SCOTLAND will fire the first shot of their autumn campaign on Tuesday when head coach Scott Johnson announces a 40-man training squad ahead of the forthcoming Tests against Japan, South Africa and Australia.
In truth, these announcements are mostly white noise since the squad is so big as to be almost meaningless. The vast majority of players will be tried and tested faces, but there may be the odd bolter that everyone will focus on, if only for 24 hours.
The last Scotland team, one which scrapped to a win over Italy in Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld, was missing a good few regular starters, perhaps as many as eight. Most of them should be available for the Japan game come 9 November, with just the odd exception, but full-back could be a problem position.
The Glasgow duo of Stuart Hogg and Peter Murchie are both injured, although Greig Tonks returns to action today, starting this afternoon’s match in Perpignan on the Edinburgh bench. Murchie is out for months and, while everyone was making hopeful noises about Hogg, autumn has probably arrived a little too early for the Hawick man.
In their absence Jack Cuthbert has been manning the backfield for Edinburgh, while the versatile Sean Maitland has carried out the same task for Glasgow. Scotland boast an excess of wingers at the moment, with Tommy Seymour, Sean Lamont, Byron McGuigan, Tim Visser and Max Evans, although the latter has been out of favour for a while. The flier did start for Castres against Leinster yesterday afternoon, though. With healthy competition on the flanks, Maitland remains the obvious choice to shuffle back to No.15 in the absence of Hogg.
Duncan Taylor played for Scotland A on the wing but Saracens employed him at inside centre against Toulouse on Friday night. Both he and Glasgow’s Alex Dunbar will offer some much-needed competition for the No.13 shirt, which Nick De Luca will want back after missing the summer tour. Dougie Fife and McGuigan are the next in line and one of them could get a run if there are any injuries. It’s not impossible that Glasgow’s Mark Bennett will get a call-up to the national squad, despite struggling to handle wave upon wave of Toulon attacks last weekend. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one.
Jim Hamilton started for French high-fliers Montpellier on Saturday, while Richie Gray did the same for Castres and it is entirely possible that Glasgow’s Jonny Gray will join his big brother in the national squad, albeit more for the experience than anything else.
Tom Heathcote got a start for Bath yesterday but that is a rare event and Ruaridh Jackson’s good form for Glasgow should put him at the top of the stand-off rankings, with club-mate Duncan Weir keeping him honest.
The back row remains a head-scratcher. Johnnie Beattie, David Denton and Alasdair Strokosch started against Italy in June. The openside will see specialist competition from Chris Fusaro and John Barclay but Johnson may opt for the physicality of Strokosch at No.7 to counter the sheer size of the Springboks.