Comment: Allan Massie on Gregor Townsend’s team selection

Scotland played Samoa at Pittodrie in the 2010 autumn Test Series. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scotland played Samoa at Pittodrie in the 2010 autumn Test Series. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It’s unusual but not quite unprecedented for one club to provide the entire back division for an international
team, but then, of course, Scotland’s position is itself unusual. Only one other Tier One nation – Italy – has only two professional clubs.

Actually, it’s not quite what it seems, for, though Glasgow provide the seven listed backs, Huw Jones hasn’t yet played for the club. It’s possible, though not certain, that if Saracens pair Sean Maitland and Duncan Taylor had been fit, they would have broken into the Glasgow monopoly.

In contrast, Edinburgh supply five of the pack, including the whole front row, a fair reflection of where the strengths of the two clubs principally lie. With Jones now officially domiciled here, only the captain John Barclay plays his club rugby out of Scotland. I wonder if we have to go back as far as to the side that beat France in the 1984 Grand Slam decider to find the last time there were 14 home-based players in a Scotland XV, the only exception on that memorable day being Jim Pollock of Gosforth.

We have never lost to Samoa in the northern hemisphere, but we have come mighty close to doing so twice. Seven years ago only a last-minute penalty kicked by Ruaridh Jackson gave us a 19-16 win in a dismal match at Pittodrie. Today’s captain John Barclay is the only survivor of that team playing today, though Ross Ford and Richie Gray might have been doing so if they weren’t injured. Incidentally, nine of the starting XV that day played their club rugby in England, Wales, France or Ireland. The Glasgow centre, Graeme Morrison, was the only home-based back. Quite a contrast, and one that shows how Glasgow and Edinburgh have both improved since then.

We only just squeezed home against Samoa in the last World Cup, winning 36-33 in Newcastle. Samoa had a point to prove that day because they had been lamentable against Japan. So they played with great verve and cut holes in the Scottish defence, and indeed the try count was 5-3 in their favour. Scotland also, as so often about then, made a mess of restarts, whether they were kicking or receiving – and with that score-line there were an awful lot of restarts. We like to remember the fine performance against Australia in the quarter-final, but the truth is that Vern Cotter’s team needed a good deal of luck to get there.

The troubles of the Samoan
Rugby Union have been well publicised, and several in today’s XV were required by their clubs last weekend. So the squad came together only on Monday and are certainly not as well prepared as Scotland.

On the other hand, the Samoans are ferocious tacklers, an element of their game that usually compensates for any structural weaknesses in defence. Likewise their pace, size and ability to improvise means that they are always dangerous in attack, especially if given the opportunity to run back any badly directed kicks. Even if the final scoreboard may sometimes suggest that Samoa have been heavily defeated, nobody, I would think, has ever come out of a game against them saying “that was easy, a stroll in the park”.

For Scotland, of course, 
victory is essential, with New Zealand and Australia to come, so essential that Gregor Townsend has resisted any temptation to field something less than his best available XV, and rest vital players such as Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Jonny Gray.

In contrast, Eddie Jones has enough strength in depth to have been able happily to omit Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje from England’s first November international against Argentina even though, with Australia and Samoa to follow, England’s autumn, with no match against the All Blacks, is a touch less demanding than Scotland’s.

All the same, I would guess that Townsend may first be hoping that Scotland are far enough ahead by the hour mark to be able to call Russell and Hogg off, meanwhile keeping his fingers crossed in the hope that thunderball Samoan tackling doesn’t leave too many players in casualty.

After both Glasgow and Edinburgh secured good wins with depleted sides last week, the pundits all agreed that there was a buzz about the game here, such as we haven’t experienced for too long, evidence of that provided also by the news that Murrayfield will be all but full this afternoon. In recent years, one Autumn international has usually been played elsewhere, partly to spread the game, but principally because it doesn’t look good, or do anything for morale, to be playing in a stadium that is only half-full. But to keep buzzing you have to keep winning. Scotland have won their last four matches at Murrayfield. They should make it five in a row today. But what about No 6? What indeed?