Mike Blair hints at Scotland changes as reinforcements arrive

Assistant coach Mike Blair has hinted that Scotland could make changes to the starting team and squad who became Calcutta Cup heroes last weekend when they face Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

Tuesday, 6th March 2018, 5:30 am
John Hardie

A welcome upturn in injury fortunes means head coach Gregor Townsend could have the option to name the same XV for a third straight game, but has also boosted his options yesterday by adding ten players to what is a now 40-man squad for the last two matches of the NatWest Six Nations campaign away in Ireland and Italy.

Edinburgh openside John Hardie returns to the Scotland set-up for the first time since he served a three-month ban for gross misconduct after an internal SRU investigation into what was widely reported to be surrounding cocaine use.

Lock Richie Gray, wings Byron McGuigan and Lee Jones, centre Alex Dunbar and front-rowers Fraser Brown, Darryl Marfo and Zander Fagerson all return from injury.

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Young Glasgow scrum-half George Horne receives a first full Scotland call-up and Edinburgh back-rower Magnus Bradbury is recalled.

The influx brings a wealth of experience to the squad and Blair didn’t rule out changes being made for the formidable challenge ahead at the Aviva Stadium, where table-topping Ireland have not lost in the competition for over five years.

“We’ll soon see,” said skills coach Blair. “We’ve been able to bring guys into our squad and create options.

“You will have tactics for certain opponents, certain players will fit that. So it might be that you end up playing the same team.

“But, if there are ways we feel we can manipulate Ireland with different personnel, we would do that. We wouldn’t just keep the same team because they’ve won.

“The game has moved on a bit. You can target certain teams with certain players. These are all discussions that we have. It’s not picked out of a hat, the team.”

When Hardie’s problems became public last autumn there were thoughts that he may not be seen in a Scotland squad again, but Blair said it was an obvious decision to bring him back now that he is available again.

“He’s a fantastic player,” said the former Scotland scrum-half and skipper. “He has a good pedigree and a good history playing with Scotland. When you have player like that available it would be silly not to have him on board. He’s had his time off. He’s been helped through that and now he can focus on his rugby.”

Gray was impressive in an 80-minute display as his club Toulouse beat Bordeaux away at the weekend and will be hoping to force his way into the reckoning for a first taste of the tournament this year, while Glasgow tighthead Fagerson returns earlier than expected after an eve-of-competition foot injury looked set to keep him out for the duration.

The Glasgow duo of hooker Brown and centre Dunbar both return from head knocks and an additional thigh problem for the latter.

“It is a boost,” added Blair of the reinforcements. “It increases the competition we’ve had.

“What we’ve found is that players coming in for injured players or experienced players who were unavailable have come in and done a really good job.

“It makes for interesting selection meetings when you have guys coming back who are up against guys who are in form at the moment. It’s a good situation.”

Blair admitted the job of the Scotland coaches this week was to strike a balance between harnessing the surge of confidence that has come off the back of last weekend’s stunning 25-13 win over England and tempering it with the message that facing Ireland away is a massive test.

“It’s a confident group of players,” he said. “But they’re also aware that things don’t just happen.

“You know, that performance against Wales [a 34-7 thumping on the opening weekend], that was only three games ago.

“So we’re aware that we’re not that finished article. There is lots of work that goes into a good performance. And we need a lot of things to go right if we’re going to perform in Ireland.”