Why Scotland have turned to Stafford McDowall as Zander Fagerson prepares to make history against Ireland

The Glasgow Warriors centre has turned his career around and brute strength will be vital in Dublin

Scotland will look to the muscular talents of Stafford McDowall this weekend as they seek to combat the physical threat posed by Ireland.

The on-form inside centre replaces Cameron Redpath in the starting XV for the match in Dublin and will link up with his Glasgow Warriors team-mate Huw Jones in a partnership designed to match the robustness of Irish duo Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw.

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It will be McDowall's Six Nations debut and only his second cap but his selection is reward for the way he has turned his career around over the last two seasons. The 26-year-old looked to be on his way out of Glasgow at the end of the 2021-22 season and was contemplating a future away from professional rugby. He considered working on the family farm before Glasgow reversed their decision and offered him a deal.

Stafford McDowall will make his second Scotland appearance against Ireland.Stafford McDowall will make his second Scotland appearance against Ireland.
Stafford McDowall will make his second Scotland appearance against Ireland.

The arrival at Scotstoun in summer 2022 of new coach Franco Smith proved the catalyst for McDowall to revive his career and he was outstanding in Smith's first season, scoring nine tries in 19 matches as the Warriors secured a top-four finish in the URC and reached the European Challenge Cup final. He has carried his form into the current campaign during which he has captained his club on a regular basis and Gregor Townsend paid tribute to the way the centre had turned things around.

"He wasn’t going to get a contract extension two and a half years ago and I remember stories coming out of Glasgow that he was going to offer himself to play at Ayr and still come in and train," said the Scotland coach. "He is so respected by his team-mates for the effort he puts in. He usually wins the fitness tests at the beginning of the year and works so hard to improve his game. It is great to see that effort get rewarded.

"I think he’s a much more all-round player than he was two or three years ago. That is a credit to him. He is always working on his kicking game and passing, and really embraced the defensive work that we do here, and that has grown too. He’s also grown in confidence. That comes from playing more regularly, just as you grow older as well, and also being given the captaincy at Glasgow has, I think, been a massive boost.”

McDowall's inclusion is one of only two changes made by Townsend to his starting XV in the aftermath of last weekend's dispiriting loss to Italy. The other sees the return of Ben White after the scrum-half was rested in Rome. He takes the place of George Horne, who joins Redpath on the bench. The coach knows it will require a vastly improved performance to end Scotland's long losing run against an Ireland team who suffered a shock loss to England last weekend.

Zander Fagerson will become Scotland's most capped prop on Saturday.Zander Fagerson will become Scotland's most capped prop on Saturday.
Zander Fagerson will become Scotland's most capped prop on Saturday.

"They are a very physical team," said Townsend. "Both Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki play direct, they also play a lot through their forwards with a close passing game. We know the ruck speed is what drives their success. Stafford brings his own strengths – one of them is his physicality and the weight he brings into his tackles and his carries.

"It will be a very physical match and he's probably the biggest guy in our back-line outside of Duhan. His cohesion with Huw means they should it off like they have been doing at club level."

Scotland's 2024 Six Nations campaign has been a roller-coaster from almost the first whistle. Wins over Wales and England sandwiched the agonising defeat by France. Last weekend's collapse in Rome was the low point but Scotland can still end the campaign with something tangible if they can beat Ireland in Dublin, something they've not done since the famous Croke Park win of 2010.

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"It's weird to think we're the only team that can win the Triple Crown but the focus is on the performance," said Townsend. "We know we have to play our best rugby this week. We're away to Ireland and it's the ultimate challenge in the game right now. The huge motivator for us is to try and deliver our best rugby of the season.

"Obviously titles are more important than other trophies but the other trophies you play for can mean a lot to your supporters. The Calcutta Cup for example means a huge amount to our supporters. The Triple Crown has been part of history. I remember watching the 84 game when Scotland won in Ireland when Peter Dods either scored the last try or gave the try-scoring pass. I was watching it with my brother and his friends and it was such a big thing to win the Triple Crown. They went on to win the Grand Slam as well and maybe it seemed a bigger thing in the Five Nations. It is a trophy we are playing for but the bigger motivator is for to put a performance in that will test Ireland because if we don’t put that performance in, we are not going to win at the weekend.”

It will be a landmark match for Zander Fagerson who will become Scotland’s most capped prop, overtaking Euan Murray's total of 66. At 28, the tighthead has many years left at Test level and Townsend paid tribute to the Glasgow Warriors man.

"Zander’s consistency is probably the thing that impresses us the most," said the coach. "He’s a consistent trainer, he’s one of the hardest workers in our team - when you see the stats at the end of the game, Zander is up there with some of the most rucks hit. He carries ball - for a tighthead he does really well. And he tackles - and he still has to scrum and get the lineout detail right.

“It was nice to see him scoring a try in Rome. And he’s one of our key players. He knows the Irish team really well, the physical exchanges are probably where the game is going to be won and lost, and Zander is someone who can bring real physicality for us on both sides of the ball.”

Fellow prop Rory Sutherland is on course to make his first appearance of the championship after being named replacement loosehead in preference to Alec Hepburn. Townsend has reverted to a five-three split of forwards and backs on the bench after dabbling with six-two against Italy. Jamie Ritchie is the unlucky forward to drop out.