Scotland coach Gregor Townsend admitted it was a difficult decision to drop hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn but argued the experience of the returning Sean Maitland was impossible to ignore as he named his team for tomorrow’s Guinness Six Nations tie against champions Ireland at BT Murrayfield.
Kinghorn became the first Scot to score a Six Nations hat-trick in the 33-20 win over Italy and was named player of the opening round but drops to the bench to make way for Saracens’ Maitland, who has recovered from a hamstring injury, with another British and Irish Lion, Tommy Seymour, keeping his place on the other wing.
“It was more difficult than what we planned it was going to be the week before,” said Townsend of the selection process. “We were always hoping Sean would get back fit for this game. Sean would have been starting against Italy with Tommy Seymour if he’d been fit.
“Blair’s performance did mean that we had an extended discussion that probably went on a second day, but we believe that Tommy and Sean are best equipped for this game.
“But nothing should be taken away from Blair’s performance and what he could do if he was selected this week. So to have the three of them available to us, one off the bench, means we’ve got stronger cover at back three than ever before.”
Maitland is one of four changes to Townsend’s starting line-up. As expected, tighthead WP Nel misses out with a calf tear and Edinburgh clubmate Simon Berghan steps in.
Exeter forward Sam Skinner had already been ruled out with an ankle injury so Ryan Wilson shifts to blindside and Josh Strauss starts at No.8.
Townsend expressed hope that both Nel and Skinner could be back in contention for the trip to Paris in a couple of weeks.
Jonny Gray is back from a shoulder injury to partner Grant Gilchrist in the second row, with Ben Toolis dropping to a bench which also sees uncapped prop D’arcy Rae taking the spot vacated by Berghan, the Glasgow pair of hooker Fraser Brown and centre Pete Horne back from knee injuries and their fellow Warrior Rob Harley covering the back row.
After winning a first cap which settled his eligibility, there is no place for Newcastle flanker Gary Graham, while his Falcons clubmate John Hardie has picked up a knee injury.
Townsend said that 22-year-old Kinghorn had taken the disappointment following the high of last Saturday in his stride.
“Players take it differently – sometimes they’re quiet, sometimes they’re accepting and sometimes they argue back. Blair was quiet. He’ll be disappointed, I know,” said the coach. We have a huge responsibility and privilege, selecting a team, that you’re giving players an opportunity on one hand and on the other hand you’re not selecting them to start for the country. But Blair has done nothing wrong.
“Sean has scored a lot of tries for Scotland in the last 12 months. He brings more than just the wing role of making breaks and scoring tries.
“He brings a lot of communication defensively, his kick chase, he must be one of the best for that. He is one of our leaders.”
The other tough selection call was tipped by experience also as Glasgow lock Gray is brought back to break up that Edinburgh tight-five unit.
“Jonny is a very important player for us,” said Townsend. “He has been consistently outstanding for Scotland for the last three or four years. This game is set for a Jonny Gray performance of huge effort in defence and ball carrying. Together with his experience of playing at international level he was always going to come back into the team if he was fit.”
Scotland: 15, Stuart Hogg; 14, Tommy Seymour, 13, Huw Jones, 12, Sam Johnson, 11, Sean Maitland; 10, Finn Russell, 9, Greig Laidlaw (c); 8, J Strauss, 7, J Ritchie, 6, R Wilson, 5, J Gray, 4, G Gilchrist, 3, S Berghan, 2, S McInally, 1,1 A Dell. Replacements: F Brown, J Bhatti, D Rae, B Toolis, R Harley, A Price, P Horne, B Kinghorn.
Ireland: 15, R Kearney; 14, K Earls, 13, C Farrell, 12, B Aki, 11, J Stockdale; 10, J Sexton, 9, C Murra; 8, C Healy, 7, R Best (c), 6, T Furlong, 5, J Ryan, 4, Q Roux, 3, P O’Mahony, 2, S O’Brien, 1, J Conan. Replacements: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, U Dillane, J Van Der Flier, J Cooney, J Carbery, J Larmour.
Kick-off: Saturday. 2.15pm. BT Murrayfield. Referee: Romain Poite (France).