If you’re going to gamble, you might as well go all-in. That is Gregor Townsend’s logic as he brings to an end WP Nel’s eight months of neck trouble by chucking him straight into the starting XV against Italy on Saturday.
The tighthead, who is back as part of an all-Edinburgh front row, has played only a tiny amount of rugby since recovering from the recurrence of the problem he first picked up in October last year. It was only half an hour for the Barbarians, but it was against England where he got a thorough testing. What Townsend saw was enough to convince him the player was ready.
So Nel is one of the key players returning to action in a side that shows nine changes from the one that finished the Six Nations Championship – Josh Strauss, who tore a kidney playing against France, is the other. Both are there to add steel to a pack that was too often outmuscled, even in some of the games they won.
For Nel, returning for his first Test since he faced Japan a year ago, it spells the end a miserable time. “It is a huge boost to have somebody acknowledged as one of he best tightheads at the last Rugby World Cup – somebody who was getting better and better and thriving at international level,” enthused Townsend.
“He is somebody who has not played that much rugby, so we are not expecting him to play at his best level straight away. It is reassuring that we have have somebody like Zander Fagerson, who has played really well for Scotland, in support.”
Townsend is clearly expecting a huge battle up front, and has packed the bench with forwards, possibly also expecting the bigger men to feel the heat more than their more lightweight colleagues in the backs.
Despite moving from Glasgow only a few weeks ago, Townsend has not done his former players too many favours with six of the starting side coming from Edinburgh and only five from his old club. The rest play for English clubs.
Part of the background to that is the loss of players to the Lions. Duncan Taylor, who missed the Six Nations with injury, gets the job of replacing Stuart Hogg’s flair at full-back, while Damien Hoyland stands in for Tommy Seymour. There has also been an exchange of players on the injury list – some unavailable in the spring are now back; some who were fit then are now hurt.
The other big decision was giving Jonny Gray another week’s rest – the first time neither he nor Richie, his brother, have been involved in a match for two years. The upside of that is that it creates an opening for Ben Toolis to rehabilitate himself after being left in the cold after his only previous cap, against Italy two years ago.
He only played eight minutes before picking up a yellow card, but Scotland went on to lose and he has not been seen in a Scotland shirt since, missing out on the World Cup squad even when second row injuries struck.
Without Gray, Rob Harley is having to cover lock as part of a slightly odd bench were he is one of three replacements who see themselves as specialist back rows. Behind the scrum, it is a case of versatility taking over as Peter Horne is the only outside replacement back. Almost all the players know they could be asked to play more than one position.
Most of the attention, however, remains on Nel, who damaged his neck in the European Challenge Cup against Harlequins, rested it for three months and damaged it again against the same opponents in the return match.
He has been able to train for the last few weeks and came off the bench for the Barbarians, so Townsend says he is confident the gamble of starting him is worth it.
“He has worked really hard, I was so impressed,” Townsend said. “With someone who has had a serious injury, they can be a bit tentative but he has trained from day one; whether it was contact sessions, attack, defence, scrummaging, he has coped really well.
“The game was really important for him, to feel that he had got through it tackling, carrying ball, clearing contact and scrummaging. I was surprised that he was back running around at training with us the following day. We had to manage him but he was.
“I remember WP when he played for the Cheetahs, where he was known for his work in the loose and scored some outstanding tries. What he has accomplished at Edinburgh and Scotland is that his scrumaming has gone up to a really high level. He has still got that attacking game, he is still skilful and fit.”