Let the tours begin: England, Scotland and Ireland launch their summer Tests
With more than 40 players away with the Lions, a host of young talents get their opportunity in Argentina, Singapore and the USA this weekend
Wales must wait another week but the other home nations snap into action this weekend as the summer tours schedule takes hold. The Lions will have played the Crusaders by the time Scotland kick off against Italy in their historic Test in Singapore, a lunchtime match for UK viewers that is being shown live on BBC Scotland (coverage from 12.45pm).
Gregor Townsend described starting his reign as Scotland head coach in such unfamiliar surroundings as “surreal”, but with only three Scots on Lions duty in New Zealand he has the core of the Six Nations team available to him.
Duncan Taylor makes his first Test start at full-back in the absence of Stuart Hogg, while Damien Hoyland wins only a third cap in Tommy Seymour’s usual wing spot. Ali Price continues in the No 9 shirt he took over when Greig Laidlaw hurt his ankle in Paris four months ago.
There’s a first start for Edinburgh lock Ben Toolis, following his 2015 debut against Italy off the bench, and WP Nel ends an injury-plagued season with a first cap since last year’s tour to Japan. Don’t rule out a Lions call-up for the tighthead should a prop go down in New Zealand.
With others rested or carrying niggles, there are nine changes from the starting XV that beat Italy 29-0 in March. But on the back of a three-week camp, the Scots will be heavy favourites to continue the momentum achieved under Vern Cotter.
Townsend said: “This was about seeing new combinations, rewarding players in form and also allowing an opportunity to players who have worked hard and got back from being injured – the likes of Nel, (Josh) Strauss and (Matt) Scott.
“We have a tour of three games and a squad of 34, so I imagine the teams will change before the end of the tour.”
Like Scotland, Italy go on to face Australia and Fiji in the ensuing weeks and a win might prove elusive for a squad shorn of old hands Sergio Parisse, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Simone Favaro and Lorenzo Cittadini.
Prop Simone Ferrari and wing Leonardo Sarto return for their first Test action of the year following injuries, there’s a debut for Treviso lock Dean Budd and, in Parisse’s absence, the captain is Edoardo Gori, who did the job in three tour Tests last year.
A crowd of between 10,000 and 20,000 is expected at Singapore’s National Stadium for the 8pm evening kick-off, the first Tier One Test to be played in the country. Azzurri coach Conor O’Shea acknowledges the significance of the match for the region.
“Part of our job is about the here and now but part is to make sure that rugby grows as a game around the world,” he said. “If we can be any part of making that happen it’s an incredible thing.
“The focus is on Saturday but we are part of the bigger family and to have a small impact on rugby in this part of the world is a big honour.”
England’s new faces
For one reason or another, England are without about 30 players so the team for the first of two Tests in Argentina was always going to intrigue.
As many as 11 players could make their debut but the four uncapped starters are Saracens playmaker Alex Lozowski, Exeter prop Harry Williams, and two back-rows in Sale’s Tom Curry and Newcastle’s Mark Wilson.
Williams was part of the Whitgift side that won the U18 Schools Cup, where he had Elliot Daly and Marland Yarde as team-mates, and is something of a late developer in professional terms.
A product of Old Elthamians in South London, the 25-year-old has put on 20kg from his school days and is living the dream, having already become a Premiership champion with the Chiefs. Clubmates Henry Slade, Don Armand and Jack Maunder are also in Saturday’s squad.
Curry, who will be 19 next week, has started just four Premiership matches while Wilson, 27, has played 112 games in the same competition. The Falcon wins his first cap after years of sustained excellence, only Thomas Young making more tackles than him in last season’s league campaign.
The pairing of Lozowski and Slade outside George Ford gives England three fly-halves, and a fourth, Piers Francis, takes his place on a replacements’ bench containing only one capped player in Matt Mullan.
Gravesend-born Francis was playing Super Rugby for the Blues in Samoa last weekend but is now a Northampton player and starting a journey he never expected to happen. The 26-year-old admitted he thought the selection phone call from Eddie Jones was a hoax.
“Competition brings out the best in me and to be competing against the likes of Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden in Super Rugby has been massive for my development,” he said. “Hopefully I can take that forward with England.”
