|Summer international: Canada v Scotland|
|Venue: Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton Date: Sunday, 10 June Kick-off: 02:00 BST|
|Coverage: Watch on BBC One Scotland & BBC Sport website; text commentary on BBC Sport website|
Given the failure of their beloved Oilers, the good people of Edmonton could do with a little sporting cheer these days.
In a city that’s in thrall to ice hockey, the haplessness of their team in missing the play-offs yet again is galling to the locals, who now turn to rugby and the weekend Test match between the national team and the visiting Scots in an attempt to lighten the mood.
When Gregor Townsend named his Test side on Wednesday he couldn’t sit down. Buzzing with excitement? Well, yes. But there was a bit more to it. Townsend has a bad back. He joked that it might have had something to do with the paper round of his youth catching up on him. “I’ve been shuffling around on the side of the training field,” he said. “I’m not sure if the boys were sniggering at me or not.”
Unlikely, you’d have thought. Townsend might be a touch tender in the back department but there’s nothing wrong with his eyes – or his nerve. This Canada side are a poor crew, but even still, the side Townsend has picked to play against them is even more experimental than we might have imagined.
- Ritchie & Lang to make Scotland debuts
There are stories everywhere. The last time we saw Chris Harris in a Scotland jersey was in the calamity in Cardiff in the Six Nations. The Newcastle centre returns and lines up alongside James Lang, the little-know Harlequin who will make his debut. That’s a combined total of two caps in the centre.
Jamie Ritchie also makes his debut in the back row with Lewis Carmichael and Adam Hastings set to win their first caps off the bench. Thirty-two years after his father Gavin appeared on the scene, a new Hastings is about to join the pantheon of Scotland Test players.
There is only one survivor from Scotland’s last game in the Six Nations in Rome – Fraser Brown. There’d have been none at all had Stuart McInally, the tour captain, not succumbed to injury. This, of course, is a tour of discovery for Townsend, an opportunity against Canada and United States to look at new players and try out new combinations ahead of the more exacting third Test of the trip against Argentina in Resistencia.
“Given that we’ve left quite a few of the boys at home, there are opportunities for the guys we have here,” said Townsend.
“Take Chris (Harris) for instance. We were impressed with him leading up to that Welsh game, but we didn’t get things right in Wales and it started with me, with the selection and with our approach to that game. Chris, through no fault of his own, didn’t have his best game.
“There were a few times when he got hospital passes. What he has done since then is go back to Newcastle and find ways to get on the ball more. He was mainly a defensive player up to that point, but for the last half of the season we have seen him attacking more and he’s scored a couple of cracking tries.
“He’s in with James (Lang) who can play 10 but we see him more as a a 12. He’s a very good ball carrier and a good defender. He’s impressed us. You need depth, particularly in midfield, so let’s see if somebody can influence our thinking going into the November games but especially the World Cup next year.”
Townsend, as ever, is on the hunt for a back-up to Finn Russell. The fly-half is not on this trek. Townsend knows that a day will surely come when his go-to man at 10 is injured and needs replacing. Given that Russell will wear the Racing 92 jersey next season – as well as a saddle on his back to justify the vast expense in recruiting him – there is an urgent need for a natural deputy in times of crisis.
Peter Horne, a more natural centre than a 10, filled the role in the defeat to Fiji in Suva a year ago when Russell was with the Lions in New Zealand. The task now falls to Ruaridh Jackson, who’s been playing well at 15 for Glasgow, but who’s better at 10.
Scotland needed experience in there given that there’s only a total of 15 caps at full-back, wing and in the midfield combined, and only nine alongside Jackson at scrum-half in the shape of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne. The soon-to-be Scarlet hasn’t played for his country in over two years.
‘The ingredients are there. He’s worked hard for this’
Four years after being named tour captain for the summer hike to Canada, USA, Argentina and South Africa, Grant Gilchrist leads the side again. McInally may start against America in Houston next weekend, but the chances are that he will be saved for the Pumas a week later.
Experimentation in the back row was a guarantee considering that the trio who have appeared in so many of Scotland’s marquee performances in recent years – John Barclay, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson – are all at home.
“Jamie (Ritchie) comes in for his debut,” said Townsend. “His defence is consistent, his kick-chase is up there with the best in the world and he’s shown in his last few games with Edinburgh that his ball-carrying is exciting. The ingredients are there. He’s worked hard for this.”
Magnus Bradbury is another who falls into the category of the players who need to seize their moment. As he rose through the ranks there was a lot of noise about Bradbury’s excellence. Vern Cotter capped him against Argentina in the autumn of 2016, but was critical of his work-rate in the aftermath. He didn’t pick him again. Townsend brought him on tour last summer but only played him for 22 minutes off the bench in the opening game against Italy.
Bradbury followed that disappointment with a bout of brainless pre-season indiscipline that saw him stripped of the Edinburgh captaincy. He gathered himself during the season, though, and finished the campaign strongly under Richard Cockerill’s tutelage. Bradbury is still only 22. He has talent and time, but he could do with a big performance.
“The back row, like the midfield, is a very competitive area,” said Townsend. “Magnus (Bradbury) wasn’t involved in the Six Nations and he wasn’t involved in the November Tests, for different reasons.
“He’s here because of what he’s done in the last few months. We’ve seen a big change in him. The aggression he showed in the last game against Glasgow was outstanding. He looks physically imposing and dynamic. The boys realise that these chances don’t come around very often.”
All things being equal, Hastings will appear at some stage against Canada. His father will watch it on television before flying out for Scotland’s second match on tour against the USA in Houston.
“Something that doesn’t get talked about enough is Adam’s work-rate,” said Townsend. “That’s a great trait to have. That comes from a competitiveness that’s maybe genetic, not just through his dad but everybody else in the family tree. He’s a confident guy and I think he’s ready to grab his opportunity.”
His father won by a point on his international debut, albeit against France. Hastings the younger will hoping that it’s altogether more comfortable against Canada.
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