Gregor Townsend has praised Matt Scott for fighting his way back into contention for Scotland as the Leicester centre prepares to win his first cap in four-and-a-half years against South Africa at Murrayfield on Saturday.
The 31-year-old has appeared 39 times for his country but his last start was in Townsend’s first match in charge against Italy in Singapore in June 2017, while he won his last cap a week later as a replacement in the victory over Australia in Sydney.
A combination of injury, indifferent form, increased competition and Covid call-offs have stopped Scott adding to his tally in the intervening period, but he will be back in the thick of it when he starts against the world champions at Murrayfield this weekend.
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) November 11, 2021
The former Edinburgh player is one of four changes to the starting XV from last weekend’s win over Australia, with Rufus McLean, Nick Haining and Stuart McInally also added to the team.
“There were areas of his game we needed to see him improving and we feel he’s done that,” said Townsend. “He’s gone and shown what he can do for Leicester and has come back into top form in the last six to 12 months.
“He has started the season really well. Where he is in relation to the last time he played for us, there’s much more competition at centre.
“Even though he’s playing his best rugby, he’s now competing against some other very good centres. His big strengths are his carrying, his work-rate and defensively he’s really improved over the last 12 months. Those three elements are going to be massive this weekend.
“Like with Rufus and Nick, we want to give players opportunities in this period that we feel are deserving, that we feel can push for a starting place in the Six Nations or potentially get into a World Cup squad.
“If we just went through November picking the same team, yes, there’s cohesion, but we’re not getting to learn about other people and how they either thrive or don’t play as well when they get the opportunity, and so far our players have grabbed the opportunity in the first two games.”
Townsend is looking forward to seeing how Glasgow wing McLean gets on after being recalled to the side following his two-try debut against Tonga in the first of the autumn Tests.
“We’ve got really good competition at wing,” he said. “I thought Rufus was outstanding against Tonga. He just thrived in that Test match environment. Darcy Graham or Kyle Steyn could have been involved this week but we think Rufus is ready and can offer something different.
“Some of the elements of his game, whether it is contact work or kick-chase, are exceptional and I’m sure he’ll be asked to show that this weekend.”
Townsend explained why he has chosen to give Haining his first start of the autumn series in the back-row in place of Hamish Watson, who started both previous matches.
“There are two reasons behind that decision,” he said. “One is around Nick, who we believe will perform well in this game. He played a very physical team out in Paris at the end of the Six Nations and performed well. I thought he came off the bench and did really well against Tonga, and he was unlucky to miss out last week.
“We think the style of his play can really test our opposition this week. On the other side, it’s a case of what we feel is best for Hamish. He hadn’t had any rugby before the Tonga game and we got him through 40 minutes of that game before he played well against Australia.
“But we’ve got to have a view on where he is after so little rugby. We also believe Hamish can make a big impact in the second half because this game is as likely to be decided by how well teams play in the last 20 minutes as much as in the first 20 minutes.”