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Townsend throws the dice at crucial time . . .

NOBODY could ever accuse Gregor Townsend of playing safe.

Finn Russell will start at fly-half, after having had only one previous start in the position, ahead of Scotland's No.10 Duncan Weir. Credit: SNS Group/SRU
Finn Russell will start at fly-half, after having had only one previous start in the position, ahead of Scotland's No.10 Duncan Weir. Credit: SNS Group/SRU

It was never his way as a player and he is making it more and more obvious that the gambling bug which characterised his style in the old days is alive and kicking now that he has turned to coaching. So instead of playing safe for a game he has again branded the biggest of the season - second-placed Ulster arrive at Scotstoun this evening - he has decided to mess about with his fly-halves.

By the time you get to late April, most coaches know their best XV and are happy to wheel it out week after week as the penalties and rewards of failure and success become starker. Not Townsend. He was the coach who decided to use the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final last season to give Peter Horne his second start at fly-half after a couple of impressive cameos; now he has done it again, shifting Finn Russell to the pivot position after a run of games at centre but only one wearing the No.10 shirt.

Just as controversially, Duncan Weir, the Scotland fly-half, is the man dropped to make way, only a couple of weeks before the national squad to travel to the Americas and South Africa is named, with Ruaridh Jackson preferred for the bench role.

"Finn has earned his place by the way he has played," Townsend said. "He has played at 12 and is stepping in to 10. He played very well at 10 against Cardiff, when he came off the bench, and also against Dragons [his one previous start there]. With Peter [Horne] at 12, I think we will get the best out of Finn and the back line.

"He [Russell] has played 10 most of his career, though he played 12 at under-20 level, when Harry Leonard was the 10. He has played 10 at Ayr for the last two seasons and has deve­loped really well. He played well at 12 against Leinster and Munster, having outstanding games. He looked really composed in that environment.

"I like backs who can do a bit more than one thing and Finn can certainly do that. His ability to do that from 10, and having Peter Horne outside him, means that we have an extra passer and an extra kicker in the back line." The formation is close to the classic New Zealand first and second five-eighths model. With both players able to slot in to either position, you would expect to see a fair amount of switching between the two, with Horne, who is left-footed, adding an extra option. Even so, it is a strange time of year for Townsend to be making such radical changes, only partly explained by Horne's return to fitness, which means he has had a few runs from the bench and is ready for his first start a week or two earlier than he had originally expected to be back doing any kind of serious training.

Another partial explanation is that Alex Dunbar, declared fit earlier this week, realised he had a few knocks too many and dropped out. While a wrist problem is the most painful, it was an ankle injury that forced him off last week and, after a long, hard season, there are few parts of his body that are not hurting to a greater or lesser extent. He is replaced by Mark Bennett, with Horne taking the inside-centre slot in the only two personnel changes. Russell's switch in position is the only other change from the side that won in Munster.

It means that, unusually for a Townsend team, the pack that did so well last week is rolled out again in its entirety, so there is still no place for Al Kellock, the captain, who cannot even secure a place on the bench even though he returned from injury last month and started against Treviso.

"It shows - when someone like Al [Kellock] is not involved in the team - that other guys are playing really well," Townsend said. "We reward form and are putting together the team we think puts us in the best position to win this week.

"People like Al and Duncan [Weir], who are not playing, are still involved in helping to prepare the team and we need those leaders even though they are not involved."

At stake is a realistic chance of a home tie in the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final and, with that, a strong hope of Glasgow's first final. They trail Ulster by five points with a game in hand, so a win would put the Scots in pole position, especially with, on paper, the easier run-in.

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