Gregor Townsend: Richie Vernon has earned Warriors starting place
Glasgow Warriors head coach explains his surprise selection decision ahead of today's European Rugby Champions Cup clash
Gregor Townsend insists that Scotland international Richie Vernon deserves the chance to take centre stage against Toulouse this afternoon.
After a solid appearance off the bench at the Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday, the Warriors head coach has drafted in Vernon, a former back row forward, to start at outside-centre at the expense of Peter Horne, with Alex Dunbar moving to inside centre for the must-win European Champions Cup clash at Scotstoun Stadium.
It’s a reflection on form, a reflection of what we learnt from Toulouse last week, and what we expect they’ll bring this week.
Townsend has made three changes to the starting XV that lost 19-11 in Toulouse on Sunday with Tim Swinson preferred to Leone Nakarawa in the second row, while Ryan Wilson replaces injured flanker Chris Fusaro, but it is Vernon’s inclusion against the most successful club in European rugby competition just 10 months since he made his first start in the midfield that has raised eyebrows.
Despite the availability of experienced wing/centre Sean Lamont, who started at 13 for Scotland against Tonga in last month’s viagogo Autumn Test and partnered Alex Dunbar against Toulon at Scotstoun in January, Townsend has selected on form and what he believes the Top 14 club will bring to the party after their tough encounter last week.
“Richie missed a lot of the beginning of the season with an Achilles injury, so he’s only played the last two or three games, and played really well,” Townsend said.
“He did really well against the Dragons: had a couple of good carries, good tackles. When he came off the bench at the weekend, I thought he did really well.
“We felt he was developing very well at 13 in the last year, especially during the Six Nations.
“He scored two tries away to Leinster – probably should have scored a third. Had a great summer playing sevens rugby; he’s shown what he’s done in the last couple of games.
“We see him developing as a 13. Yes, Sean [Lamont] can play 13 for us, but we see his best position as on the wing.
“It’s great we know we have someone who can cover both wings and centre if needed, and has a real physical approach to the game, which we’ll need at the weekend.”
Vernon made a cameo appearance off the bench on the wing in the defeat to Toulon in Janaury, but his conversion to centre took hold in February as he made his first start against Connacht at Scotstoun, followed by impressive performances at Cardiff and Leinster.
“That Leinster game was probably the breakthrough,” Townsend added.
“He played really well against Cardiff the week before: made a try, had a great break and it was hit of the week when he handed off [Blues centre Dafydd Hewitt], and then the Leinster game he really came to the fore.
“That was away from home against a top side, and he’s just not really had a run of games, because of injury but also the competition we have with Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar playing in that role, and Sean Lamont, and now he’s got an opportunity that he’s earned.”
Equally curious, is Townsend’s decision to field a 4:4 split on the bench, partly necessitated by the loss of openside flanker Tyrone Holmes to a calf injury.
Consequently, the backs may be well covered, but there is no natural back row cover should there be further injuries.
A small number of Warriors fans on social media may continue to question some of the coach’s selection decisions, but results are what really matters and the former Scotland international rarely gets it wrong.
“We believe it’s a really strong bench,” Townsend said
“Richie is someone we’ve talked about as having international experience in the back row; [hooker] Fraser Brown has done really covering openside for us at times, so he’s an option; and Leone played six three weeks ago and played eight in the [RaboDirect PRO12] semi-final against Munster, so there’s flexibility.
“It’s not often you see a 4:4 split, but from a backs point of view we’ve got every position covered, and we’ve got someone like Richie who can play in the back row.”
Dusautoir is one of the best ever to play the game, so we know how good we’ve got to be in that area. Rob’s the ideal person for it.
The loss of Fusaro and Holmes, both natural openside flankers, could be what costs the Scots as they look to get back to winning ways with Toulouse head coach Guy Noves selecting French duo Yannick Nyanga and Thierry Dusautoir, while the Warriors have been forced to switch Rob Harley to seven.
Much of the pre-match talk has been about the battle of the breakdown, an area where Toulouse pack plenty of power and where the Warriors were heavily penalised last time out, and Townsend admits that his charges will have to up their game in that area.
“The majority of the penalties at the weekend came from the breakdown,” he added.
“We’ve got to be better there. We’re up against some big guys who competed really hard in their 22, so we’ve got to make sure they don’t get that opportunity this week.
“Toulouse have picked two opensides. Dusautoir and Nyanga are both outstanding players.
“Dusautoir is one of the best ever to play the game, so we know how good we’ve got to be in that area. Rob’s the ideal person for it.
“Given the fact we’ve got two opensides injured, we’ve got the best available back rowers on the field.
“Rob did really well there. He has been in outstanding form, his work-rate has been superb. In the All Blacks game he was still tackling everything that moved; same at the weekend.
“He’s played most of his rugby at six, but he has the capabilities of playing at seven.”
Glasgow Warriors: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Richie Vernon, Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour; Finn Russell, Henry Pyrgos; Ryan Grant, Pat MacArthur, Jon Welsh, Tim Swinson, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Rob Harley, Josh Strauss (captain).
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Gordon Reid, Euan Murray, Leone Nakarawa; Niko Matawalu, Duncan Weir, Peter Horne, Sean Lamont.
Stade Toulousain: Clement Poitrenaud; Yoann Huget, Yann David, Gaël Fickou, Maxime Medard; Jean-Marc Doussain, Sebastien Bezy; Gurthrö Steenkamp, Corey Flynn, Census Johnston, Joe Tekori, Yoann Maestri, Yannick Nyanga, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Louis Picamoles.
Replacements: Julien Marchand, Vasil Kakovin, Kisi Pulu, Romain Millo-Chluski, Gregory Lamboley; Luke McAlister, Vincent Clerc, Alexis Palisson.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)