Scotland new boys Hamish Watson and Ben Toolis have been backed to take a step up to international level in their stride if the call comes to leave the bench against Italy in the RBS Six Nations Championship at BT Murrayfield tomorrow.
The influential support came from their Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons as Capital involvement in the squad increases to seven players with Ross Ford and Ally Dickinson starting while Matt Scott, Greig Tonks and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne retain substitute roles.
“I take a lot of pride from seeing Hamish and Ben on the bench for Scotland for the first time as well as Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who has come through this season,” said Solomons, adding: “I’m hoping they get on the pitch this weekend and there is another wave coming up behind.”
The inclusion of Watson comes after he fought off competition from Hugh Blake, a Scots-qualified Kiwi, selected for the Six Nations after only arriving in the country “on trial” at the end of last year and before he had turned out for Edinburgh Rugby. Did this sudden threat contribute to giving Watson a jolt in order to make a final push?
“Competition always drives people and is the big driver of players, coaches, administrators and referees,” said Solomons, adding: “But Hamish is the type of boy who drives himself.
“Hamish has played terrific rugby for Edinburgh this season.
“Last year, Hamish was raw. He needed some experience and to be in a system that was going to foster his development. He had a good pre-season and got his opportunity. Having been around last year and had the exposure he had, helped him a lot.
“He came into the team at the right time. Youngsters have to be bled into the team at the right time and, like Ben Toolis, he took his opportunity.
“First of all, Hamish had to be au fait with how we play in defence and attack and with what is required of him.
“Youngsters need to play and Hamish did well coming back from a broken jaw. You are always a little bit nervous in case you take a crack on it but he is a tough fellow. His genetics are good and, at 103kgs, he is bigger than you think he is.
“To have been at Leicester as a teenage forward was very good for him, too.”
Solomons remarks echoed those of national coach Vern Cotter, who has made a total of four changes with Peter Horne taking over from the suspended Finn Russell at stand off while Tommy Seymour is fit to resume on the wing for Tim Visser.
In the pack, Tim Swinson replaces injured second row Richie Gray, with Euan Murray available to oust Geoff Cross.
On the two uncapped players, Cotter said: “They’re very good rugby players – equally balanced in attack and defence. Both Ben and Hamish have impressed us with their performances at Edinburgh.
“I think they will give us punch off the bench. They’ll give us energy and drive going forward and defending.
“It will be important to maintain intensity in this game.”
That was a clear hint that impact subs will be used and Watson can’t wait.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “It’s a massive opportunity for me. It’s something you dream of your whole life. When you’re younger you never think you’ll play for your country.
“We found out on Tuesday morning and I couldn’t quite believe it – I had to look twice at the board. I’m really excited.”
Much of last season saw Watson turn out for Edinburgh Accies and the breakthrough came with a man-of-the-match display for Edinburgh against Leicester Tigers at Melrose in pre-season.
“I said at the start of the season I could only concentrate on Edinburgh stuff, and I managed to lock down that No.7 jersey and put a few good performances together.”
Focusing purely on his own displays also helped Watson see off any challenge from Blake.
He said: “Hugh came in during December and that’s helped our back row, increased our depth in the Edinburgh squad. You can only control the controllables and just keep playing well, and hopefully you get picked.
“I played once for Scotland at under-19 level but most games at under-20 but I don’t think you expect to make it to a full international cap.”
As for any menace posed by the Italians, both Watson and Scotland will be ready.
“We’ve done loads of work on them – reviewing, previewing and loads of analysis. They’re a big, physical pack, so we know we need to do a job on them, and then they’ve got some very good backs with a lot of threat. They’re very dangerous on turnover ball and counter-attacks, but we’ve done our homework on them and hopefully we’ll get a good result.”
If Scotland are to post what will be only their second victory in ten Six Nations matches, then they’ll have to exploit the fact Italy have the poorest line-out in the Championship with seven concessions in the opening two rounds.
Also, the Azzurri have given up a remarkable 36 turnovers which should be meat and drink to Scottish broken play runners such as Stuart Hogg. Above all, though, they will need an authoritive display from Horne, normally a centre and making the first cap appearance at home after six outings away.
Horne seems determined to provide a safe pair of hands and act as a link.
“Playing at No.10 the last few weeks (for Glasgow) has helped,” said Horne. “I’m not in the team to set any heather on fire as we have a lot of dangerous runners around me.
I think when I play 12 (centre), I bring a lot of the qualities of a No.10. I am not an up-and-down crash-ball centre, I try and play out the back and bring our wingers into the game.”
Coach Cotter is also expecting an assured performance with the boot in order to set up field position.
He said: “Their defence is more aggressive, it comes up high – and that applies pressure on the opposition attacking plays.
“So it’s important that we approach the game in a very pragmatic manner, that we’re good at set phase, our kicking is good, our defence is good.
“We will have to construct this game piece by piece and very seriously from the beginning.
“It’s a great test for us. The players have prepared really well this week. Yhey’re very realistic, they’ve seen the footage.
“They know that Italy are bigger and more powerful. We saw what they did to the Irish forward pack; I thought they knocked them around.
“They scored three tries against the English at Twickenham. These things did not go unnoticed. So we’re preparing very seriously for the game.”