Scotland coach Gregor Townsend insists veteran scrum-half Greig Laidlaw still has a future with the national team heading towards the World Cup despite the 33-year-old being dropped for tomorrow’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Wales at BT Murrayfield and the captaincy passing to hooker Stuart McInally.
Townsend has selected 25-year-old Glasgow scrum-half Ali Price to start as the Scots look to get their campaign back on the rails following successive defeats to Ireland and France.
Laidlaw has been demoted to the bench as Townsend makes four changes following the disappointing 27-10 collapse in Paris two weeks ago. Finn Russell returns after missing the French loss with a concussion and will partner his former Glasgow club and flatmate at half-back, with Peter Horne moving to inside centre alongside Nick Grigg and Sam Johnson dropping out of the squad.
Tighthead prop WP Nel returns to the starting line-up but his Edinburgh team-mate Hamish Watson starts on the bench after recovering from a broken hand he picked up on the eve of the tournament. Darcy Graham comes in on the wing for his first Scotland start after Sean Maitland suffered a foot injury playing for Saracens at the weekend.
Townsend was adamant that Clermont Auvergne scrum-half Laidlaw, who should win his 70th cap off the bench, remains a key figure in the squad.
“We know there is a big tournament on the horizon and we will see what happens after the World Cup,” said the coach. “That tends to be the time when players reassess where they are, when the coaches reassess what is their next challenge. We know Greig is determined to play his best, play well for Scotland and win for Scotland. He is the only player who has started the last six games which shows how important a member of our squad he is.
“He will have a different role off the bench but he will have an important part to play on Saturday.”
Townsend admitted that the selection had come as a blow for the Jedburgh man, who had resumed the national captaincy due to John Barclay’s long-term Achilles injury.
“As you’d expect from someone who really wants to play for Scotland, he was disappointed,” revealed Townsend. “He is determined to show that he should be starting and he has been very professional in the build-up. He is still a key leader and he gives us leadership on the bench.”
Laidlaw critics often point to his slower more considered style in contrast with the dynamism offered by someone like Price but Townsend was keen to dispel any simplistic analysis of the decision to make a change.
“Every player has different strengths. Ali is one of the best in the game at moving the ball away quickly, through his own speed and also by the accuracy of his pass. He has other parts too, and I think his kicking has been good this season,” said Townsend.
“Greig can play fast too. A lot of our better moments in the Six Nations have been with him at nine. It isn’t a reflection on how Greig is playing, it is a reflection of how Ali has been going. Ali deserved an opportunity to start at some stage and we believe this weekend is the right time to do it.”
Townsend admitted that the timely return of star playmaker Finn Russell had made it easier to make the change at scrum-half. “Yes, partially. I think if it hadn’t been Finn we might have looked at a more experienced partner to go with Adam [Hastings],” he explained.
“It would have been part of the discussion that’s for sure but we feel at this stage this team gives us a better chance of winning this weekend with Ali starting and Greig off the bench but it also gives us an opportunity to look at someone who has been playing really well in a year when we have another tournament around the corner.
“I was asked a couple of weeks ago if I’d have an eye on the World Cup and I said ‘no, the big priority is the Six Nations Championship’ but now we’re not going to win the championship is it time to see if the team can change with different combinations? But now we are just looking to win this game. That’s why we put this team together.”
Scotland: 15, Blair Kinghorn, 14, Tommy Seymour, 13, Nick Grigg, 12, Pete Horne, 11, Darcy Graham; 10, Finn Russell, 9, Ali Price; 8 John Strauss, 7, Jamie Ritchie, 6, Magnus Bradbury 5, Jonny Gray, 4, Grant Gilchrist, 3, Willem Nell, 2, Stuart McInally (c), 1, Allan Dell. Subs: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Simon Berghan, Ben Toolis, Hamish Watson, Greig Laidlaw, Adam Hastings, Byron McGuigan.
Wales: 15, Liam Williams, 14, George North, 13, Jonathan Davies, 12, Hadleigh Parkes; 11, Josh Adams, 10, Gareth Anscombe, 9, Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7, Justin Tipuric, 6, Josh Navidi, 5, Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4, Adam Beard, 3, Tomas Francis, 2, Ken Owens, 1, Rob Evans. Subs: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Aaron Wainwright, Aled Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.
Saturday. 2.15pm. BT Murrayfield. Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).