Scotland coach Gregor Townsend may have changed a third of his team for the final NatWest Six Nations match against Italy in Rome on Saturday but was keen to emphasise it wasn’t an axe-wielding exercise.
After a fairly consistent selection policy throughout the competition, Townsend has sprung a few surprises following the defeat in Dublin, including the omission of the impressive Edinburgh lock Grant Gilchrist from the 23 altogether. Tim Swinson is promoted to start alongside Glasgow team-mate Jonny Gray in the second row, with the latter’s brother Richie on the bench and in line for a 66th cap and first taste of Six Nations action this year after returning from a back injury.
Hooker Stuart McInally has been one of Scotland’s top performers in the last four games but drops to the bench and is replaced by a fit-again Fraser Brown.
Tommy Seymour returns to the wing after recovering from the back injury he picked up in the win over England and Nick Grigg starts at inside centre in place of Peter Horne, who had a disappointing game in the 28-8 loss to Ireland in Dublin at the weekend.
After being singled out for praise in Ireland, tighthead Simon Berghan also drops out of the squad altogether as WP Nel makes his first start since breaking his arm against Samoa and Zander Fagerson comes on to the bench.
“It’s partly because of who we are playing against, and we believe that the challenges they present and the things we are looking to do in our gameplan and the players [picked] are suited to do that,” said Townsend.
“Tommy coming back from injury is a boost. He would have been selected last week. There’s the availability of quality players; Richie has played two games [for his club Toulouse] so he come onto the bench. Zander has trained for three weeks. It is the right time to bring them back. Also, the management of energy. Stuart McInally has been outstanding and we believe we can make good use of him off the bench, and we are confident that Fraser can do a good job at the beginning.”
Townsend admitted that the likes of Gilchrist and Berghan could count themselves unfortunate to be missing out on the trip to the Italian capital.
“Yes, Grant has played well,” said Townsend. “We believe that what we’re looking to do this week, Tim is more suited to the rugby we aim to play, with his ball carrying.
“Having watched Richie play two games, he was much improved at the weekend, as you would expect of anyone coming back from injury. To bring someone like Richie into the squad, with all his experience and ability, it’s great.
“It’s tough on Grant because he’s been playing very well. But we’re in a very good situation with our second rows. Ben Toolis started for us down in Wales and played really well in November and the summer tour.
“He’s not involved, Grant’s not involved. We have three guys playing well who are involved this weekend.”
Townsend hinted that Berghan at least could feature for Edinburgh in their crunch re-arranged Guinness Pro14 match at home to Munster tomorrow night.
“We could go throughout the Six Nations and not involve Zander or Richie, who were both starters for the team in the Six Nations last year – and have been excellent players for us,” continued Townsend.
“Zander has shown enough in training to have confidence he’ll play well. And Richie has shown it in two games.
“What an encouraging situation we’re in with the tightheads, with WP back, Zander back and Simon having played really well in this Championship. We have real depth there now.”
The one change which could be viewed as a form call is Grigg coming in for his Glasgow team-mate Horne, who made a few key errors, most notably throwing the interception pass which gave Ireland their first try at the Aviva Stadium.
Townsend stressed that this too had been made with Italy in mind, though.
“It’s mostly down to the playing style of Italy and how they defend,” said the coach.
“They defend differently. They might change it now that I’m talking about it so much! But they are a bit more wide spaced so we’ve got to make sure we punch holes in that defence.
“Nick has shown off the bench that he carries the ball really well. We believe that will be better for us this week. So he’s earned his opportunity by what he’s done. But also by how we believe we should play this weekend.”
Townsend said the squad is determined that a campaign which has contained crushing lows and dizzying highs should be ended in the most positive fashion possible.
“If we were to lose we would be pretty disappointed, given the effort we have put in,” said the coach. “To lose two in a row would be disappointing. Losing your last game [of the competition] is never enjoyable.
“Winning would be progress. It would show the players have learned. But we know it will be tough as Italy are at home and have shown they can be very good in parts of the game. They will play with commitment and will stretch the play wide.”