Ireland v Scotland: Stafford McDowell tasked with stopping Bundee Aki on the gainline

Six Nations analysis: Scotland rejig centres once again to counter powerful carrying threat

“We feel that Stafford has earned an opportunity with how he has played this year for Glasgow, how he has played for Glasgow during the Six Nations and how he has trained. With Cam [Redpath] going well for us off the bench earlier this season we know that he can make that impact. It is a really good game for Staff to start for us.”

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend offered an insight into his decision to select Stafford McDowell at inside centre against Ireland, the third occupant of the number 12 jersey in the three most recent games in the Six Nations.

The turnabout began when first-choice Sione Tuipulotu damaged a knee in the 30-21 victory over England, an injury that ended his tournament. Cameron Redpath, who had an eye-catching cameo as a replacement in that game including setting up one of Duhan van der Merwe’s tries, was then chosen to start against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico.

There was one legacy warning sign from a defensive context from the English win in that Redpath was caught out positionally for Immanuel Feyi-Waboso’s late consolation try. In the next outing Scotland, despite a brilliant start, succumbed to a stunning Italian comeback that enabled the home side to prevail in Rome.

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When Townsend came to review his side’s ruination in Rome and also took note of Bundee Aki’s performance in Ireland’s defeat to England at Twickenham, the Scottish coach must have appreciated that he would require a more robust physical deterrent to lock down that 10-12 channel alongside captain Finn Russell.

Aki has been superb for Ireland during the Six Nations, not least in post contact metres or, in old money terms, to win collisions on the gainline, push through to the opponent’s backfield and in doing so provide his team-mates with premium ruck ball.

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The 26-year-old McDowall stands six foot, four inches tall and over 16 stone, but those physical qualities are augmented by an all-round game that has been encouraged and nurtured under Glasgow boss Franco Smith and backs coach Nigel Carolan, once of Connacht and Ireland Under-20s, and includes an ability to play fullback.

McDowall made his Scotland debut in a warm-up match against Italy last summer, so to parachute him in for a second cap away to Ireland intimates that Townsend is taken with the player’s specific set of skills applicable to the task in hand.

The decision to return Redpath to the bench after just one match suggests that Scotland wanted to address the Aki threat in a direct manner.

McDowall made his Glasgow debut as a teenager (2017), captained the Scotland Under-20 team (2018-2019), made further headway under Dave Rennie, but his career stalled somewhat in the two seasons that Danny Wilson was head coach at the club, to a point he considered quitting the game.

He explained in an interview in March of last year: “I wasn’t playing as well as I had when I was coming through under Dave Rennie. And it was maybe a different style of play under Danny [Wilson] and I lost confidence in my ability. I think that’s massive to have faith in yourself as a player. If you lose that then it can be a hard hole to dig yourself out of.”

Having been initially told he might not be kept on, former Glasgow captain and managing director Al Kellock offered him a one-year deal and he hasn’t looked back. He explained: “The gap in time between being told that potentially there wouldn’t be anything for me to the club coming back with something was maybe 10 to 14 days.

“In that time, I had conversations with my family, my girlfriend, and my agent to see what my options were. And the feeling at that point was that if the right thing came up, I would have taken it. And if not, I could have been going back to the farm to start my career there.”

Emboldened under the coaching baton of Smith and Carolan, McDowall features more regularly for his club side. He said: “Franco calls it liberation, so we are being let free to attack and express ourselves a little bit more. We’re looking to play on the front foot and spread the ball wide off turnovers.

“I know that is something Nigel Carolan has been working on as well. He is great at that and brings in a lot of ideas.” He has racked up 16 tries in 71 appearances for Glasgow. On Saturday at the Aviva Stadium he gets to progress further in a Test arena, albeit that a primary function will be to try and do what no one else has managed yet in this season’s Six Nations; shut down Bundee Aki.

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