Sam Johnson handed Scotland debut in Six Nations opener

Gary Graham — previously called up by England — could also win his first cap

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will hand a Test debut to Glasgow centre Sam Johnson against Italy on Saturday. Photograph: PA

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will hand a Test debut to Glasgow centre Sam Johnson against Italy on Saturday. Photograph: PA

 

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will hand a Test debut to Glasgow centre Sam Johnson when his side open their Guinness Six Nations campaign at home to Italy on Saturday.

Newcastle flanker Gary Graham — previously called up by England coach Eddie Jones — and Leicester hooker Jake Kerr could also win their first caps if they appear off the bench.

Edinburgh fullback Blair Kinghorn, meanwhile, will start on the left wing as the Dark Blues welcome the Azzurri to Murrayfield.

With Edinburgh resurgent under Richard Cockerill this season, Townsend has chosen to go with the capital outfit’s tight five. Hooker Stuart McInally will squeeze in between props Allan Dell and WP Nel, with Ben Toolis and Grant Gilchrist forming the second row.

Exeter lock Sam Skinner will slot into the back-row after showing he can fill in at flanker during his impressive introduction to the national team set-up during the autumn, with Ryan Wilson and Jamie Ritchie completing the back-row.

Skipper Greig Laidlaw will partner Racing 92 star Finn Russell in the halfbacks, while Australia-born Johnson — who qualifies on residency grounds after signing for Glasgow in 2015 — lines-up alongside Huw Jones in midfield.

Stuart Hogg will again provide an attacking threat from fullback as he slots in beside Kinghorn and Tommy Seymour in the back three.

Townsend said: “Italy have made life tough for Scotland in every Test match we’ve played. I remember that as a player, as a supporter and as a coach — and they were better than us in most of last season’s contest in Rome. They played with pace, were physical and we had to play really, really well in the final quarter to win.

“That performance and also the recent displays of Benetton Treviso are sharp reminders for our players that this will be a difficult fixture.

“Our challenge is to win the physical battle, which is a strength of Italian rugby. We will also have to bring energy and accuracy in order to get our campaign off to a winning start.”

Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw (capt); Allan Dell, Stuart McInally, WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Sam Skinner, Jamie Ritchie, Ryan Wilson.

Replacements: Jake Kerr, Jamie Bhati, Simon Berghan, Gary Graham, Josh Strauss, Ali Price, Adam Hastings, Chris Harris.

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