Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has expressed full confidence in full-back Stuart Hogg’s ability to hit the ground running after naming him in his team to face Fiji at BT Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon.
The 26-year-old has stormed back more than a month ahead of schedule from undergoing ankle surgery in September and, after delaying his scheduled team selection by 24 hours, Townsend said his star player was fully ready.
“Stuart has trained for two weeks now. He trained with his club and recorded some excellent speed times,” said the coach. “He has trained fully with us all week so he looks good to go.
“We had experience last year when we brought him back from two injuries and he played in Champions Cup games, played very well, and then two weeks later he played Test level.
“So yes, we could have kept him back a week or a few weeks, but he’s still going to be going into a Test match. Having watched him in training, we’ve seen he is ready.”
Townsend agreed that the speed of Hogg’s recover had come as a surprise.
“We were initially thinking South Africa [next Saturday] would be when he was available, given his diagnosis. Two weeks ago both him and the medical team were saying Fiji was a possibility but he still had markers to pass on his ankle and how his body reacted and coped with different stresses. He’s come through that very well.”
Following last weekend’s disappointing 21-10 loss to Wales in Cardiff with a XV of home-based players, Townsend has brought back his big-name Exiles straight away for the first of the three home November Tests.
Greig Laidlaw comes in at scrum-half and will captain a Townsend Scotland team from the start for the first time, teaming up with Racing 92 stand-off Finn Russell. Saracens wing Sean Maitland also comes into the backline, while Exeter Chiefs lock Sam Skinner makes his debut at second row.
Centre Huw Jones drops out of the squad altogether but Townsend denied that it was an axing after a poor showing in Cardiff when he missed tackles that the coach singled out as “bad mistakes”.
“No, Huw is like a number of players we are managing through this period, so he is not involved,” said Townsend.
“He was close to being involved on the bench, but we just felt that with [Newcastle centre] Chris Harris able to cover the wing [from the bench], that was the decision around his involvement.
“Like the second-rows, we’ve changed them; like the back-row with Hamish Watson not being involved – we know the chances of getting injuries go up the more you play, and we have four games, so we need to keep everybody as fresh as possible to take on each game.”
Townsend, who revealed Scarlets flanker Blade Thomson is unlikely to feature following his concussion against Edinburgh lasst Friday, is looking forward to having Russell back as his main playmaker.
“He’s been playing regularly [for Racing 92], which is great,” said the coach. “He played very well at the weekend – I watched that game on Sunday with an eye on how he was performing but also checking that he got through the game okay, and he played very well. And he’s trained fully this week with us.
“Both Greig and Finn have been in excellent form, like Sean Maitland – although he didn’t play at the weekend for Saracens – so it is great to welcome those guys back.”
Townsend is well aware of the threat Fiji pose after presiding over a shock loss to the islanders in Suva on last summer’s summer tour.
“I’ve probably not thought about it for a while until we started watching it in preparation for this game,” said Townsend of that first defeat in his reign as Scotland boss.
“It should inform our players of the threat that Fiji bring and they’re better than they were back in Suva.
“Last November they lost to Ireland 23-20 and Ireland beat everybody last year in the November Tests and Six Nations and the team that pushed them closest was Fiji.
“So, they’re a quality side and their players individually are getting better and better. More and more of them are professional are playing at top clubs. Our players – and a number of them played that day – are very aware of the threats Fiji pose and how they’ll be looking for another big scalp. It’s an opportunity for them to beat a Tier One nation away from home.”
Townsend knows Fiji’s star man, Leone Nakarawa, well having brought him to Glasgow, and he expressed pride at the way the dynamic lock had progressed with Racing 92 and earned the European player of the year award last season.
“I’m delighted for him. He’s such a lovely person, I’m delighted to see him get the recognition,” said Townsend.
“For a while there were maybe us in this room and the Glasgow fans who thought it was a secret how good he was, then unfortunately teams in France started to knock on his door, but it’s great that the media have recognised that and Racing have a brilliant player there.
“He plays every single game for Racing and for Fiji and he did for us at Glasgow. He is a very consistent, highly skilled player that will play well on Saturday we can guarantee that. We played against him at Glasgow two or three times since he left and it’s been tough to go up against him, but we know he’s one of their best players at the weekend.
“He was very unusual. When you see someone 6ft 7in playing seven-a-side rugby and being as quick as the other guys on the field and being able to off-load you do wonder ‘imagine if he could do this in 15s’ but no player like him existed or maybe does exist in the 15s game.
“For a second row to do what he does seemed unusual. Interestingly, when we did float the idea of him playing in the back-row a couple of times he said ‘no I want to be in the second-row,’ because he enjoyed the scrummaging, the lineout aspect and he’s very good at that. You would have thought any opportunity to be more out in the backs or in the back-row he would have jumped on.
“He did his role really well in the set-piece. After Al Kellock’s retirement he was calling the lineouts and there was one game he captained the side in the second half when whoever was captain that day went off injured, so that showed his leadership ability, what we thought of him and what the players thought of him.”
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow); Tommy Seymour (Glasgow), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow), Pete Horne (Glasgow), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Racing 92), Greig Laidlaw (c) (Clermont); Allan Dell (Edinburgh), Fraser Brown (Glasgow), Willem Nel (Edinburgh), Sam Skinner (Exeter Chiefs), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow) Jamie Ritchie (Edinburgh), Matt Fagerson (Glasgow). Replacements: Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Alex Allan (Glasgow), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow), Josh Strauss (Sale Sharks), George Horne (Glasgow), Adam Hastings (Glasgow), Chris Harris (Newcastle Falcons).