Gregor Townsend has named an all-Glasgow Warriors backline for his first match at BT Murrayfield as Scotland coach in tomorrow’s opening autumn Test against Samoa.
Townsend has opted for familiar combinations, with Edinburgh forwards dominating the pack and charged with providing the platform for the backs the coach knows so well having just left the Warriors at the end of last season to take the Scotland job.
“They’ve been in great form,” said Townsend of a backline which will see wing Lee Jones earn his sixth cap and first at Murrayfield since the 2012 Six Nations. Centre Huw Jones, who has just arrived from South Africa, again teams up with fit-again Alex Dunbar in midfield.
A half-back pairing of stand-off Finn Russell and Ali Price is joined by a back three of full-back Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones.
“Huw Jones has not played a game for Glasgow yet, but he’s been in excellent form for Western Province. We want these guys to get on the ball as much as possible,” said Townsend.
An all-Edinburgh front row of debutant loosehead Darry Marfo, hooker Stuart McInally and WP Nel is joined by clubmates Ben Toolis at lock and openside Hamish Watson. Jonny Gray and Ryan Wilson take the entire Glasgow total in the starting XV to nine, with John Barclay captaining the side from No 8. The Scarlets back row forward is the only player in the starting XV who does not play for a Scottish pro side.
There are three other uncapped players on the bench – Glasgow loosehead Jamie Bhatti and hooker George Turner as well as Newcastle Falcons utility back Chris Harris.
“We’ve probably known this team for a couple of weeks now,” explained Townsend. “We explained that to the players on day one of camp that we wanted to make sure, with the short period we have, that this team trains a lot together.
“We selected players on form. We said that when we announced the [initial] 36-man squad. Players that have worked hard this year, which leads to them playing well, and also we’ve looked at cohesion within the group, so Glasgow backline, Edinburgh front row – players that know each other very well.
“It cuts down on the training time or the time you have to spend as a coach in what is already a limited preparation window.”
Tomorrow will be an incredible moment for prop Marfo, the 27-year-old Londoner with a mother from Ayrshire, who was considered fourth-choice loosehead when he arrived at Edinburgh in the summer from Bath.
Injuries have conspired to smooth his path to a Test debut and Townsend admitted it is not a selection he would have anticipated a few months ago, although past weeks have seen him emerge as the best option.
“Probably not at the beginning of the season – we didn’t know much about him,” the coach said of Marfo’s selection. “We watched Edinburgh train, he started in the first pre-season game and we started to take more notice of him after that.
“He’s got his opportunity at Edinburgh, and part of that is injuries, but also he’s played ahead of other players we were looking at. He’s shown consistency and we believe he’s getting better and better. We’re very impressed with how he played against Leinster away – two Lions were in the Leinster front row that night.”
Glasgow’s 24-year-old loosehead Jamie Bhatti, who was working in a slaughterhouse just a couple of years ago, backs Marfo up from the bench.
When asked if the inexperienced pair face a challenge in adapting to the intensity of Test rugby, Townsend replied: “Same as for everyone else.
“They’ve been playing very well for Edinburgh and Glasgow, and they’ve fitted in really well with our game plan. They’ve earned their places in the squad.”
Hogg and Wilson have been given a joint vice-captaincy role to support Barclay, who has recently returned to action after suffering lingering concussion-related issues.
“It’s something we did on tour,” continued Townsend. “We believe it’s good to nominate who is there really in that role to support the captain, and to have one in the forwards and one in the backs. It makes a good balance.
“We have other leaders in the team as well. So we see Jonny Gray leading the lineout, Stuart McInally leading the scrum and Finn Russell leading the attack. So the more leaders we can get in the team, the more people that are talking about how we win this game and what we need to do, the better it will be for us.”
Townsend said that the financial problems which have been dogging tomorrow’s opponents is an issue for World Rugby to deal with but didn’t hesitate to say it was an issue he hoped could be resolved satisfactorily.
“Yes, absolutely. We want every country to be doing well, especially a nation like Samoa that has been producing so many good rugby players,” he said. “Let’s hope they get through this in a much better state than they seem to be just now.
“They are a huge part of the worldwide game of rugby, and it will be a big challenge taking them on this week.”