Scotland v South Africa: Gregor Townsend explains Matt Scott recall, Rufus McLean’s return and why Hamish Watson is on bench

Matt Scott last started for Scotland in June 2017 when he played against Italy in Singapore in Gregor Townsend’s first match as head coach.

Matt Scott celebrates with Hamish Watson after Scotland's win over Australia in Sydney in 2017. It was the centre's last appearance for the national side. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

He came on as a replacement a week later in the win over Australia in Sydney but has not featured for the national side since, so his inclusion ahead of Sam Johnson in the team to play South Africa is one of those surprise selections in which Townsend seems to specialise.

He is one of four changes the coach has made to his starting XV as he prepares for a hugely physical contest against the world champions at BT Murrayfield on Saturday.

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Hamish Watson is the most eye-catching omission. Man-of-the-match against Australia and a try-scorer in the 15-13 win, he drops to the bench in a reshuffled back row which sees Edinburgh’s Nick Haining come in at blindside, with Jamie Ritchie moving to openside. Matt Fagerson continues at No 8.

Stuart McInally is given the nod to start at hooker as George Turner is given more time to recover from a rib injury which means Ewan Ashman, who replaced Turner after 11 minutes against the Wallabies and enjoyed such a memorable try-scoring debut, is on the bench again.

The other change is on the right wing where Rufus McLean replaces Darcy Graham. McLean lit up Murrayfield a fortnight ago with two early tries in the win over Tonga but was omitted for the Australia game. This time it’s Graham who misses out. Neither he nor Johnson are in the match-day 23 and they are joined on the sidelines by Kyle Steyn, a second-half substitute last weekend after his four-try display against Tonga.

Townsend has opted to break up the centre partnership of Johnson and Chris Harris, bringing in Scott at 12 in place of the former while retaining the latter at outside centre.

Johnson and Harris were key performers in the win over Australia on Sunday but Townsend believes Scott’s defensive qualities in particular will be crucial as Scotland seek their first win over the Springboks in 11 years.

Rufus McLean enjoyed a spectacular Scotland debut against Tonga and returns to the team to play South Africa. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Having not played him in over four years, the Scotland coach cited the improvements the former Edinburgh player has made to his game.

“He’s started the season really well for Leicester,” explained Townsend. “They’ve been in very good form and Matt has been a big part of that.

“His traditional strengths with Edinburgh and when he first came on to the scene with Scotland were his ball-carrying, and that’s still there. He’s got really good acceleration and power, but where he’s evolved as a player is around the link play, his kick chase, his general work rate defensively. Those are the areas that have really pleased us, and we wanted to see how he goes. We believe he’ll go well, but you’ll never know unless you give that player an opportunity.

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Nick Haining will start as blindside flanker against the Springboks in a reshuffled back row. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

“He plays as a second receiver at Leicester. A lot of teams use this shape where the 12 carries and he’s got options of hitting the 13 or the 10 at the back. Matt can do that role.

“Leicester last year had a more limited gameplan. This year they’ve moved the ball much more and Matt’s been a very good link player. That’s probably brought him into the reckoning more but the biggest reason he’s back in our team is what he’s done defensively. We place a lot of stock in how well our players defend.

“And we also know the balance of our team is important. We’ve got some very creative players in that backline and having players who can do different things around those creative players will make you a more all-rounded team.”

Having immersed himself in South African rugby with the Lions in the summer Townsend is anticipating lots of kicking and lots of play around the set-piece on Saturday.

Stuart McInally has been selected at hooker in place of the injured George Turner. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

“We’re going to have to front up physically,” he said. “The way South Africa attack is very direct. They want more set pieces - they want to go to scrum and lineout, so we’ve got to make sure that that area is something that we’re able to not only compete in but impose our strengths on them.

“And there’s going to be a lot of kicks to field and a lot of kicks to chase. It doesn’t work where you say ‘The opposition are going to kick, we’re not going to kick’. What flows is if a team kicks a lot you end up kicking a lot, because you’re either kicking straight back or you’re kicked into your 22 and you’ve got to manage that area smartly.”

While much of the focus around McLean has been on his pace and finishing, Townsend has regularly commended the winger on other aspects of his game and feels his attributes are best suited for this weekend.

“We feel it’s a good opportunity for Rufus,” said the coach. “We believe he is ready and offers something different. Some aspects of his game, contact and kick chase, are exceptional. We just have to look at the bigger picture at times during the November Tests, make sure we’re giving players opportunities that are deserving of them.”

The same logic applies to Haining who played at No 8 in the win over France in March but is at No 6 this weekend.

“We think his style of play can really help us this week,” said Townsend.

“On the other side it’s a case of what’s best for Hamish too. He hadn’t had any rugby before Tonga and we got him through 40 minutes, and he played well at the weekend. We have to have a view on where he is after so little rugby. We also believe he can make a big impact sometime in the second half or earlier if he has to. But this game is likely to be decided by how well the teams play in the last 20 minutes as much as the first 20.”

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