Gregor Townsend is confident Ben White will be fit for the Rugby World Cup even though the Scotland scrum-half has not travelled to France for this Saturday’s warm-up match in Saint-Etienne.
The 25-year-old, who started each of the Six Nations matches earlier this year, was forced off in clear discomfort with an ankle injury in the first half of last weekend’s victory over Les Bleus at Murrayfield.
White stayed in Scotland while the rest of the squad flew out on Sunday to their World Cup training base near Nice. His number nine jersey has been taken by Ali Price for Saturday night’s Test at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.
“Ben is doing alright,” reported Townsend as he faced the media on Thursday following his team announcement. “He is not part of our group just now, he has stayed at home to continue with rehab.
“Given the fact we’ve got two flights, one out here to our training camp, then one up to Saint-Etienne, and obviously some full-on training sessions, we decided it would be better for Ben to stay back home, get physio and rest up.
“We’re confident Ben will return to training next week or the following week. We do have an appointment booked for him on Monday with a specialist to see how it’s progressing.
“That gives us clarity ahead of announcing our World Cup squad (on Wednesday) but from chatting to the medics last night, he seems to be progressing positively, like we thought he would.”
Another player who misses out this weekend is Zander Fagerson, but Townsend is relieved that he will be able to call on the Glasgow prop for the World Cup opener against South Africa after he was effectively banned for just two matches following his red card for a high challenge on France hooker Pierre Bourgarit last weekend.
“I was part of the group that presented Zander’s case alongside Zander and our team manager (David Edge) and I thought the way the panel approached it, they understood Zander’s actions were mistimed rather than any intent to hurt his opponent,” said Townsend, reflecting on Tuesday’s hearing.
“He was in control of his actions, so with Zander pleading guilty to the charge, we got a sanction that obviously could have been worse but what we believe was befitting of an unlucky incident rather than intentional foul play.
“It’s a huge boost for Zander that he can now focus on being available for the first game against South Africa. Any longer ban would have taken him out of that game or potentially taken him out of the World Cup so he’s now got four weeks before we play South Africa to make sure he’s in great physical condition.”
Townsend has made six changes to the team that started against the French last weekend, with Kyle Steyn, Price, WP Nel, George Turner, Rory Darge and captain Jamie Ritchie taking over from Darcy Graham, White, Fagerson, Ewan Ashman, Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson.
Ritchie missed the previous two warm-up matches with a minor calf issue.
“Jamie’s probably in the best shape I’ve seen him in the last few years,” said Townsend. “He’s had a couple of injuries that have curtailed his progress but he’s built on what he did in the Six Nations and I think he’s fitter, stronger.
“We’ve had a few lively sessions and we had a full hit-out on two occasions and Jamie stood out really well. He trained fully this week in hot conditions and looked good so we can’t wait to see him play.
Graham and Matt Fagerson have both been given the weekend off after being the only two players to start the previous two warm-up matches.
“They’re both fine physically and both wanted to play but there’s an increased risk when you start people in three Test matches in three weeks so that’s the reason they’ve missed out this weekend,” said Townsend.
Townsend trimmed four players from his provisional squad last weekend and must cull another quartet by Wednesday when he names his final 33-man squad for the World Cup.
“We’re closer because we’ve got a smaller squad out here so there’s less decisions to make,” he said. “In terms of what that final squad will be, this weekend will go a fair bit to making sure we make the best decision.
“The players that are getting an opportunity to play this weekend can leave a lasting impression but it’s what they’ve done throughout the World Cup camp and the games that’s in our minds just now.
“We know it’s going to be very tough getting from that 37-man squad down to 33 and obviously we’re hoping there are no injuries to factor into our selection debates on Sunday and Monday.”
France have restored most of their big hitters for this weekend’s match after fielding a largely second-string side at Murrayfield and Townsend expects a formidable test in the Saturday night heat, with the temperature forecast to hit 32 degrees during the day in Saint-Etienne .
“France are one of the best teams in the world, they have a first team that has played a lot of rugby together over the last few years, and equally importantly they are playing at home,” said Townsend.
“The French crowds have been very noisy this year, whether it’s at Stade de France, an under-20s game, a women’s international, or a top club game, so we’re sure we’re going into a very noisy, hostile environment in Saint-Etienne.
“And with that we’ll also have to deal with the weather conditions. It’s been very hot over here and it will probably be around 20 degrees when the game kicks off at 9pm.
“They don’t have many games left before they open the World Cup so I’m sure they will want to put out their best performance, just like we do.”