Scotland don’t feel the weight of maintaining Italy’s now 35-match losing run when they go to Rome on Saturday.
After the first three games of the championship, there’s a clear target mark for Scotland in Rome – like there was when they surpassed it easily with an experimental team in 2021.
But Gregor Townsend is not nervous about losing his personal unbeaten record as a coach against the Italians. Other than the enforced changes, it’s certainly not an experimental or risky-looking 23 he’s sending out – quite the opposite in fact.
Despite the scrutiny, Russell’s place not in doubt
He's a player who divides opinion but there's few 10's out there who can pull off the 'I'm disinterested & don't want the ball' look before then doing something spectacular than Finn Russell!
— Geraint Davies (@daviesGDD) February 13, 2022
Just two games after being lauded as a tactical genius for the two cross kicks against England Finn Russell is having his position questioned by some. While Townsend did due diligence on his ‘difficult’ selection questions, it didn’t sound like the stand-off was close to being axed.
“We do look at every position. We look at players who are playing in that position and players who are just outside the starting team and what they are doing to get back in.
“But we also look at what a player has done before and what we believe they can do again. How they have reacted to performances.
“We also have real belief in players not just over the last two games but over the last two years. Players who are key drivers of how we want to play in attack and defence.
“Finn is one of our key leaders and he has led really well this week.”
Johnson back on his own terms
Scotland have recalled centre Sam Johnson and handed a first Six Nations start to winger Kyle Steyn for the game against Italy in Rome on Saturday.
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) March 10, 2022
Scotland have lost three tests during this current season, and Sam Johnson has been dropped for them all. Discuss…
“Sam has done well for us in the past and he was unlucky not to be selected after the England game,” admitted Townsend.
“When a team hasn’t produced the results, players who were unlucky to miss out deserve an opportunity when they’ve gone back to their clubs and played well.
“There’s cohesion there. Sam’s played in a lot of our key wins, whether it’s England, Australia, France last year. That shows he’s playing well as an individual but also that he’s helping the team play well.”
Is he there also as a crutch for Russell?
“I feel that Finn can play with any number of twelves. He played very well with Cam Redpath last year, and the attack was definitely better against France when Sione got a lot more touches of the ball.
“It’s more about what Sam brings to the team rather than a specific combination (with Russell).”
The openside combination is actually the norm
Townsend pointed out that the injured Jamie Ritchie, while a fixture at 6 when fit, plays an open-side style game.
“(Watson and Darge) is not too dissimilar from what we expect when Hamish and Jamie play together,” he said.
“When you put them both together you want to see their strengths. They’re both very good over the ball, they’re both very good tacklers, but both of them have got good running games.
“When you’re assessing opensides you maybe don’t see that as an essential part of their game. But Hamish gets double figure carries in games and breaks a lot of tackles.
“Rory does that in a different way but he’s showed he can do that at Test level against France.”
Kinghorn ‘unavailable’, Bennett couldn’t train, Vellacott deserves his chance
Now THAT is a tap pen!
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) September 28, 2021
“For Blair, it’s personal so he is just unavailable for this game. We believe he will be available for Ireland.
“We believe this is a good fixture for Ben (Vellacott) to come in, mainly because of the weather conditions. We’ve had a couple of games in weather but the forecast looks good. I imagine the game will be played at a high tempo and we feel that he can raise that.
“Mark got a whack in his ribs against France so he wasn’t able to train with us. He probably would have been fit and available to play.
“We feel for him because he played really well when he came off the bench. But we’re hoping by next week he’ll be closer to 100 percent fit and available for selection again.”