The Scotland coach has replaced a third of his starting XV for this weekend’s match against Wales and also brought in two new faces on the bench.
Only one change was enforced – the season-ending injury to Jamie Ritchie has opened the door for Sam Skinner to start in the back row – with the rest tactical.
Scotland have not won their opening two games in the championship since 1996, and Cardiff on Saturday would be as good a place as any to rectify that wretched record.
To that end, Townsend has replaced his entire front row with the trio that finished the game strongly against England and brought in the lively Sione Tuipulotu at inside center at the expense of Sam Johnson who drops out of the squad altogether. Cam Redpath provides center cover on the bench.
Townsend, who gave Tuipulotu his Scotland debut in the autumn against Tonga, believes the Aussie-born powerhouse can add an injection of attacking flair while also being defensively strong.
“He’s a different player to Sam and Cam,” explained the coach. “He’s a very creative player, we love that about him. He very detailed as well, very loud in attack and defense on the training field.
“He can bring others into play and he’s got his own running game which he has shown for Glasgow this season. All those things will be important but defense is No 1. When you come into our side and our midfield you know you have to defend very well. He’s been doing really well in training.”
“Sam was a big part of the effort that we showed but our backs never got a lot of ball last week so Sam wasn’t able to show his strengths,” said the coach.
“He’s also played in some very big wins for us over the last couple of years. So he’s the unlucky one. But we just feel that with the way Sione has been playing, what he does on the ball and also Cam’s strengths we also felt they were better suited for how we want to play this weekend against Wales.”
Redpath is in line to win only his second cap after injuries derailed him following his fine debut against England last year. For Tuipulotu, it will be just his third Scotland outing from him.
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If the inside centers are inexperienced, the same could not be said of the front row which includes 35-year-old WP Nel at tighthead. He is joined by his Edinburgh colleagues Pierre Schoeman and Stuart McInally, with last week’s starting trio of Rory Sutherland, George Turner and Zander Fagerson dropping to the bench.
Townsend swapped the entire front row in the 51st minute against England and suggested a similar ‘bombsquad’ ploy could be used against Wales.
“We’ve learned a lot of things over the last couple of years,” he said. “One learning from playing South Africa was their ability to have a strong front row at the end of a game.
“We saw that last week when WP, Stuart and Pierre came on and really did a good job, both in the tight and the loose.
“We see the same potentially happened with Rory, George and Zander who probably have been our starting front row for the last couple of years when they’ve all been fit. Certainly last season in the Six Nations.
“We’ve now got a real depth in our front row. We want to use them so they’re fresh and can take Wales on in the first half as well as the second half. It’s something we learned from playing South Africa.”
In the back row, Scotland will miss Ritchie’s graft and scavenging but Townsend believes Skinner is the right man to step in, with Magnus Bradbury held in reserve.
“Sam has also done really well in our big games. I thought he made a huge impact at the weekend with a line-break and also a lineout steal.
“We know that Jamie has been a key lineout player for us as well, and Magnus can also perform that role. So, we were able to select from a position of strength with either Magnus or Sam – but we feel Sam is better suited to this weekend.”
Saturday will also likely see the long-awaited international bow for Rory Darge. The on-form Glasgow Warriors flanker was due to be capped in the summer only for the tour to be cancelled. He then missed the autumn series through injury but is on the bench in Cardiff and, says Townsend, has thoroughly earned his chance.
“He started working with us more than 12 months ago – he came and trained with us before the start of the last Six Nations – and he was always a calm individual at training, very mature, takes detailed feedback and applies that to his training, ”said the coach.
“And he was captain of Scotland at under-20s level so I don’t think there’s any real concerns around the mind-set of Rory and what he can do to get himself right.
“We’re looking forward to seeing him have an impact on both sides of the ball. He’s one of the best attacking back-rowers in terms of defenders beaten in Europe this season and he’s also very good at getting over ball.
“We believe there is a good chance that the game will break up in the last 20 minutes so having players like Rory coming into a game like that should work in our favour.”
Scotland (v Wales, Guinness Six Nations, Principality Stadium, Saturday, 2.15pm. TV: live on BBC One)
15. Stuart Hogg – Exeter Chiefs – (Captain) – 89 caps
14. Darcy Graham – Edinburgh Rugby – 23 caps
13. Chris Harris – Gloucester Rugby – 32 caps
12. Sione Tuipulotu – Glasgow Warriors – 2 caps
11. Duhan van der Merwe – Worcester Warriors – 14 caps
10. Finn Russell – Racing 92 – (Vice-Captain) – 59 caps
9. Ali Price – Glasgow Warriors – 47 caps
1. Pierre Schoeman – Edinburgh Rugby – 5 caps
2. Stuart McInally – Edinburgh Rugby – 44 caps
3. WP Nel – Edinburgh Rugby – 44 caps
4. Jonny Gray – Exeter Chiefs – 65 caps
5. Grant Gilchrist – Edinburgh Rugby – (Vice-Captain) – 49 caps
6. Sam Skinner – Exeter Chiefs – 16 caps
7. Hamish Watson – Edinburgh Rugby – 46 caps
8. Matt Fagerson – Glasgow Warriors – 18 caps
16. George Turner – Glasgow Warriors – 21 caps
17. Rory Sutherland – Worcester Warriors – 17 caps
18. Zander Fagerson – Glasgow Warriors – 43 caps
19. Magnus Bradbury – Edinburgh Rugby – 15 caps
20. Rory Darge – Glasgow Warriors – Uncapped
21. Ben White – London Irish – 1 cap
22. Blair Kinghorn – Edinburgh Rugby – 28 caps
23. Cameron Redpath – Bath Rugby – 1 cap
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