England won a football World Cup with their manager Alf Ramsey sticking by the philosophy to ‘never change a winning team’, but that approach is very much not the style of Scotland rugby boss Gregor Townsend judging by the XV he has named to tackle the English in this Saturday’s Calcutta Cup encounter.
They were a joyous spring in the Scottish step when they signed off on their Autumn Nations Series with a thumping 52-29 win over Argentina at Murrayfield but brownie points gained by a number of players in that victory haven’t carried over to the start of the Guinness Six Nations 11 weeks later.
Seven changes is quite a lot to have made, especially when just one – the absence of right wing Darcy Graham – can be attributed to injury. The other six players from that win over the Pumas who have all now missed out were available for selection but such is the competition for places that two of them haven’t even been included in the match day 23.
The exclusion of Zander Fagerson was perhaps understandable given his recent issues with his hamstring. He was declared fit earlier this week but Townsend and co decided not to risk him, but it’s the absence of Ali Price that most piques the interest.
It’s just 18 months since he was twice the starting scrum-half on the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa and he had started in 15 of the 17 Scotland matches since then – including all four games across the autumn programme.
Now, though, Townsend has scratched the name of Price from the roster and pencilled in Ben White at No9 with George Horne providing the bench cover. It’s a huge call in the sense that London Irish player White has only started once in his nine previous Test matches, the tour win last July in Salta over the Pumas. However, he comes into the team already classed as a hero for his first-half try-scoring cameo versus England at Murrayfield last February with Price off for an HIA. How he now partners with Finn Russell will be intriguing.
Elsewhere, the selection of Huw Jones to start at outside centre in place of the benched Chris Harris also ranks as a surprise. Gloucester midfielder Harris, another 2021 Lions tourist, has often been described as Scotland’s best backline defender, but he is only good enough to try and wield influence on this occasion as a replacement. Not since the 2021 Six Nations has Jones been a Scotland starter.
The back row merry-go-round
Townsend only made one change in personnel in his starting back row, including Luke Crosbie to start with Jack Dempsey dropping to the bench, but the naming of the Edinburgh player for just his second Test start and his third international appearance in total has positionally recalibrated the entire back row from the win over Argentina.
Skipper Jamie Ritchie, who was No7 last time out, will now pack down at blindside, a decision that had resulted in Matt Fagerson moving from there back to his more familiar position at No8, the role that was occupied versus the Argies by Dempsey. Crosbie is the least experienced player in Scotland 23 and how he adapts to playing in the biggest match of his fledgling career will be important to the Scottish defence of the Calcutta Cup.
He likes winning a turnover – he has won six, the same as Ritchie, for Edinburgh in this season’s URC – but ranks much higher up that league’s tackle chart, his tally of 121 listed as seventh-best across the 16 teams. Expect him to be very busy on Saturday trying to shut down the English carry.
The genius of Finn
Humble pie must taste nice in Scotland. It’s not that long ago when Townsend insisted it was a time for a change with his team’s No10 jersey, axing Russell from the squad named for the Autumn Nations Series. It was a bold call that ultimately backfired on the coach who had to quickly mend bridges with his Parisian-based maverick after injuries struck some other picks in early November.
Russell was a class act in the way he slotted back in without making a fuss and having impressed versus the All Blacks and Argentina, it said much about his rehabilitation into the Scotland picture that he was always going to be the starting 10 for Townsend this weekend with no debate materialising pre-selection in the Scottish media.
Having seen him play twice in person in recent Heineken Champions Cup matches for Racing, RugbyPass can attest to the sweetness currently flowing through Russell’s play and England will definitely have to be on their toes to curb his influence at Twickenham.
Skipper Ritchie said it best about Russell at last week’s Six Nations media launch in London: “He’s not a controversial character, he’s not a confrontational character in and around the group. He is a great person to have around, a great person for the young lads to learn off, for us all to learn off in fact.
“He is really diligent in his analysis, he is always at the laptop watching training back, watching the opposition we have got coming up at the weekend looking for opportunities and stuff you see at the weekend doesn’t happen by accident. Yeah, he is a great guy for us to have around the squad.”