Gregor Townsend admits that the prospect of Adam Hastings and Finn Russell starting a Test for Scotland together this autumn is something that only crystallised in his mind in the past two weeks.
And he is excited to see how the pairing works ahead of next year’s Six Nations and World Cup.
Hastings has come off the bench and Russell has shuffled out to the No. 12 berth for both club and country on a couple of occasions but for the first time Townsend will test the pairing from the start in Saturday’s match against Argentina.
“The combination could be either way,” said the coach. “There will be times in the game when it is the other way round. In the last ten minutes of the South Africa game Finn was first receiver a few times and Adam at second receiver so that will flow naturally.
“Finn has played 12 before, that was his first position for Glasgow when he got into the team three or four years ago and his experience just outside will be to be communicate back to Adam. That is a better combination. Both are very good runners and good passers. They might up end looking like they are playing ten, 12, but playing differently during the game.”
The pairing has been a slow burn in Townsend’s mind over the past few weeks.
“I do remember the Edinburgh-Glasgow match last year when Adam came off the bench and they combined really well a couple of times. Adam was a young player at the time and had not had that much professional experience,” said Townsend.
“Adam playing so well for Glasgow this year has put him in a position to compete for that No. 10 jersey. We want Adam to continue to develop and we want to give him opportunities to continue to develop.
“We believe Finn being outside him will help him. We also believe that combination can put Argentina under a lot of pressure. Both through their passing and kicking but also through their running threats.
“I am not sure if it would have happened if we had Matt Scott and Sam Johnson available. We would have given one of them an opportunity. But given Adam’s form we would like to give him a second start and we feel having Finn and Greig either side of him will help him a lot.”
Russell, of course, remains Scotland’s primary playmaker and it is likely that this weekend’s selection is a one-off with a view to it being a standby option that can be rolled out during what will be a huge 2019 of international rugby. Townsend stressed that Russell was fine giving up the Scotland No. 10 jersey he has made his own and willing to adapt to the different role.
“He’s got to defend differently, he’s got to carry ball as second receiver,” said Townsend. “We want him getting as many touches as first receiver as he can. We should see other aspects of his game which are strong points, [such as] his carrying game, which we didn’t get to see last week or don’t get to see enough when he’s playing 10. Finn is a strong ball-carrier, he’s hard to put down, he’s got a good offloading game, he’s got a good awareness of defences to pick the right running lines.”
Townsend, of course, spent a large part of his Scotland career flitting from stand-off to centre. “It definitely had a bearing on my development, but it didn’t affect my thoughts on these two guys,” he said.
“I didn’t really like 12 so I played mainly at 13. I think both Adam and Finn have the attributes to play 12 better than certainly when I played and because Finn has played 12 and done well there.
“I see the role of 10 and 12 more to facilitate and work hard to make sure they are in positions to make use of the ball, either from the forwards or directly from nine. Now, they’ve got their own abilities to run and that’s exciting in the positions they play in, but for me their first role from an attacking point of view is to make sure they are putting other players in space.
“So, to have two people who can do that in that first receiver or second receiver position has a lot of potential.”
Townsend has made six changes in the pack, including a new starting front row of prop Allan Dell, hooker Fraser Brown and prop Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist replacing Ben Toolis at lock. Jamie Ritchie returns at blindside flanker, with Sam Skinner, who played six last Saturday, moving to the bench after featuring in the past two matches. Josh Strauss starts his first match since the 2017 summer tour at No. 8. Behind the scrum, Edinburgh youngster Blair Kinghorn starts his first match of the autumn at wing.
“That’s exciting if we can get accurate passers on the ball more to get the likes of Huw Jones, who was in great attacking form last week, Stuart [Hogg] who’s been on fire the last couple of weekends and Blair and Sean, two other very quick, exciting players,” added Townsend.
Scotland team: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Sean Maitland (Saracens), Huw Jones (Glasgow), Finn Russell (Racing 92), Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh); Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Greig Laidlaw (c) (Clermont); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh),
Josh Strauss (Sale). Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh); Alex Allan (Glasgow); Willem Nel (Edinburgh); Sam Skinner (Exeter); Ryan Wilson (Glasgow); George Horne (Glasgow); Alex Dunbar (Glasgow); Byron McGuigan (Sale).