Glasgow Warriors pair Jonny Gray and Tommy Seymour will make their 50th appearance in a Scotland side – that features four changes – against Wales in the Guinness Six Nations this Saturday at BT Murrayfield (kick-off 2.15pm) – live on BBC.
It will also be a 50th start for Seymour – who made his debut against South Africa in the summer of 2013 – while the opportunity comes just five days before Gray – who debuted against the Springboks that autumn – turns 25, making him the second-youngest Scot to reach the milestone.
Scotland Head Coach, Gregor Townsend, paid tribute to the pair he’s coached for both club and country.
“Getting to 50 caps for your country is a milestone in a player’s career and it underlines the consistency and quality both Tommy and Jonny have delivered for Scotland over the years.”
“Tommy has started all his games and has an impressive try-scoring record, which is fundamental element of the game for a winger.
“As well as his finishing ability, his excellent work-rate off-the-ball and outstanding aerial skills have been the key reasons why he’s reached a half century of appearances for Scotland.
“Jonny is an exceptional player who came through as a young man and, by becoming the second-youngest player to win 50 caps, shows just how well he’s played in that relatively short time.
“He has a phenomenal work rate, is a very accurate tackler and takes real pride in helping the team prepare, as well as continually looking for ways to improve his own game.”
Among Scotland’s four starting changes are a new set of half-backs who will look to orchestrate the host’s efforts to secure the Doddie Weir Cup, as Racing 92 stand-off Finn Russell returns from a head injury to start alongside Glasgow Warriors scrum-half Ali Price.
Russell’s return sees Pete Horne move one place outfield to inside-centre – in place of Sam Johnson – to partner fellow Glasgow Warriors centre Nick Grigg, while the inclusion of Price means Greig Laidlaw moves to the bench, with Edinburgh hooker and club captain Stuart McInally taking on the national team responsibility for the third time.
The final change to the backs sees 21-year-old Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham earn his first start in place of injured Saracen Sean Maitland (foot) to join Seymour and clubmate Blair Kinghorn in the back-three.
The only change to the pack is at tighthead where Edinburgh prop Willem Nel returns from a calf injury to form an all-Edinburgh front-row with McInally and loosehead Allan Dell.
They pack down in front of an unchanged back-five where lock Grant Gilchrist partners Gray in the second-row and Magnus Bradbury, Jamie Ritchie and Josh Strauss return to the back-row.
There are three further changes to the bench which could see recent squad additions Hamish Watson (back-row), Gordon Reid (loosehead prop) and Byron McGuigan (back three) feature for the first time this campaign.
Townsend added: “While there have been some strong moments in our games this campaign, we have yet to deliver that quality and focus for 80 minutes and play to our potential.
“We have had a couple of weeks since our defeat in Paris to look at ways we can improve our performances, through what we do in training, our tactical approach and through selection.
“First and foremost, we select a team we believe gives us the best chance of winning at the weekend, while we also have an opportunity to reward players who have been in very good form and have been knocking at the door of the team in recent weeks – Darcy Graham and Ali Price especially.
“Greig [Laidlaw], having started in our last six games is a key member of our squad, although this week we have decided to utilise his leadership and experience off the bench. He is driven by a desire to win for his country and he should have an important role to play in the latter stages of the match at the weekend.”
Wales – the world’s third-ranked side – arrive in Edinburgh as the only unbeaten team remaining in the championship and have won 10 in their last 11 Tests against their hosts, with Scotland’s success coming in their last meeting at BT Murrayfield two years ago.
Townsend added: “They [Wales] have a very good record against us and are in excellent form. It’s a similar challenge to the one we faced last year against England, who had also been on a very good run of results in their preceding games.
“We rose that the challenge that day and found a way to win and I firmly believe we can reach that level of performance once again on Saturday.”
Official. Eddie Jones signs new England Deal.
England men’s head coach Eddie Jones and the RFU have agreed a contract extension which will see him continue his role until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
Jones joined England Rugby at the end of 2015 and has coached the men’s national side on 54 occasions winning 42, drawing one and losing 11 – giving him a win ratio of 78%, the highest in the history of England coaches.
Under Jones, England has won two Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam in 2016, a 3-0 away Test series win against Australia in the same year, an unbeaten run of 18 matches equalling New Zealand’s record and were finalists at last year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Jones said: “The extension is a great honour for me, but in the current environment, it is only right to acknowledge what a difficult time the world is facing. We are all looking forward to a time when we can get back to playing rugby and use the sport as a force for good in bringing people back together. I never thought coming here four years ago I would be doing a second four years but the circumstances are right. Obviously it is important for the team that we keep improving and my focus will be solely on that.
“I am excited about raising the standards again. We have a great team. We set out four years ago to be the best team in the world and unfortunately we missed that by 80 minutes. Now we want to be the team that is remembered as being the greatest team the game has ever seen. It’s a big ambition but I believe we are capable of doing it. We have players with an enhanced reputation, we have a team that is expected to do well, so it’s a great opportunity for us to keep moving forward.”
