Scotland coach Vern Cotter heaped praise on Duncan Weir for the improvements he has made in the past year or so after selecting him to play stand-off in place of the injured Finn Russell against Ireland tomorrow.
Russell has failed to recover from the head knock he sustained early in the 29-18 win over France and Cotter has opted for Weir to take on the playmaker role, with Peter Horne, the specialist centre who stepped in with aplomb last weekend, back on the bench.
It is one of three changes to the starting line-up for the last match of this year’s Six Nations, with Tim Swinson replacing the injured Jonny Gray at lock and Ryan Wilson preferred to Josh Strauss at No.8.
Cotter explained: “Duncan has been training really well with the group and he’s playing really well for Glasgow, so it’s a great opportunity for him. He brings some energy and freshness to us.
“Peter played really well when he came on. It wasn’t easy for him. He gets himself back on the bench and we’re hoping he’ll bring the same contribution whether it’s 10, 12 or 13 during the game.
“Peter is probably a 12/10 [centre/stand-off] rather than a 10/12. But he has really come on in the last 12 months. All the players have.
“If we really pushed hard we could have put [Russell] on a plane and he would have to pass [the concussion test] on Friday. But we have been able to train with Duncan and it has been a short turnaround.”
Weir has been behind Russell in the pecking order for club and country for the past year or so and will move to Edinburgh in the summer in a bid for more regular starts.
Often perceived as a steady, kicking 10 when compared to the more maverick talents of Russell, Cotter praised the effort the 24-year-old has made to add more dynamism and dimensions to his game, which has been in evidence during recent performances for the Warriors.
“That has all come from Duncan,” said the coach. “It is his desire to do well and improve his game, which is great. As coaches, having players who are motivated in that manner is always really good.
“I think he has improved all over. He has such a great positive attitude to the game and a positive attitude to change and development. It’s a credit to him.”
On the decision to bring back Wilson at No.8 ahead of Strauss, who was impressive against France, Cotter said: “Ryan probably has slightly fresher legs than Josh following the French game. We‘ve had limited time to prepare, so we’ve gone for a bit of freshness over fatigue.”
The Kiwi agreed that tomorrow’s game is an exciting opportunity to win three Six Nations games on the bounce for the first time in 20 years.
“Yeah, it is. The team would like to back up a good performance with another,” he said. “It’ll be tough – Ireland have just come off a buoyant victory against Italy. It’s exciting to have another crack at good opposition.
“Putting the number of points they did against Italy shows they are capable of playing very well. They are a big, young, bulky team. They are physical. Irish rugby has always been physical and I think with Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray running the show they have the core of how the team is directed.
“They are a smart team and a physical team and they are playing at home in the last game. It will be a game played with a lot of intensity, as it always is, so we will have to get our heads up and stay smart and try to apply pressure as long as we can and get results from that.”
Cotter was asked if he felt the successive wins over Italy and France would free his team up in the Irish capital, where Scotland have only won once [Croke Park in 2010] since the start of the Six Nations.
“I don’t know. No one game resembles another,” said Cotter. “Preparing is the key and then things will unfold. There will be plans that come off and some that don’t.
“The team has always taken a positive approach to playing the game and I think that will continue. It is always easier to build off a victory than a defeat, although you can learn a lot from defeats.
“What I feel from the team at the moment is that we are trying to recover as best we can. That has been our priority. We started getting a little bit of shape but we were still down on energy. We need to build that up on Friday to perform as best we can.”
Scotland are averaging 31.6 points in their last three games and have progressed from being one of the most penalised teams in the tournament to the one with the lowest penalty count so far.
“Everybody is working hard. It’s a team effort,” said Cotter. “All the coaches are working extremely hard and bringing what can, and the players are taking responsibility.
“That’s the sort of environment you want to be in.”
Rob Harley is drafted on to the bench to cover second row, while Glasgow scrum-half Henry Pyrgos returns as a replacement, with Edinburgh’s Sam Hidalgo-Clyne dropping out.
Scarlets flanker John Barclay will win his 50th Scotland cap.