Three years ago these sides met as Test rugby in the northern hemisphere started to emerge from its Covid-related hiatus. On that evening in October 2020, Oli Kebble and Duhan van der Merwe made their international debuts (and, quelle surprise, the giant winger scored a try); Simon Berghan, Nick Haining and Ben Toolis were Test regulars; Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally had the hooker slots nailed down; and Ali Price was immovable from the 9 shirt. Oh, and Finn Russell was just returning to the team for the first time since the 2019 RWC…
A lot has changed since that autumn evening but it’s still possible to see how the foundations of the current side were being built 34 Tests ago. In all, 9 of the players who featured against Georgia last time round are in the lineup for this game – the same number of returnees as the visitors. Scott Cummings is the only man who will have played in every one of Scotland’s quartet of Tests against the Lelos in the last 4 years.
5 Scotland changes from last Test (v France)
- 15 – Smith for Kinghorn
- 9 – White for Price
- 1 – Bhatti for Schoeman
- 2 – Cherry for Turner
- 4 – Skinner for Gray
BACK 3 – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
Duhan van der Merwe
47 Tries 45
99kg Average weight 88kg
27 Total caps 73
0 RWC matches 2
27.0 Average age 24.3
2nd time this unit has started together for Scotland.
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 15. Stuart Hogg; 14. Sean Maitland; 11. Blair Kinghorn
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? Mais, non.
Edinburgh duo Darcy Graham and Blair Kinghorn will join their club colleague Duhan van der Merwe in the back 3 when it comes to taking on the Springboks. Kyle Steyn’s late elevation to the starting lineup for this game gives the Glasgow skipper another chance to press his case for what should be a hotly contested number 23 shirt on the bench.
Since the 2019 World Cup, Scotland have only used 6 different starting wingers and 4 of those players will travel to France – Kinghorn, Graham, Steyn and van der Merwe. In the last year that has come down to just 2 out of 3 from that latter trio starting every game on the wing, with no Scot starting more Tests than Steyn in 2023 (8 – Huwipulotu also 8).
The Lelos will also feel this is also an area of strength for their side. Past matches have seen Scottish back 3 players get the ball in their hands much more than their Georgian counterparts though – the forwards will need to set the platform that allows the wide men to shine.
CENTRES – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
18 Tries 18
102kg Average weight 94kg
56 Total caps 121
0 RWC matches 7
28.1 Average age 26.9
8th time this unit has started together for Scotland
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 13. Huw Jones; 12. Sam Johnson.
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? Absolutely.
After missing out on the 2019 RWC, Huw Jones was there at the very beginning of the current World Cup cycle. That was shortlived though as Chris Harris / Sam Johnson became the preferred partnership in midfield. Jones was left with sporadic involvements until the yin to his yang arrived in the shape of Sione Tuipulotu – allied to the Scottish gameplan starting to open up again.
As both men head to their first RWC, their relationship with Finn Russell and the variation they can provide when linking and swapping with the stand off will be vital. They won’t want to give away too much ahead of the game in 2 weeks but there will need to be some testing of options against a very experienced Georgian duo who will be no mugs in defence.
HALF BACKS – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
11 Tries 15
90kg Average weight 79kg
86 Total caps 71
7 RWC matches 8
28.1 Average age 24.4
6th time this unit has started together for Scotland
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 10. Adam Hastings; 9. Ali Price.
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? Indubitably.
Right back in February 2020, Finn Russell was unavailable while his old pal Ali Price was beginning a run of 30 consecutive selections – including 28 starts – following Greig Laidlaw’s retirement. Flash forward to this summer and Finn is back and better than ever, while at scrum half this has very much been Ben White’s year. The Toulon player has grabbed the starting slot, wearing the 9 shirt in 7 out of 9 Tests so far during 2023.
Russell will lead from the front but it won’t just be his array of tricks that will be needed to break down South Africa (although they will certainly come in handy!) they will need to be combined with flawless decision making and a top notch kicking game.
While Georgia are not the Springboks and a home friendly is not an RWC pool match, the half backs need to play Saturday’s game as if it is an all or nothing clash to build them into the mentality that will be required to have any chance of beating South Africa.
FRONT ROW – ADVANTAGE GEORGIA
341kg Weight 339kg
7 Tries 19
96 Total caps 204
7 RWC matches 18
33.3 Average age 32.6
1st time this unit has started together for Scotland
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 1. Rory Sutherland; 2. Fraser Brown; 3. Zander Fagerson.
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? No.
While not first choice, this does, however, look very much like the group who will fill the front row bench slots and be deployed to counter the Springboks’ Bomb Squad – by whatever means necessary. The Scots’ trio have plenty of experience of being substitutes (38 combined replacement appearances in this RWC cycle – 86% of all their caps during this period) and that knowledge of how best to contribute in that role will be essential against a South African side whose levels don’t drop no matter who is on the pitch.
Saturday will provide an excellent test for the home side’s front row. Preparing against the Georgians’ veteran triumvirate will be a serious workout as Jamie Bhatti makes his first Test start since November 2021 (and just the 4th of his career); and WP Nel makes his 3rd start for Scotland in 2023 – already more than he made in the other 3 years of this RWC cycle.
SECOND ROW – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
231kg Weight 244kg
1 Tries 4
91 Total caps 83
6 RWC matches 8
30.8 Average age 28.0
10th time this unit has started together for Scotland
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 4. Scott Cummings; 5. Jonny Gray.
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? Unlikely.