Dylan Hartley captains England for the 20th time and has tasted defeat only once in that capacity, in Dublin last time out. His 85th cap will draw him level with Rory Underwood and Lawrence Dallaglio as the third-equal most capped England player in history, behind Jason Leonard and Jonny Wilkinson.
Asked for a fitness update on Denny Solomona, Jones described him as a “flying salmon” so expect the Sale wing to come off the bench in San Juan, a match being shown live on BBC2 (coverage from 8pm).
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“I’ve been impressed with the way the whole squad has trained and gelled together in a short amount of time. We are here to win this series 2-0 but we know Argentina will be extremely tough opposition. After a mixed year of results, there will be pressure on them to play well and win in front of a partisan crowd.”
Irish go stateside
Completing your Saturday viewing is Ireland’s clash with the USA Eagles at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
Blindside Rhys Ruddock captains his country for the first time and will have experienced campaigners Cian Healy and Devin Toner for company in the pack.
Jacob Stockdale, 21, who scored nine tries for Ulster in last season’s Guinness Pro12, wins a well-deserved first cap and there will be much interest in Joey Carbery’s performance in his first Ireland start.
The replacements include four uncapped players in Dave Heffernan, Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Rory Scannell.
Ireland’s last meeting with the Eagles, at Houston in 2013, produced the narrowest of their eight (out of eight) wins in the fixture, with Ian Madigan’s five penalties seeing them get home 15-12.
In March last year, London Irish and Saracens drew a crowd of 14,800 for a Premiership match at the Red Bull Arena and organisers will be hoping for rather more than that for this International. “With 35 million Americans claiming Irish American heritage in our country, this match will be a strong fit on all levels,” said USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne.
For UK fans, Irish-born Sale pivot AJ MacGinty is the best-known player in the Eagles line-up, and Newcastle’s Paddy Ryan could make his Test debut off the bench.
“It’s fantastic that the guys are getting an opportunity to play in front of a big audience,” said USA coach John Mitchell, whose team face Georgia next week and then crucial RWC 2019 qualifiers with Canada in Ontario and San Diego.
“It’s essential for us to play against one of the top three sides in the world. They have recently beaten New Zealand and England, so clearly they’re doing something extraordinary under Joe Schmidt.”
The match is available to Sky customers on Premier Sports (channel 428), with coverage starting at 9.30pm.
Australia v Fiji and South Africa v France are other Tests taking place this weekend – for the full schedule of upcoming Tests, click here.
Scotland team v Italy
D Taylor (Saracens); D Hoyland (Edinburgh), M Scott (Gloucester), A Dunbar (Glasgow), T Visser (Harlequins); F Russell (Glasgow), A Price (Glasgow); A Dell (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh), T Swinson (Glasgow), B Toolis (Edinburgh), J Barclay (Scarlets), J Hardie (Edinburgh), J Strauss (Glasgow).
Replacements: F Brown (Glasgow), G Reid (Glasgow), Z Fagerson (Glasgow), R Harley (Glasgow), M Bradbury (Edinburgh), R Wilson (Glasgow), H Pyrgos (Glasgow), P Horne (Glasgow).
England team v Argentina
M Brown (Harlequins); M Yarde (Harlequins), Henry Slade (Exeter), A Lozowski (Saracens), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Bath), D Care (Harlequins); E Genge (Leicester), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), H Williams (Exeter), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Ewels (Bath), M Wilson (Newcastle), T Curry (Sale), N Hughes (Wasps).
Replacements: J Singleton (Worcester), M Mullan (Wasps), W Collier (Harlequins), N Isiekwe (Saracens), D Armand (Exeter), J Maunder (Exeter), P Francis (Northampton), D Solomona (Sale).
Ireland team v USA
T O’Halloran (Connacht); K Earls (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Carbery (Leinster), K Marmion (Connacht); C Healy (Leinster), N Scannell (Munster), J Ryan (Munster), Q Roux (Connacht), D Toner (Leinster), R Ruddock (Leinster, capt), J van der Flier (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: D Heffernan (Connacht), D Kilcoyne (Munster), A Porter (Leinster), J Ryan (Leinster), D Leavy (Leinster), L McGrath (Leinster), R Scannell (Munster), S Zebo (Munster).