Duncan Weir will add control, experience and kicking nous says Scotland coach Gregor Townsend
With both his first and second choice stand-offs unavailable, Gregor Townsend was keen to talk up Duncan Weir’s credentials as he named his team for Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Italy.
Scotland have designs on winning the new tournament but there is little margin for error in a format which sees the winners from each pool of four meeting in the final in December.
The Scots’ other opponents in Group B, France and Fiji, must come to BT Murrayfield but the first match takes place in Florence.
Injuries to Finn Russell and Adam Hastings have catapulted Weir into his first Scotland start in four-and-a-half years and his inclusion is one of four changes to the side that beat Wales in the Six Nations in Llanelli.
Glasgow’s Sam Johnson comes in at inside centre in place of James Lang who is named among the replacements, while Edinburgh winger Duhan van der Merwe returns to the starting XV, with Blair Kinghorn dropping to the bench. Stuart McInally is picked at hooker in place of Fraser Brown who suffered a head injury in training. George Turner is the replacement hooker.
Exeter Chiefs pair Sam Skinner and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne are among the substitutes but Sean Maitland, who was recalled to the training group after being dropped in the aftermath of his breach of quarantine protocol with the Barbarians, has no place in the matchday squad.
Momentum is building nicely for Scotland who are seeking a fifth consecutive win in all competitions and Townsend does not think the disruption at stand-off should derail his side. He believes Weir is playing the best rugby of his career even though the 29-year-old has been a peripheral figure on the international scene during the Scotland coach’s reign.
Townsend made a cogent case for the former Glasgow man when asked what improvements Weir had made to his game since moving to the English Premiership.
“I would say it is having control of the attacking play and not rushing things,” said the coach. “His passing skills have always been pretty good but now we are asking more of the tens to be connected to the forwards, to be an option out the back and step up as first receiver to be alive to where space is in the defence.
“It is about working hard to be in those positions, but then calling for the ball when it is on. I have seen that much more in the last couple of seasons and the last few months with Worcester.
“That probably comes from experience, not just rugby experience but life experience. It is about knowing you can make the right decisions and have the skills to do it. That has been a great development.
“His kicking is a huge strength. But just around attacking control, that has been a big improvement.
“He still wants to improve, but he is probably not kicking himself now when a pass doesn’t go to the right person or he misses an opportunity. Those are always going to happen when you're stand-off because you have so many decisions that could be the right one. Being OK with that and still learning is important.”
Interestingly, Townsend believes fatherhood has also helped Weir develop.
“He has had two children over the last two or three years and that keeps you calmer and makes you want to enjoy your rugby. It is great that he now gets the reward of playing for Scotland, something he has been desperate to do for the past few years.
“He is playing great rugby and it is a bonus for us that with Finn and Adam injured we can call on somebody playing at Premiership level and is confident at what he is doing.”
Scotland have won on each of their last five visits to Italy but it is rarely a stroll in the park. Weir knows that all too well having knocked over a dramatic last-minute drop goal to turn defeat into victory in Rome in the 2014 Six Nations, a result that would spare Scotland the wooden spoon. That win was the first of the five-game sequence and also brought to an end a run of three successive defeats on Italian soil.
The importance of making a winning start to the Autumn Nations Cup is not lost on Townsend whose record as Scotland coach against Italy reads, played four, won four.
“It’s a big opportunity,” admitted the coach who appears to be targeting a top-two finish in Group B. “We know this game is massive because it’s the first one, it’s an away game and if we didn’t win this weekend I don’t think we'd get through to the top two - you’ve got to win your three games and we believe in this squad that they are going to be able to do that, but we’re going to focus on this weekend and playing better than we did against Italy back in February [when Scotland won 17-0 in the Six Nations].
“We know we have to up our performance from that day. We saw the passion and physicality Italy showed against England in the first half [before losing 35-4 last month] - they’ve had two Six Nations games to play, they are battle-hardened, they are playing in a stadium that has a tight pitch which suits their physicality, so we’ve got to match that and impose our own physicality.
“It’s a stadium at which they’ve won before - one of their biggest ever wins, against South Africa - so this will be a big challenge and then we’ll see where we are after the game and whether we’ve still got a chance to get into the top two.”
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