Bill Sweeney, RFU CEO said: “My thoughts and those of all of us at the RFU are with everyone impacted by COVID-19, both across the country at large but also within our own rugby union community. In exceptionally difficult times, we are pleased to be sharing some good news. We are delighted that Eddie will continue as head coach to run England’s campaign to take us to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. His record since joining speaks for itself and he has proven why he is one of the best coaches in world rugby. The progress shown by England since 2015 has been indisputable and having fielded the youngest-ever team to play in a World Cup final, we know even more growth is possible. We are all excited by what this squad can do and having Eddie leading the team is very important to us.
“We reached an understanding soon after returning from Japan but there were some things that we wanted to make sure worked for both sides. We have announced Eddie’s contract extension a few weeks later than planned as our focus was diverted to support the English rugby community during this difficult time, we are now turning our attention to developing plans to support the rebooting of rugby and a winning England team will provide a vital role in that.”
Ahead of the Guinness Six Nations Jones confirmed Simon Amor and Matt Proudfoot would join Steve Borthwick and John Mitchell as his assistant coaches. Jason Ryles will join later in the year as skills coach following Borthwick’s departure towards the end of the season.
RFU CEO gives COVID-19 planning & support update
Bill Sweeney – RFU, CEO
My thoughts and those of all of us at the RFU continue to be with everyone impacted by the difficult and exceptional situation we are all facing, both across the country and within our own rugby union community.
Earlier today we held a virtual board meeting and I am writing to advise you of the actions that have been agreed to offer a support package directly funded from the RFU worth £7m to provide support for community clubs in England.
To support clubs we are today announcing that the RFU will be providing a £7m relief package for community clubs. The package includes monies ring fenced and diverted for the community game as well as additional funding. These measures include:
• An early release of £800,000 cash due to clubs through the ticketing fund.
• Early release of final funding payments (£600,000) to Constituent Bodies and suspension of the activity plans against which this was allocated, enabling them to utilise this to provide “immediate support grants” to clubs most in need. In addition £400,000 will be made available to Constituent Bodies who elect to match fund from their own reserves.
• A suspension of the Quarterly loan repayments for clubs with outstanding loans due in March (£335,000).
• The creation of a £5m support loans programme, offering loans of between circa £2k and circa £10k to clubs, with deferred re-payments for six months and repayable over three years.
We will be providing more details on this financial package in the coming week. We will also be issuing regular club recovery updates with practical advice on how government grants can be accessed as well as other business management advice.
We welcome government interventions which will provide business rate holidays and grants for clubs.
The RFU will continue to provide a free helpline to assist clubs with legal and tax related matters: https://www.englandrugby.com/participation/running-your-club/legal-and-administration
Significant progress has been made on the process for considering the implications of ending the season early. We will ensure a fair and balanced outcome for the game and are now committed to update on this by the middle of April.
No one can predict every possible outcome of the COVID-19 outbreak particularly with regard to the duration of this crisis and we are managing in the unknown. We have modelled three potential scenarios and are working on an assumption based on a medium term impact with a view to a return to rugby in the autumn. We will continue to monitor against this assumption and review and revise planning where necessary.
The RFU had budgeted for a loss making year within a four year cycle due to the costs of the 2019 RWC campaign and hosting only two home Six Nations games. The loss will now be considerably more as we face challenges similar to businesses across the country.
The RFU’s biggest asset is also a major cost and the closure of Twickenham Stadium has a significant impact on the revenues we can generate to re-invest back into the game. In that sense we are like every other club in the Union, when we do not stage matches and events we do not generate revenue.
Based on our planning assumption we estimate RFU revenue losses over the next 18 months to be approximately £45-£50 million and have a firm plan in place to mitigate this. The RFU Executive Team will be taking a cut in remuneration in excess of 25%. In addition, combined Board fees will be reduced by 75%.
We are continuing our support to ensure colleagues and communities are given help to follow government advice and are providing recommendations on how to stay fit and healthy and a range of new content will be made available to players and fans across our social media channels.
We are discussing with government and the NHS the role the RFU and Twickenham Stadium can play in providing volunteers as well as support for the NHS including accommodation, parking and meal provisioning.
I am confident that rugby will play a big role in energising communities across England after this difficult period. In the meantime, we are working hard with the wider rugby community to take the necessary measures to safeguard a financially resilient Union so that we can.
Rodney Parade to help in fight against coronavirus
Rodney Parade has become the latest sporting venue to open its doors to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
The Newport stadium has been provided free of charge as a base for front-line NHS staff to check if they have the virus and are able to continue working. At this stage only NHS staff are eligible to be tested at Rodney Parade to see if they have COVID-19. Dragons managing director Mark Jones said: “The health service and care workers are doing an incredible job in such difficult circumstances so we are happy to offer our help and support in any way we can.
“Playing our part in the local community is at the heart of what we’re about at the Dragons and in times of crisis people stick together. We would urge everyone to follow the latest NHS advice on protecting themselves from the virus, particularly to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel.”
A statement from Aneurin Bevan Health Board read: “The health and wellbeing of our staff is essential for delivering services for the people of Gwent. It is fundamental during this time when the most vulnerable people need us most.
“We have set up a drive-through facility to test staff for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and help us get our teams back in to work on the front line. The testing site is located at Rodney Parade in Newport and we ask that everyone practises the stay-at-home guidance and does not visit the site.
“Everyone at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board would like to thank the team at Rodney Parade for their community-focused approach and accommodating us during these difficult times.”