NEVER one to play safe, Gregor Townsend, the Scotland head coach, has made 12 changes to his winning team for this weekend’s match against the USA. They include making Stuart Hogg captain, giving caps to two more players and first starts to another five.
The new new caps, George Horne and Matt Fagerson make history by both making their debuts alongside their brothers, Peter and Zander respectively. They will become the 22nd and 23rd pairs of brothers to play in the same team; the eighth time two sets of brothers in Scotland strips have been on the pitch at the same time.
Yet again, it is a case of Townsend rolling the dice. In all, five of the pack will be making their first starts, as will both half-backs. While there is plenty of firepower in the backs, the question has to be whether they can win enough ball to use it.
None of which is likely to make Hogg’s first experience in senior rugby of captaining a team any easier, though Townsend was confident that the player has matured so much in the last four years he would be more than up to the task.
“I think he’s developed as a leader,” Townsend said. “He’s one of our most experienced players. I discussed the potential of being a captain in one of these games on tour a few weeks ago and he was really excited about it. He’s led well so far. It’s great having him available to be on tour, and to lead is even better.”
It is changed days for Hogg since the time in 2014 when Townsend was in charge at Glasgow and refused to pick his star player for the big games at the end of the season, including the Guinness PRO12 semi final and final.
“I was worried he would leave Glasgow and leave on a bad note for everyone involved,” Townsend admitted.
“I know the decision at that time not to play him in the semi-final and final would have hurt him, definitely.
“They were not easy decisions but we felt they were the right ones at the time and nobody is more happy than me at the way he has responded.
“The end of the next season, he was outstanding in the PRO12 final on the back of a great Six Nations.
“Sometimes things don’t work out like that but a lot is down to Hoggy and the fact that we went away that summer, reflected and went ‘right I’m and going to make the most of my time as as rugby player’.
“His actions showed how much he had learned and how much he wanted to make the most of being a rugby player.”
With all that maturity on top of the experience from 60 caps so far which have earned him 18 Test tries, Hogg is way out in front of the rest of the of the team in terms of time in the hot seat.
That is where Townsend has really gambled. Two of the front row, Jamie Bhatti and George Turner, are making their first starts after a handful of caps off the bench; Lewis Carmichael has even less experience, coming on as a lock replacement last week to win his first cap.
In the back row, it is not just that Luke Hamilton will be making his first start and Matt Fagerson winning his first cap, but also that alongside them will be Tim Swinson, out of position at flanker.
“The way Tim plays, we feel he has mobility, gets involved with the backs and shape that we play. As a second row he does that really well so the move to six, from an attacking point of view will be fine,” Townsend explained.
“He has been aware that this could happen and because Lewis [Carmichael] has played really well it has been easier to do. We can move Tim back into the second row if it is not working out but we believe it will.”
As for the newcomers, Townsend says he has no real doubt they are ready. The half-backs have limited experience, even at professional level, but that is not worrying the coach: “They have shown enough on tour but, prior to that, George especially has had an outstanding season,” Townsend said.
George Horne’s passing and kicking have made huge progress – “The other parts of his game are outstanding, up there with the best nines in the world in terms of breaking ability and supporting,” Townsend added.
As for Matt Fagerson, who is still only 19, Townsend was equally enthusiastic: “He has done it on the back of a season and a half at pro level,” Townsend pointed out. “We know that these players might not be perfect but hope they will be inspired by the likes of Lewis Carmichael who really grabbed his opportunity last week.
“That is what we will be saying to them, ‘you have earned the right, just go out and play’.”
Scotland: S Hogg (C)(Glasgow Warriors); B Kinghorn (Edinburgh), N Grigg (Glasgow Warriors), P Horne (Glasgow Warriors), B McGuigan (Sale Sharks); A Hastings (Glasgow Warriors), G Horne (Glasgow Warriors); J Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors), G Turner (Glasgow Warriors), Z Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), L Carmichael (Edinburgh), B Toolis (Edinburgh), T Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), L Hamilton (unattached), M Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors). Replacements: F Brown (Glasgow Warriors), A Dell (Edinburgh), M McCallum (Edinburgh), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh), D Denton (Leicester Tigers), S Hidalgo-Clyne (Scarlets), M Bennett (Edinburgh), D Fife (Edinburgh).
Source : HeraldScotland