|Summer Test: Argentina v Scotland|
|Venue: Estadio Centenario, Resistencia Date: Saturday, 23 June Kick-off: 20:40 BST|
|Coverage: Live text commentary on BBC Sport Scotland website and mobile app.|
Millionaires could be reduced to the ranks of paupers if they ever attempted to predict Gregor Townsend’s team selections. Townsend threw another curve ball in a coaching career full of curve balls when naming Fraser Brown, his hooker, as his starting open-side for the Test against Argentina in Resistencia on Saturday night.
Brown has won 31 of his 33 caps in the middle of the front row, the other two caps being back-row cameos off the bench against the USA at the World Cup in 2015 and against the USA again last weekend in Houston.
Stuart McInally returns to the side as captain and hooker, so Brown retreats two rows to add experience and ballast against what will be a ferociously physical, if not hugely talented, Argentina side who are on a run of just two wins from their last 17 games.
“Fraser is an excellent hooker but we believe this week that the breakdown is going to be such an important area and we need Fraser’s strength there,” said Townsend.
“Stuart is fit again but we wanted to get Fraser in the team. He played 20-30 minutes at open-side last week and he has played there in the past. We wanted to see on tour if it was a possibility of him playing there and last week he made a really good impact. That’s why he’s starting.”
- McInally returns to face Argentina
- Scots ‘lacked leadership’ in USA defeat – Peter Wright
- ‘Huge downer’ as Townsend gamble backfires
One of Brown’s most memorable games was actually when he had the seven jersey on his back. It was his first European Cup start amid an injury crisis at Glasgow. In January 2015, he was man of the match in a 20-15 away loss to Bath. Brown was a powerhouse that day in his ball-carrying, his defence and his work at the breakdown. The way the modern game has gone, hookers are now expected to perform as de facto open-side flankers when the ball is on the floor.
Brown is excellent in that department and he gets the nod ahead of Jamie Ritchie, who was considered favourite to start. Ritchie will get his chance off the bench. Asked if Brown could come into contention as a seven for autumn internationals and Six Nations, Townsend said that he could.
“Yes, he has to. We want to see how he gets on there from the beginning against Argentina. We have a couple of open-sides in Hamish Watson and John Hardie and John Barclay can play there as well. We have a few other open-sides coming through like Jamie and Luke Hamilton, but Fraser is an experienced player.
“He’s going to have great competition with Stuart over the next few years at hooker and I’m sure he’ll want to win his place as a hooker, but just now, having both of them on the field is a bonus for us. We mentioned it to him a couple of months ago that this could be an option.”
Scotland’s ‘leadership deficit’
For Brown, it’s the continuation of a career that has had its highs and lows and its unexpected twists and turns. As a young professional he suffered desperately with injury and missed two years with a dislocated shoulder and a bulging disc in his neck. Edinburgh released him because they didn’t think he was going to make it.
They may not have been the only ones. Brown, himself, spoke last year about his experiences in battling mental health issues. “You feel so isolated,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to why you feel that way. I had family, a great partner, great friends around me. There’s no reason why you get to that point, but you do feel depressed and alone. It happened and it’s something I battled with and I still battle with it a little bit now. You never really get over it. It’s something you have to come through gradually.”
Most recently, Brown suffered concussion issues and missed 10 weeks earlier in this season. The man deserves a break.
Very few people could have successfully second-guessed Townsend’s thinking on this one, but the idea of wanting Brown (and McInally) on the field from the start against the brutality of the Pumas is wholly understandable. It’s the physicality they bring, but also the leadership. Among other things, Scotland had a leadership deficit against the USA last weekend.
Townsend spoke about the lack of intensity at critical points in Houston and he’s changed much of his pack on the back of it.
In the backline there’s less change, though. Adam Hastings, who struggled against the Americans, is given another chance. His rookie half-back partnership with George Horne gets another airing.
“I thought George had an excellent game,” said the coach. “His passing was very good, his support play was excellent, we were delighted with how he played. Adam showed really good intent, defended aggressively, had some nice touches, but probably didn’t get on the ball enough. That was due to the fact that we didn’t have enough possession through our mistakes and the penalties we gave away that handed the USA momentum.
“We want Adam to build on his experience and put that learning into place. Peter Horne (who is at 12 with Nick Grigg a surprise call at 13 ahead of Mark Bennett, who misses out entirely) has a very big role to play in the centre.
“Mark wasn’t in the original squad but he’s been involved in two games off the bench and and he’ll be disappointed at not being involved. Maybe his form merited him being involved but we believe Nick has played very well. It’s just that he never got enough ball to have more of an influence last week.”
Argentina in ‘full metal jacket’ mode
The Pumas have lost their way in recent times. Daniel Hourcade, their coach overseeing his last match in charge, has had some big days in the job since taking over in November 2013. Argentina defeated Australia, France, South Africa and Ireland on his watch. That victory over the Irish was one of the finest in Argentina’s history and it took them to the World Cup semi-final.
Things have gone awry, though. They offered little more than brute force in losing to Wales in back-to-back Tests this month. Last weekend, Hourcade announced his intention to quit on the basis that his message isn’t getting through anymore. With one game to play his record stands at 15 victories from 53 Tests – a 28% win return.
“Our job coming here was to win all three matches,” said Townsend. “We haven’t done that, we’re bitterly disappointed about it, but we’re here in Argentina to win.
“The atmosphere in the stadium is going to be great. It’ll be noisy to begin with but then I hope it’s quiet. It’s the kind of challenge you don’t often face – the last game of a coach in front of passionate supporters on the back of two defeats and with the Rugby Championship just around the corner.”
The Pumas will give it the full metal jacket treatment on Saturday. The success or failure of this tour rests on Scotland’s ability to stand up to it.
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