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 a victory against 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. The former Edinburgh player is one of four changes to the starting XV from last Sunday’s win against 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.”
Iain Henderson has been recalled by Ireland for Saturday’s sold-out Test against New Zealand in Dublin. The Ulster captain comes into the second row in place of his fellow British and Irish Lion Tadhg Beirne in the only alteration to Andy Farrell’s starting XV following the emphatic 60-5 win against Japan.
Beirne drops to the bench, while the other change to Farrell’s 23-man squad sees the hooker Rob Herring included on the bench in preference to last weekend’s debutant Dan Sheehan.
The scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park retains his starting berth ahead of Conor Murray following his impressive display against the Brave Blossoms, once again partnering Johnny Sexton, the captain. Gibson-Park will be one of three Ireland players facing their native country, alongside the winger James Lowe and the centre Bundee Aki.
The returning Henderson has made just one appearance for his province since his summer involvement with Warren Gatland’s Lions and played the final 23 minutes against Japan from the bench.
Aki, whose only previous appearance against New Zealand was Ireland’s 16-9 win in November 2018, partners Garry Ringrose in midfield. That Dublin victory in 2018 was the first time Ireland had beaten the Kiwis on home soil and followed a historic maiden success over their opponents in 2016 in Chicago.
However, the three-time world champions have lost just two of the previous 32 meetings between the nations and emphatically ended Ireland’s 2019 World Cup hopes with a thumping 46-14 quarter-final triumph in Tokyo.
Ian Foster’s free-scoring visitors top the current world rankings and set a new world record for the number of points scored in a calendar year – 675 – after a second-string line-up defeated Italy 47-9 last weekend in Rome.
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New Zealand have made one personnel change to the starting XV which thumped Wales a fortnight ago for Saturday’s sold-out Test against Ireland in Dublin.
Sevu Reece – who was part of the second-string All Blacks team which beat Italy last weekend – is selected on the left wing, with David Havili dropping to the bench.