duncan Taylor.

Scotland centre Duncan Taylor gets to grips with France's scrum-half Antoine Dupont. Picture: Pascal Guyot/AFP

Winning his 22nd cap all of two years after his 21st, the Saracens centre had not played at all since suffering severe knee-ligament damage last September – just the latest in a long line of injuries. But he had returned to training with Saracens towards the end of the season just ended. That fact was enough for Townsend to include him in his initial squad for the World Cup, and the form and fitness shown in the national training camp convinced the coach that the time was right for the 29-year-old to make a return.

Scotland have enjoyed a few impressive results in Taylor’s long, enforced absence, but there was no denying that, provided he could regain fitness, Taylor still had a lot to offer. His intelligent reading of the game, his sleight of hand in attack, his versatility, his calmness under pressure, his speed: those qualities and others combine to produce a package which no other back in the squad can quite emulate.

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To bring such qualities into play, of course, Taylor needs some decent front-foot ball to work off, and that was in desperately short supply against a rampant home team. So, by necessity, most of his interventions in his 48 minutes of were defensive in nature.

Those interventions began in the opening minute when he threw himself into a tackle without the slightest hint of hesitation, and he performed those bread-and-butter chores diligently throughout. More eye-catchingly, he gave evidence of both his speed and reading of the game midway through the half to touch down behind his own line ahead of the dangerous Maxime Medard.

A long pass to the left wing midway through the first half showed him trying to spark some creativity into Scotland’s attack.

And, while he seemed a little slower after the break, he was not alone in that.

Granted, this was hardly the sort of match designed to showcase Taylor’s most important talents. But, on an evening when some of his colleagues may well have done considerable damage to their chances of being in the final squad of 31 to go to Japan, he at the very least provided a reminder that he deserves to be in that squad, and that he is at least capable of being one of its most important members in the tournament itself.

Rory Hutchinson, pictured inset, was the man to replace Taylor after 48 minutes, and while he did not have much of a chance to display his skills at their best, on his debut, he too offered glimpses of what, in different circumstances, he can do. The versatile Northampton centre also surely deserves another chance, and it may well be that Townsend opts to start him against the French at Murrayfield on Saturday, with Taylor perhaps being the one this time to begin the game on the bench.

Throw in the Test return of John Barclay, another who has missed significant chunks of rugby due to injury, and there were several crumbs of comfort for Townsend to savour in this otherwise stale Nice biscuit of a match.