Scotland braced for tough Georgia test in final audition

Sam Johnson will make his first Scotland appearance since his try-scoring display against England in March. Picture: Getty
Sam Johnson will make his first Scotland appearance since his try-scoring display against England in March. Picture: Getty
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Scotland are taking a “Steppe” into the unknown tomorrow, and, given their dreadful, away form in recent years it’s not unreasonable for the nation’s rugby fans to be apprehensive about this third World Cup warm-up match.

The historic clash at Tbilisi’s Dinamo Stadium, as Scotland admirably become the first major rugby nation to give the emerging eastern Europeans the respect of a first official Test match on home soil, has been marked down as a dry run for what could possibly be a pivotal final Pool A clash with host nation Japan in Yokohama on 13 October.

The conditions could be cooler and wetter than anticipated but the Scots will be up against fired-up hosts, who are eager to show they could be worthy candidates to be part of the Six Nations at some point soon.

They are currently 12th in the World Rugby rankings – one place above Italy – and Scotland have enough recent experience of falling short on the home patch of aspiring nations, including defeats to Fiji and the United States under current head coach Gregor Townsend’s tenure.

Centre Sam Johnson will make his first Scotland appearance since that magnificent try against England in the 38-38 draw at Twickenham which closed the Six Nations back in March.

The Glasgow Warriors inside centre is one of ten changes to the side that defeated France 17-14 at BT Murrayfield last weekend to restore some pride and confidence after a 32-3 
collapse to the same opponents in Nice seven days previously. Johnson will make his comeback alongside 23-year-old Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson, who will start his first Test match for his country.

Scotland’s trek to the 
Caucasus will be a final chance for players to prove themselves before the final 31-man group for the World Cup is announced by head coach Townsend at a public event at Linlithgow Palace on Tuesday.

Lock forward Jonny Gray plays no part as he continues to try and shake off a hamstring tweak ahead of the final warm-up match against the Georgians at BT Murrayfield next Friday before a training camp in Nagasaki then the Pool A opener against Ireland in Yokohama on 22 September.

Townsend said: “We’re pleased to welcome Sam [Johnson] back into the side, having performed so well for us in the spring, while a number of 
other players also get the opportunity to build on Saturday’s performance.

“There were improvements in our back-to-back games against France, in particular in defence, game management and at scrum, as well as some elements of our attack. All of these will be put to the test against a very good Georgian side who we expect to be extremely motivated by their passionate home support.”

Make no mistake, this will be a ferocious Test for Scotland against opponents who have been craving the opportunity to prove themselves against major rugby nations outside of World Cup pool games, and push for promotion to the Six Nations Championship.

Bankrolled by former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian rugby is on a mission ahead of a World Cup campaign which will see them up against Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay in Pool D.

“We’re expecting a very physical and confrontational encounter, which will be a great test for our squad. In order to rise to this challenge, we must take the game to our hosts right from the start, playing with relentless effort and accuracy,” said Townsend.

Hooker Stuart McInally
returns to start the match and will captain the side once again, having done so in the opening Test against France in Nice, while the team also features first campaign starts for Edinburgh full-back Blair Kinghorn, in for Stuart Hogg, loosehead prop Allan Dell and Glasgow No 8 Matt Fagerson.

Wing Darcy Graham 
replaces the injured Tommy Seymour, who sustained a head knock against France last weekend, with Sean Maitland remaining on the other flank of the back three.

Returning half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell complete the back division as they edge two games closer to the Scotland record for starting international half-back pairings [36] held by Greig’s uncle Roy Laidlaw and stand-off John Rutherford.

In the pack, Edinburgh tighthead WP Nel starts again alongside Dell and McInally in the front-row, while second and back-row forwards Grant Gilchrist and John Barclay have been promoted from the bench to start.

Lock Ben Toolis comes into the squad to start alongside Gilchrist, while last weekend’s man-of the-match, Hamish Watson, returns to link up with Barclay and Fagerson in the back row of the scrum.

Georgia have lost 15-6 to Scotland in the 2011 World Cup pool stage, then 43-16 at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park in the November series of 2016 but have beaten the Scots two years in a row at junior World Cup level.

Loosehead Jamie Bhatti, who moves to Edinburgh next season, and South Africa-bound Blue Bulls signing Josh Strauss are on the bench.