Tom English: Gregor Townsend boosted by returning stars for Scotland bow
|Scotland v Italy|
|Date: Saturday, 10 June Venue: Singapore National Stadium Kick-off: 13:08 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland and the BBC Sport Scotland website|
As settings go, the roof of the Scotland team hotel in downtown Singapore wasn't the worst place for Gregor Townsend to name his first team as coach of the national side.
Sitting in an urban utopia - a sky garden overlooking Hong Lim Park, surrounded by hanging vines, infinity pools, pavilions shaped like giant birdcages and 15,000 square metres of greenery - Townsend announced his line-up to face Italy at the air-cooled indoor national stadium on Saturday amid an architectural wonder.
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What Townsend is about to build on the rugby field is unknown, but this was the first stop.
In the absence of Richie Gray through injury and his brother Jonny, who sits out Saturday's Test but will feature against the Wallabies next weekend, he has a new second-row partnership.
Glasgow's Tim Swinson and Ben Toolis, the Edinburgh lock being one of the few who managed to rise above the team's malaise in the season just gone, pair up in the engine room.
"Ben gets his reward for the form he's been in with Edinburgh," said Townsend. "His work-rate, his physicality, his athleticism is really good and it gives Jonny the chance to get up to full match fitness."
This will be Toolis' second cap and his first start. His one and only cap lasted just eight minutes off the bench in a game that has gone down as one of the most painful in recent years, for Scotland as a collective and for Toolis as an individual.
It was February 2015 and the lock replaced his Saturday partner, Swinson, after 69 minutes of the Six Nations game with Italy at Murrayfield.
Scotland were ahead 19-15 at the time. In the 77th minute, Toolis got sin-binned and the Scots ended up losing the game in what was arguably the low point of Vern Cotter's time in charge.
Toolis hasn't played a Test since. Against the same opposition in Singapore, Toolis has a shot at changing his Scotland story.
With Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour away with the Lions, Townsend has converted Duncan Taylor into a full-back and, on the wing, he gives Damien Hoyland his first cap since last summer.
It will be Hoyland's second start for Scotland in what will be his third cap. His debut was also against Italy in August 2015.
WP Nel returns at tight-head after the most frustrating injury-plagued year of his career, the same going for Taylor who has not played for his country in 12 months, a period that he described last week as a "mental battle".
The Saracen had two different hamstring injuries that put him out for two months, two operations on his ankle that cost him four months, a head injury that kept him out four weeks, then shoulder damage that had him in treatment for another four.
He made it back in time for Saracens' Champions Cup retention, appearing as a second-half substitute.
Josh Strauss also comes into the side after being invalided out of the Six Nations in France while at the peak of his powers.
Townsend joked that, in the searing humidity in training, his players have been using Strauss' magnificent beard - in its own way a fabulous creation to rival anything on the Singapore skyline - as a towel to dry their hands.
This, though, is serious business and it's seriously good news that Strauss, Taylor and Nel are back in the frame.
"It's great for us who haven't worked with WP before to see him in training," said Townsend of the Edinburgh prop who returned to action with a cameo for the Barbarians against England 10 days ago.
"He got a lot of confidence from that game and he's really getting stuck into everything at training - contact, attack, defence, especially the scrum.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him play. It might take him a few games to get back to his very best level, but it's great to have him."
Townsend now has the luxury of using Zander Fagerson off the bench as opposed to the fate that befell Cotter during the Six Nations - namely, having to play the promising young prop for as long as was humanely possible in games because of the weakness of his back-up.
Nel, with Fagerson as his deputy, is an altogether healthier outlook for the Scottish scrum.
Strauss' reappearance also broadens Townsend's options at number eight, with Ryan Wilson lying in wait.
Strauss starts in the back row, flanked by John Barclay and John Hardie, who gets the nod ahead of Hamish Watson for this one.
"In his recovery from injury, Josh has just had 10 weeks of training, six of those weeks with contact," Townsend said. "He's done a lot of fitness work. So he'll be a big plus and having Duncan available is another major boost.
"Duncan's adaptability is the thing. He steps up at full-back instead of Hoggy. He's played there at a high level before.
"His rugby knowledge is really exciting. He works hard, communicates well, he's an excellent defensive leader and we want to see him get his hands on the ball because he can really play."
With Greig Laidlaw too on Lions duty, Barclay continues as skipper and he has Finn Russell as one of his vice-captains.
Townsend said he's been seeing a changed version of Russell these past weeks compared to the character he nurtured at Glasgow.
"Yeah, I see a different Finn," the coach said of his fly-half. "He's becoming a leader, he's contributing more in meetings, he's taking a lot of responsibility on himself. I think he feels that extra bit of confidence being a vice-captain."
Scotland put Italy away 29-0 in the final game of the Six Nations. Townsend's team for the rematch shows nine changes to the one that Cotter put out that day.
Townsend may have lost Hogg, Seymour and Huw Jones from the rout at Murrayfield, but the availability of Nel, Taylor and Strauss make up for it.
Italy's coach, Conor O'Shea, has given the great Sergio Parisse the summer off, so an already weak side will be all the weaker for the loss of its leader.
Scotland will expect the Townsend era to get off to a flyer.
The stadium will be a touch eerie - the capacity is 55,000 with around 7,000 tickets sold in a city that is trying to build its rugby profile - but the size of the crowd will be irrelevant to Townsend.
The only thing that matters to him is the scale of the performance.