Gregor Townsend hails Chris Harris as centre prepares to face Wales

Chris Harris, left, with Byron McGuigan during a Scotland training session at the Oriam. Picture: SNS Group
Chris Harris, left, with Byron McGuigan during a Scotland training session at the Oriam. Picture: SNS Group
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Scotland coach Gregor Townsend hailed Chris Harris’s defensive attributes and impressive showing during training after naming the Newcastle centre in his team to face Wales in Cardiff to open the Six Nations on Saturday.

Of the six changes made from the side which ran in eight tries to hammer Australia 53-24 in November, the 27-year-old was the surprise inclusion as he was selected to start at outside centre, with prolific scorer Huw Jones shunted inside to No 12.

Born in Carlisle but with a Scottish grandmother, Harris had a cameo off the bench at wing in the first autumn Test against Samoa but didn’t feature against New Zealand or Australia.

With Glasgow’s Alex Dunbar and Saracens’ Duncan Taylor both unavailable as they continue concussion return to play protocols, Townsend has opted for Harris, with Peter Horne on the bench.

“It’s a big ask but Chris has shown it this year,” said Townsend. “I’ve been really impressed with him, no matter who he has come up against. We watched him live down at Newcastle against Exeter, the English champions [earlier this month]. He played really well that day.

“We’ve watched his games on video before that. He’s just found a groove in his defence this year. He’s enjoyed tackling, he’s read plays really well.

“He has been very confident and relaxed in this environment, both in November and now.

“There are parts of his game, away from the defending, where he has really impressed us this week. We believe he’ll be in a good place to grab his opportunity.”

For all the talk of Scotland’s burgeoning attacking flair heading into this highly-anticipated championship, the selection of the 6ft 2in, 16 stone centre suggests that Townsend feels a strong, defensive midfield will be required in the bid to end a 16-year drought in Cardiff against injury-hit Wales.

Ali Price continues at scrum-half with Greig Laidlaw, who has recently returned from a broken ankle, backing up on the bench.

Scotland have had a catalogue of front-row injuries this year but Townsend is in the fortunate position of bringing back props with Test experience and playing regular English Premiership rugby in the shape of loosehead Gordon Reid of London Irish and tighthead Jon Welsh of Newcastle to pack down alongside in-form hooker Stuart McInally.

Glasgow loosehead Jamie Bhatti is joined on the bench by uncapped 21-year-old Edinburgh tighthead Murray McCallum and Newcastle hooker Scott Lawson, whose last Scotland cap came in 2014.

Ben Toolis gets the nod to partner Jonny Gray at lock, while Glasgow captain Ryan Wilson, who hasn’t played since mid-December, is reintroduced on the bench with Cornell du Preez starting at No 8.

Sale’s Byron McGuigan, who scored two tries and was man of the match in the rout of the Wallabies, keeps his place on the wing.

He was a late starter in that November game when star full-back Stuart Hogg, who returns to the No 15 jersey, pulled out in the warm-up.

Townsend revealed he would have no problem in having the Principality Stadium roof closed, but only in the event of wet weather on Saturday afternoon.

Wales coach Warren Gatland prefers it to be closed but both teams must agree, and Townsend said: “I asked him what he wanted and then said I’d get back to him, so we’re still to make that decision. I’ll be honest with you we would like dry conditions, so if it’s dry conditions outside, there’s no need to close the roof. If it’s not, then let’s close the roof and let’s have a really good game.”