Scotland boss Townsend returns to tried and tested for 3 key positions in Japan Test

GREGOR Townsend has returned to the tried and tested in three key positions for Saturday’s final Test of Scotland’s Autumn schedule against Japan at Murrayfield, having curiously chosen to mix things up against world champions South Africa last weekend. 

Darcy Graham, who is 24-years-old and capped 21 times, returns on the right wing in place of 21-year-old Rufus McLean, who was making only his second appearance at this level against the Springboks. 

Sam Johnson, Townsend’s first choice inside-centre when fit since his debut during the 2019 Six Nations, comes back in for Matt Scott, who was called in to play his first Scotland match in over four years last Saturday. 

And Hamish Watson, last year’s Six Nations player-of-the-tournament and tourist with the Lions in the summer, comes off the bench to start at open-side flanker, with Jamie Ritchie reverting to blind-side in place of Nick Haining. 

Japan have had a bumpy Autumn so far – with a creditable 23-32 home loss to Australia being followed by 60-5 drubbing at the hands of Ireland in Dublin then a hard-fought 38-25 win over Portugal last weekend – but Townsend says these selections demonstrate that Scotland are expecting a big challenge from the Brave Blossoms tomorrow afternoon. 

“It says a lot about Japan in the way that we rate them very highly,” he insisted. “They have obviously beaten us in the last two years, and they are a very good side, especially when they are back together for longer.  

“There have been a few of goals in mind during this campaign,” he added. “One was to win the games and continue to improve, one was to manage people because you’re playing four Test matches in four weeks against some very physical opponents, and one was making sure we give players opportunities who we feel are deserving or who we feel we need to test at this level to grown our depth.” 

In total, Townsend has made seven changes to his starting team, and there is some experimentation with Bath’s Josh Bayliss – who came to prominence as a flanker – being given his first international start at No 8.  

“I feel Matt [Fagerson] has done well for us there in the last couple of seasons, his stats were up there with the best No 8s in Europe last year. He’s a young player who’s only going to get better, he works very hard either side of the ball,” said Townsend. “Josh gives us a different way of playing because his biggest strength is his speed, so we’re looking forward to seeing if he comes into our depth chart at N .8 or if we see him more as a six/seven.” 

Meanwhile, Scott Cummings will make his first appearance of the Autumn in the second-row having recovered from an arm injury, George Turner is back at hooker after a popped rib ruled him out of the South Africa clash, and Jamie Bhatti swaps in for Pierre Schoeman at loose-head. 

On the bench, Scarlets tight-head prop Javan Sebastian and Cell C Sharks back-row – who both qualify to play for Scotland through their fathers – are set to make their international debuts. 

For Sebastian, it will be the icing on top of a big week given that his fiancée, Kaylee, have birth to a baby boy on Wednesday. 

“He’s had a busy old time these last two weeks because his partner was due to give birth two or three days ago, but on his first day up in camp the contractions started, so he was only able to stay one day,” explained Townsend.

“But it has taken a while and his partner gave birth to a baby boy yesterday, the day after he’d found out he was in the Scotland squad, so it has been a big week for him. 

“This week he committed to staying up even though he knew that this could be the time his partner was going to give birth. He has not previously been in the squad for match days, so he has been able to go back down to Wales on those weekends.  

“The timing was pretty good in that we announced the team on the Tuesday, he trained, she was in the hospital on Tuesday night, but the baby didn’t arrive until Wednesday. He was tuned in on facetime and you can imagine how delighted he has been. He is buzzing for the weekend. All is well, and partner and baby are back home.”

Townsend has opted for a six-two split on the bench, which is a tactic more commonly deployed against bigger, more physical sides, as opposed to teams like Japan, who tend to play a brand of rugby which is less gruelling for the pack. 

“There’s a couple of reasons why,” explained Townsend. “One is to see Blair [Kinghorn] cover those positions, he obviously played 10 and came on and did really well on the wing last week, so we feel that this game could give him another opportunity to cover more than one or two positions, so we wanted to test that flexibility.  

“We also wanted to see a couple of guys in the forwards, like Dylan, for example, who we feel they can bring real power to the game.  

“You can look at it both ways, you either try to match the opposition or you try to impose your own game on the opposition,” he added. 

Scotland (v Japan at BT Murrayfield on Saturday 20th November @ 1pm): S Hogg©; D Graham, C Harris, S Johnson, D van der Merwe; F Russell (VC), A Price; J Bhatti, G Turner, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie(VC), H Watson, J Bayliss. Substitutes: S McInally, P Schoeman, J Sebastian, S Skinner, D Richardson, M Fagerson, G Horne, B Kinghorn. 

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