Gregor Townsend has hailed his promotion of veteran tighthead WP Nel to the starting Scotland line-up for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland at Murrayfield. With current first-choice Zander Fagerson suspended, the Scottish coach had a big void to fill in his pack. 

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Nel has not started a match since the October 2019 World Cup pool loss to Japan, but Townsend had no hesitation in selecting the South African-born front-rower for his 43rd cap seven weeks before his 35th birthday on April 30. 

Asked to explain the rationale behind the four changes to the Scotland line-up from the team that began the February 13 defeat to Wales, Townsend said: “Zander Fagerson is unavailable due to suspension so WP Nel comes in for him, someone who has been in really, really good form this year for his club (Edinburgh). 

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“Physically he is in the best shape of his career so there is a lot more rugby left in him. We know he brings a lot of experience and power at scrum time. 

“Jamie Ritchie comes back in. He was available for our last game, the (postponed) French game, so he is raring to go and has been training really well. Sam Johnson, again another player that was available for France, is back in at 12. He is someone who has featured a lot over the last couple of seasons and is now back to full fitness.

“And Sean Maitland gets the nod ahead of Darcy Graham. Our three wingers have played really well in the championship, Duhan (van der Merwe), Sean and Darcy. Sean has played a couple of games for his club (Saracens) since that England game and we feel, given our opponents’ potential strategy this week, that Sean’s strengths are better suited to this game.”

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Switching to the bench, Townsend has not selected a specialist out-half reserve but he is confident he hasn’t left his team short of a viable alternative. “Stuart Hogg played there (at out-half) for about 30 minutes against Wales in the autumn. 

Last time we played Ireland, Jaco van der Welt started and we didn’t have fly-half cover on the bench. Stuart was due to cover that position if required. We feel that where Stuart is now, getting him on the ball more would be a positive thing. He is our captain so going into 10 as an attack leader, a team leader, would be something that flows naturally.”

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