Back when Gregor Townsend was Glasgow coach, the journalists used to meet ahead of a team announcement at Scotstoun and argue about the weekend’s likely line up. Needless to say, despite the odd claim to clairvoyance, we never second-guessed Townsend, who seemed to take an almost malicious delight in wrong-footing everyone. That much hasn’t changed.
“Anyone get the squad right?” the Scotland boss asked the assembled throng of journalists who had just been handed 36 names, including a Welshman and an Englishman that most of us had never set eyes upon.
As a player Townsend did things his way, for better or worse, and took whatever came his way, praise or brickbats. He is following the same path as a coach, breaking numerous selection rules that are closely followed even though they remain unwritten.
Scotland are missing umpteen players to injury: Ally Dickinson, Allan Dell and Fraser Brown in the front row, Big Richie in the second, Adam Ashe in the third, Greig Laidlaw, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett, Duncan Taylor and Sean Maitland behind the scrum. With an impressive 332 international caps sidelined, you’d expect Townsend to pick what experience was left on the table. You’d be wrong.
He has ignored David Denton (35 caps ) and Josh Strauss (14 caps) and instead picked the uncapped Tiger Luke Hamilton. Sam Hidaldo-Clyne (nine caps) is overlooked in favour of the uncapped Nathan Fowles.
Townsend isn’t overwhelmed by options but the two loosehead props named, Darryl Marfo and Jamie Bhatti, are both uncapped.
Normally that alone would guarantee someone with the size and experience that Ross Ford offers three nailed down starts but under Townsend you just don’t know.
Tim Visser (33 caps) was the stand-out player on the pitch when Scotland beat Wales at Murrayfield last season but Townsend opted instead for the uncapped Byron McGuigan and two sevens refuseniks in the form of Dougie Fife (six caps) and Lee Jones (five caps) both of whom were unwanted by Alan Solomons while the South African was Edinburgh boss, although that in itself counts as a recommendation of sorts.
Halfway through the four-year World Cup cycle, when most coaches are consolidating their squads, Townsend has included ten uncapped players in his 36-strong gathering, five of whom have never been anywhere near the national set-up.
Scotland had the makings of a competitive squad, we saw that much in Rugby World Cup 2015, but Townsend is chopping and changing and introducing a whole host of new faces with just 19 scheduled Tests between now and Japan 2019.
That is not to say he is wrong – the performance of the team against Samoa, New Zealand and Australia next month will determine that – it is just to point out that for Townsend the unorthodox is the new normal.
“We’ve selected players we believe are in form because we’ve only got ten days, four or five sessions with this squad before we take on Samoa and play two of the top three teams in the world,” said the Scotland coach by way of explanation. “So finding form, finding confidence, gaining that extra bit of conditioning here, we probably don’t have the luxury to do that.
“We pick guys on form,” he repeated the mantra later on. “We’ve put the emphasis on players in form – and players we know can play well for Scotland.”
According to the coach, Visser doesn’t work hard enough off the ball, Strauss lacks physicality and David Denton isn’t quite back to being the player he was, although you could argue that Cornel du Preez falls into the same category.
Denton probably made way for Hamilton, the Tigers’ Welsh breakaway who, with his shock of blond hair, even looks a like “Dents” on the charge. Scotland are desperately short of big carriers and you’d bet your bottom dollar on Hamilton getting selected in November, until you remember it is Townsend doing the selecting.
But for all the interest in the breakaways and the fillip from Alex Dunbar’s return, the focus in November will be largely on the Scottish front five. If Townsend copped any flak in his time with the Warriors it was in the form of mumblings from the Scottish management that Glasgow didn’t produce much in the way of tight forwards.
Zander Fagerson and Scott Cummings would argue otherwise but Glasgow’s soft centre was horribly exposed by both Exeter and Leinster in the recent Champions Cup matches, not that Townsend was about to admit as much in front of the assembled media scrum.
“We are a different team and Glasgow have been in fantastic form,” said the coach when asked about the Warriors’ struggles in Europe.
“Obviously they were disappointed with their result at the weekend [against Leinster] but if you were to rewind just eight days they had won six from six, the only team in Europe that was unbeaten, and they were 17-15 against the English champions with ten minutes to go.
“So things don’t change in a week so they become a bad team. They are an excellent team and we have a number of Glasgow players in our squad.”
All that above is true but, a little like Basil Fawlty avoiding mention of the war, Townsend chooses to ignore the bleeding obvious. Glasgow’s big men were bullied into submission, twice in the space of eight days, by big muscular forward packs and they conceded a slew of scrum penalties in the process.
Australia, New Zealand and perhaps even Samoa will fancy their chances of doing the same to Scotland in the coming weeks.