Grant Gilchrist’s regular partner in the second row, Richie Gray, will slot back in to provide some of the sheer size needed to counter the Springboks. The elder Gray will also need to run a tight ship at the lineout to secure the kind of possessions that Finn Russell can make mischief with and avoid costly losses of possession.
Between them, Richie and younger brother, Jonny Gray, have ensured family representation at 4 consecutive World Cups. They only managed one tournament together though, back in 2015. Long-term injury put paid to Jonny’s chances of travelling to France. The team will miss him, with his usual substantial workload having to be spread out across the pack.
BACK ROW – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
Jamie Ritchie (c)
320kg Weight 310kg
3 Tries 10
63 Total caps 47
2 RWC matches 0
26.6 Average age 26.4
2nd time this unit has started together for Scotland
Starters for game 1 of this RWC cycle (away to Ireland) – 6. Jamie Ritchie; 7. Hamish Watson; 8. Nick Haining.
Is this the first choice selection for the pool fixture versus South Africa in 2 weeks time? Very much so.
Following on from the Ireland game at the start of the World Cup cycle, the back row quickly developed with Matt Fagerson slotting in at number 8 for a selection that became Gregor Townsend’s go to.
While it might have been unthinkable for much of the last 6 of 7 years for a Scotland team to go into a game without Hamish Watson at openside, Rory Darge’s form will surely have been too much to ignore, while the dark blue’s Mr Consistent in the shape of the younger Fagerson is likely to edged out by the slightly more explosive Jack Dempsey at number 8.
Georgia’s back row is missing their some of their top options but they’re still not going to provide an easy ride at the breakdown. That’s good news for Gregor Townsend’s men as they have to come flying out the blocks and put in a huge performance in 2 weeks time in Marseille.
This may only be a warm-up / Summer Nations Series game but with Scotland now in the cycle of a game every fortnight the intensity needs to be up near World Cup levels and much of that will be lead by the performance of the back row.
REPLACEMENT FORWARDS – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
114kg Average weight 110kg
7 Tries 4
101 Total caps 71
4 RWC matches 4
27.0 Average age 25.4
With the first choice front row trio of Pierre Schoeman, George Turner and Zander Fagerson resting (one of them on a break of a slightly more compulsory nature than the others…) a final opportunity knocks for this weekend’s replacements. As it stands the plan is likely to be that these 3 players won’t be needed again until the fixture against Romania but plans always need to be adaptable and all 3 will still be pushing hard to impress and break into the matchday 23 for the opening RWC fixture.
While Scott Cummings and Matt Fagerson will undoubtedly have had designs on starting spots, they will both have big contributions to make as the likely second row and back row cover against the Springboks. The expectation is that they will be joined by Sam Skinner as a hybrid replacement who can slot in at either lock or flanker depending on what Scotland need in the face of South African physicality.
REPLACEMENT BACKS – ADVANTAGE SCOTLAND
11 Tries 11
94kg Average weight 85kg
67 Total caps 132
7 RWC matches 10
28.2 Average age 25.2
This is an important outing for Ben Healy who might expect to get on relatively early in proceedings. A 6 forwards, 2 backs split on the bench for the pool opener will almost certainly see the former Munster player miss out in 2 weeks time – with Blair Kinghorn covering Finn Russell – but there’s every chance that Healy will be scheduled to have the 10 shirt and run the show against Romania at the end of next month. He may be working in tandem with George Horne for that fixture and Saturday night against Georgia will represent this duo’s first chance to work together as half backs in a game environment.
Where a 6/2 bench split is involved, the number 23 slot has to provide plenty of flexibility and an ability to cover across the centres and back 3. Chris Harris has experience on the wing – although he hasn’t started there since 2018 and at nearly 33 years old might not have the pace for a long stint out wide. Ollie Smith filled this role on the last 6/2 bench against France at Murrayfield. While he has plenty of experience at club/Super 6 and age grade levels playing centre, he has yet to start there for Glasgow or Scotland. Kyle Steyn is equally comfortable in the midfield or on the wing for the Warriors. While he has yet to play centre at Test level, given his form and contributions so far this year, he might well be in pole position for the final spot in the matchday squad against South Africa.
– Finn Russell will be just the 8th player (out of 1,196 capped by the dark blues) to make 70 starts for the Scotland Men’s team, following in the footsteps of Gregor Townsend, Gordon Bulloch, Scott Murray, Chris Paterson, Sean Lamont, Ross Ford and Stuart Hogg.
– The precautionary withdrawal of Darcy Graham from this game has surely cost him an almost certain try. The wee winger is on a run of 4 consecutive matches (Scotland and Edinburgh) with a try scored; 4 consecutive Tests with a try scored; and has crossed in each of his 3 previous outings against Georgia.
– The opposition number 14 has a similar nose for a try. Akaki Tabusadze’s current streak is 5 games in a row with at least one 5-pointer and he has notched 11 tries in total in his last 8 appearances for Georgia.
– Kyle Steyn is the only member of the starting XV to have also played 7s for Scotland. That’s the first time in the 70 matches of the Townsend era that just a single 7s graduate has been in the lineup.
– Scotland’s trio of wingers, Darcy Graham, Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe have scored a combined 17 tries in the dark blues’ last 11 Tests:
- Fiji (H) – van der Merwe
- New Zealand (H) – Graham
- Argentina (H) – Graham (3), van der Merwe
- England (A) – van der Merwe (2)
- Wales (H) – Steyn (2)
- France (A) – none
- Ireland (H) – none
- Italy (H) – van der Merwe
- Italy (H) – Graham (2)
- France (H) – Graham
- France (A) – Steyn (2), van der Merwe
If you missed Part 1 – previous meetings, scouting report and more – check it out here.