Six Nations: Huw Jones can return to centre stage for Scotland says Gregor Townsend
With a full round of English and French top flight fixtures scheduled for next weekend the Scotland coach will be on tenterhooks, hoping that his players come through unscathed.
Barring injuries, a few positions seem nailed down. Others seem less certain, notably the centre pairing.
The inclusion of Cameron Redpath is intriguing but would a start in the Calcutta Cup heap too much pressure on his young shoulders? Those same shoulders were rubbing alongside the England players not so long ago before he decided his future lay with Scotland.
Inside centre has been something of a conundrum for Townsend, with James Lang, Sam Johnson and Duncan Taylor all given a shot in the autumn. Johnson is not included in the Six Nations squad, leaving Redpath to fight it out with Lang and Taylor. The latter looked good in the first 35 minutes against Ireland last month until his unfortunate yellow card changed the course of the game.
Chris Harris was the favoured outside centre throughout the autumn series but it was fascinating to hear Townsend talk up the merits of Huw Jones this week. The Glasgow back is gradually rediscovering the form that made him such an exciting discovery for Scotland when he burst onto the scene four and a half years ago.
The Warriors have been using him as a full-back but Townsend still sees him as a 13.
“He’s playing really well,” said the Scotland coach. “I thought he was outstanding last weekend [against Edinburgh].
“We see him as a 13 with the ability to play at full-back. Some of the breaks he made last weekend were very reminiscent of the breaks he made at 13 a couple of seasons ago for Scotland. Using those wider channels – that was great to see, and it showed how tough he is to bring down.
“Huw’s playing with a lot of confidence and that’s a positive thing. If he gets into our 23 or our starting XV, whether he starts or gets on at 13 or 15, we know he’s playing with confidence and he’ll be able to adapt to either position.”
Jones’ form dipped at Glasgow to the extent that he was overlooked for the 2019 World Cup but in the seasons before that he proved himself the man for the big occasion.
Four of his 11 international tries have come against England in the form of doubles in the 2017 defeat at Twickenham and the 2018 win at Murrayfield. He has also scored three tries in two games versus Australia and one against New Zealand. The caveat is that his last touchdowns came in that Calcutta Cup victory three years ago.
“In the process of Huw getting back to top form, getting more ball has been very helpful. You get more ball at 15 than 13 with the amount of balls you get kicked,” added Townsend.
“He’s developing a more all-round game, understanding what happens in defence and having to develop a kicking game himself.
“We think his strengths are suited to 15 but we just feel that where we are, and with what he can bring, 13 is still his better position.”
Stuart Hogg, of course, will captain the side from full-back and, barring any mishaps, Ali Price and Finn Russell will team up again at half-back.
The wing slots are less certain and you can perm any two from Duhan van der Merwe, Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn.
In the absence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally, George Turner is all but guaranteed to start at hooker and is likely to be supported by props Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Townsend said of Turner. “He took his opportunity in the autumn when he came off the bench against Italy and really helped us change the way that game was going with a couple of big impacts in defence, a break that led to a try and then a try himself.
“George has got some great strengths. His ball carrying and his tackling are standout areas of his game. His set-piece is an area he’s improved in the last couple of years and he’s obviously favourite to start for us now.”
Jonny Gray seems nailed down for one of the second-row berths but who will join him? Big brother Richie has made a late bid for inclusion with a couple of fine performances in the 1872 Cup but Scott Cummings wore the No 4 jersey throughout autumn and would seem in pole position, with the elder Gray perhaps pipping Grant Gilchrist for a place on the bench.
The form flankers are Edinburgh duo Jamie Ritchie and Hamish Watson but the former’s head injury is a cause for concern. The returning Gary Graham is waiting in the wings should Ritchie not make it. Graham can also play at No 8 but will have to vie with Matt Fagerson and Blade Thomson for that slot.
Townsend is a big fan of the Newcastle back-rower.
“We just love what he brings with his work-rate, his aggression – and I’d say it’s more controlled aggression in the last couple of years, playing No.8 has helped him with his skill and his understanding of being in backfield and decision-making,” explained the Scotland coach.
“I know from speaking to guys around Newcastle and [director of rugby] Dean Richards in particular he’s been a leader on and off the field so that’s another bonus, something he’s developed over the last couple of seasons. It’s his form that’s brought him into the squad and he’s now matching up to the other No 8s and other No 6s in the group.”
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