WHEN you score eight tries in one game then welcome back your best two attacking players into the starting line-up for the next, your morale has to be high. Finn Russell only came off the bench for Scotland against Georgia and Stuart Hogg was not involved at all, so the inclusion of both in the 15 to play Wales tomorrow is a massive boost to the team’s hopes of a first win in the principality since 2002.

Jonny Gray also returns, having been on club duty with Hogg in Exeter’s Premiership win over Wasps last weekend, while the fourth personnel change from the 48-7 win over the Georgians sees Blade Thomson come in at No 8 for the injured Glasgow forward Matt Fagerson.

Blair Kinghorn moves to the wing to accommodate Hogg and displaces Duhan van der Merwe in the one positional change, while Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele could come off the bench for his first cap.

Hogg, the captain, was always going to come back into the team for this one, but the return of Russell was less certain. His cameo against Georgia was his first appearance for the national team in 2020, which began with his highly publicised falling-out with Gregor Townsend. That personal and political background, not to mention the continuing good form of Adam Hastings, meant that Russell’s reinstatement at stand-off was by no means automatic.

After announcing his team for the Six Nations match in Llanelli, the head coach admitted it would be impossible to say he and Russell would never disagree again. But he insisted that Russell had adapted well since his recall to the squad, and said that the playmaker and Hogg had been working particularly positively together.

“Look, I can’t predict the future with any player,” Townsend said. “All I can report is that Finn has grown into the squad the longer he has been here.

“It might have been a difficult time for him coming back in after a year, but the way he contributed last week and got involved was great. I think Stuart coming back too and bringing energy and bouncing ideas off each other on the field is good. There is certainly a positive feeling around the group and the players connecting and leading going into this game.”

Gray’s return to the second row was as predictable as Hogg’s to the No 15 jersey, but the inclusion of Thomson, the Saracens No 8, probably required more debate. Having been away on club duty last weekend, Thomson leapfrogs Cornell du Preez and Nick Haining, who were both on the bench at Murrayfield.

“Blade really impressed us when he was last with us,” Townsend continued when asked to explain the selection. “In the build-up to the World Cup and [in] the World Cup games, he played very well. He’s been unfortunate with injuries over the last two or three years, but when he’s been fit he brings so much in terms of his skill, his lineout, his passion as well.”

There are six differences, incidentally, to the team originally selected for this fixture back in March, among them being the absence of Sean Maitland. The Saracens winger was left out of the squad this week after breaching Covid protocols while on Barbarians duty last week, and is understood to be one of the 13 players charged by the RFU for “conduct prejudicial to the game”. Nonetheless, he could play a part in next month’s Nations Cup, according to Townsend.

“Sean was very disappointed in himself: he showed lots of contrition and understands the situation was a serious one. He’ll come back into our squad when he is next available. He has been a good player for us over the last few years, he is close to 50 caps, he’s still in very good form and we do see him coming back into the squad.”

Of those in the training squad but not involved this week, eight Glasgow players and three Edinburgh men will be released for the weekend’s PRO14 fixtures. Nick Grigg, Richie Gray, Rob Harley, Sam Johnson and Huw Jones are already with the Warriors, while George Horne, Ratu Tagive and George Turner will travel to Wales as cover but will be back in time for Monday night’s home game against Leinster. WP Nel also goes to Llanelli as cover, but as Edinburgh are playing at Parc y Scarlets on Sunday he will be available to them along with Jamie Bhatti and Nick Haining.

Scotland (v Wales at Parc y Scarlets, tomorrow [Saturday] 2.15pm): S Hogg (captain, Exeter); D Graham (Edinburgh), C Harris (Gloucester), J Lang (Harlequins), B Kinghorn (Edinburgh); F Russell (Racing 92), A Price (Glasgow); R Sutherland (Edinburgh), F Brown (Glasgow), Z Fagerson (Glasgow), S Cummings (Glasgow), J Gray (Exeter), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), H Watson (Edinburgh), B Thomson (Scarlets). Substitutes: S McInally (Edinburgh), O Kebble (Glasgow), S Berghan (Edinburgh), B Toolis (Edinburgh), C du Preez (Worcester), S Steele (Harlequins), A Hastings (Glasgow), D van der Merwe (Edinburgh).