Gregor Townsend grimaces at the suggestion that he is a relentless tinkerer when it comes to team selection, but there is no doubt that the Scotland head coach has never been shy about calling ‘twist’ when the easier decision would be to say ‘stick’. In the 10 sides he selected up to this year’s Six Nations campaign opener against England, he made an average of just under four changes per match.

The fact that he has since made a solitary alteration to the side between that England game and the visit of Wales the following week (restoring fit again Zander Fagerson at tight-head prop), and then been just as conservative between Wales and France (Hamish Watson has come in at openside flanker for Luke Crosbie), highlights two things. Firstly, fortune has shone favourably on Scotland in terms of injuries. Secondly – and particularly significant given that we are now on the home straight headed towards this Autumn’s World Cup – he has finally found a balance and chemistry which feels right.

The selection of Watson makes sense in the context of the particular challenge Scotland will face at the Stade de France tomorrow.

“Hamish dropped out of the team through no fault of his own,” pointed out Townsend. “He picked up that injury [a concussion] against New Zealand and had only played one game which was the week before England.

"Luke got himself into the team by what he has been doing for Edinburgh, and he's defended really well for us in the opening two games, but Hamish is now back fully fit, so it becomes a discussion around who is right for this weekend and not as much about who's played better the week before.

"We feel Hamish has gone well against France in the past, he's gone well against a lot of teams. He's highly motivated after having missed out these last two weeks and the speed he plays at means he'll add to that attack, and defensively there could be opportunities if the referee allows jackalers to go for ball like what happened last year at Murrayfield, when I think they won eight or nine turnovers against us and made the most of a couple of loose bits of play. 

“We feel Hamish is a good foil for the way France want to play but also adds speed to our attack. It is tough on Luke Crosbie and Jack Dempsey, who was certainly in the mix with other players who played well for their clubs last weekend, but it is a good thing that we have that level of competition.

“Jamie [Ritchie] has played number seven, Crosbie has played seven for the last two weeks and Rory Darge is coming back for Glasgow Warriors this weekend and he was outstanding for us last year,” Townsend added. “So, anyone who gets that jersey knows that they have to play well to stay in the team and he has the opportunity this weekend.”

There had been speculation that Stuart Hogg, who managed less than a quarter of an hour against Wales before being concussed, might miss out on the starting fifteen to Blair Kinghorn, who scored a try and impressed in both attack and defence during the remainder of that record win.

However, Townsend says he wasn’t at all inclined to go into such a momentous match – and hostile environment – without his most experienced player, who will be earning his 99th cap tomorrow.

"Stuart played well during the 13 minutes he was on the field, he broke two or three tackles on one of his carries,” pointed out the coach.

"There was a doubt coming into the tournament about where he would be physically but he's shown in training, against England and in the brief time he was on against Wales that he's fully match fit.

"Blair showed what he can do [when he came on earlier than planned against Wales]. He has been great, and he's been breaking records in the gym and also out on the training field with his speed. Knowing we have someone who can cover at stand-off and the back three and is in really good form but also physically in such good shape is a positive for us.

"But Stuart has done very well for us in the past and he's good to go this weekend. I think in big games, the challenges at Twickenham and in Paris, Stuart has been a big influence on how we have won those matches. He had a kick two years ago where he just caught a ball and put it on his foot like a torpedo which would have been a 50/22 in the new law. He kept taking the game to the opposition from the back last time, so we were delighted when Stuart passed all of his return to play protocols.”

As encouraging as Scotland’s two wins so far in this Six Nations has been, the reality is that they have beaten an England team at the very start of a rebuilding process under Steve Borthwick following a shambolic period under Eddie Jones, and a Welsh team which is in the process of imploding.

Sunday will be a big step up with France rated number two in the world and desperate to bounce back after losing away to Ireland, the number one team on the planet, a fortnight ago.

Townsend’s decision to go for a six-two split between forwards and backs on the bench is an indication of just how physical he expects the battle to be at the pit-face.

“France have gone six-two the last five or six games so you’ve got to acknowledge that if they are bringing on big men in the second half that are fresh then you are asking a lot of your pack if you go five-three,” he reasoned.

“We’re comfortable with our second-rows and back-rows playing 80 minutes but is it a game where you might say ‘push everything in those first 50 to 60 minutes and we can bring on replacements quicker’?

“There is a risk to it. The first time I went six-two with Glasgow we had three backs injuries in the first half hour! But we feel if we have to do that someone like Jack Dempsey can play in the backline, so we’d just have to adapt like the team has adapted before to injuries.”

One player who did not make the cut is John Cooney, who has been capped by Ireland but has a Scottish father. The scrum-half became eligible to wear the thistle on Thursday after completing World Rugby’s controversial three-year stand-down requirement, but is in South Africa with his club side, Ulster, instead this weekend.

“Now we know he’s available he’ll become someone who is involved in our discussions,” said Townsend. “We’ll take a view on: ‘Is he good enough to help our team move forward? Is he playing well? Should the three nines we have in the squad be kept on? Or should we bring someone else in?’ It’s now a discussion that we had when Jack Dempsey became available.

“But currently our three nines are going very well. Two of them have played in big wins and the third one [Ali Price] is the most capped nine in the squad and back in the match-day 23 this week, so we’re not looking at making any changes just now.”


Scotland (v France at Stade de Français, in Paris, Sunday @ 3pm): S Hogg; K Steyn, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; P Schoeman, G Turner, Z Fagerson, R Gray, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie©, H Watson, M Fagerson. Substitutes: F Brown, J Bhatti, W Nel, J Gray, S Skinner, J Dempsey, A Price, B Kinghorn.

France: T Ramos; D Penaud, G Fickou, Y Moefana, E Dumortier; R Ntamack, A Dupont©; C Baille, J Marchand, M Haouas, T Flament, P Willemse, A Jelonch, C Ollivon, G Alldritt. Substitutes: G Barlot, R Wardi, S Falatea, R Taofifenua, F Cros, S Macalou, B Couilloud, M Jalibert.