Gregor Townsend has largely placed his faith in a group of players who blew hot and cold against Samoa last weekend to put things right and have a shot at history by becoming the first Scotland team to win a Test match against New Zealand tomorrow evening.
The head coach has made just two enforced changes to a starting XV which scored six tries but conceded five in the 44-38 win over the Pacific islanders in the opening autumn Test. As expected, Glasgow tighthead Zander Fagerson replaces his Edinburgh counterpart WP Nel, who has a broken arm, and Cornell du Preez comes in at No. 8 to replace Ryan Wilson, who picked up a shoulder injury but is hoped to be available for next weekend’s final November Test against Australia.
New Zealand have named their strongest possible side for the match. Apart from hooker Dane Coles, who has returned home after injuring knee ligaments, the starting team is unchanged from last week’s 38-18 win over France in Paris.
Townsend said his strategy had always been to maintain as much continuity as possible.
“The plan going into Samoa was to try and keep the squad together as much as possible, which would give the squad that advantage of that extra week’s preparation and give the squad that second opportunity,” said the coach.
“The changes are really enforced with WP Nel, Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson all out with injury.”
Wing Tommy Seymour has recovered sufficiently from a toe problem to keep the all-Glasgow backline intact, while there are four new faces on the bench. The uncapped pair of Sale wing Byron McGuigan and Leicester flanker Luke Hamilton are primed for debuts, while Edinburgh’s Simon Berghan covers tighthead and clubmate Grant Gilchrist is the replacement lock.
“Part of the reason Byron McGuigan is on the bench is with Tommy Seymour being available, but knowing that he picked up an injury at the weekend, having a winger on the bench makes sense just in case Tommy doesn’t get through the game,” explained Townsend. “But also because Byron has been playing really well and trained well with us.”
Townsend said Du Preez, who has battled back from a serious leg break three years ago, was the obvious replacement for Wilson, adding some bulk, ball carrying and handling skills for what will be a highly demanding challenge against the world champions.
“Cornell was in excellent form before he got a really serious injury and I remember at the time a lot of people thought he might not come back from that injury,” said Townsend. “Having spoken to him and worked with him this season, it is the first time he has really felt no pain at training, and you can see that with how his fitness has changed.
“He’s having a lot more involvement on games, he’s a very skilful and also a very aggressive player – which is a good combination to have.”
The coach said that the 26-year-old South Africa-born forward, who made a big impact off the bench against the Samoans last week, could have been pushing for a start even if Wilson hadn’t been injured.
“Yeah he would have been in the mix in terms of a conversation,” said Townsend. “We were hoping that the team from last week would get through the game OK and we would give them that second opportunity after they’ve trained together.
“Now we’ve had to make adjustments because of injury, but we obviously wanted the guys on the bench playing well too and most of them did. Cornell probably stood out with his impact.
“Ryan’s a quality player, he was our vice-captain, so we know we’re going to miss a lot of things he brings to the game and Cornell would have had the impact off the bench. Now he gets that opportunity to start and Luke Hamilton, who’s trained well with us and can cover all three positions gets an opportunity to play Test rugby.
“You can be 20 stone and carry hard or slightly lighter but run with intent, run with intelligence. That’s what Cornell brings. He’s got lovely linking skills too and you saw that last week when he caught a ball off his toes and gave it to Stuart Hogg on the outside and then later put Peter Horne in for a try. So there’s more to ball carrying than just running straight and Cornell brings that. He also defended really aggressively this year, he really stepped up in that area and we’ll need that.”
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg; 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Lee Jones; 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price; 1 Darryl Marfo, 2 Stuart McInally, 3 Zander Fagerson, 4 Ben Toolis, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 John Barclay (c), 7 Hamish Watson, 8 Cornell du Preez. Subs: 16 George Turner, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Cornell du Preez, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Byron McGuigan