We pick the most likely outsiders to bolster the national squad:
1. Blade Thomson
The Kiwi No.8 was concussed on 2 November when the Scarlets played Edinburgh at Murrayfield on the eve of the Wales-Scotland match one day later. He has not played since.
Thomson is Gregor Townsend’s type of player – rangy, athletic and highly skilled – but the Scotland coach may conclude that he has enough players of that ilk in his forward pack and what he actually needs is a big blindside stopper and a ball carrier at eight.
Thomson’s long absence has to count against him. Unless he can make an appearance before the end of the season he may be one filed away for the future.
2. Richie Gray
A Richie Gray who is fit and firing would be welcomed into the Scotland World Cup squad like the prodigal son he is but only the player knows the true state of his troublesome back after surgery and he isn’t saying – an interview request last week was declined.
Scotland’s tight game doesn’t rank with the best in Europe – England, Wales and Ireland – but the elder of the Gray brothers not only offers set piece excellence and oodles of experience but he is useful at countering the opposition maul and he even picked up a rare turnover, ripping the ball out of the opposition arms, to end the game last Sunday when 14-man Toulouse beat Finn Russell’s Racing’92.
Much depends upon the split between forwards and backs and, after that, the split between second and third rows whether 5.4 or 4.5. With Grant Gilchrist, Ben Toolis and Sam Skinner all likely to travel there may only be room for one Gray brother, unless Skinner doubles up as a 4.6.
3. John Barclay
There are always doubts when someone comes back from such a nasty injury – rupturing your Achilles is right up there – but Barclay looks very much like the player who was ripping up trees for the Scarlets and how they must wish he was back in West Wales right now.
Barclay sat out the 2015 World Cup, with Vern Cotter preferring John Hardie, and the Scot will be determined to take his last shot at the Big Kahuna.
4. George Turner
Faces stiff opposition from Jake Kerr, capped against Italy, for the third hooker’s spot.
5. George Horne
It’s not clear whether the younger Horne would have got any game time in the Six Nations but a shoulder injury put paid to that campaign anyway. He looks favourite to go to Japan as the third scrum-half behind Ali Price and Greig Laidlaw, offering an electric break from the base and a real point of difference. Better utilised when Scotland are chasing a game rather than defending a lead.
6. Alex Dunbar
What the heck happened to Alex Dunbar for Glasgow to send him to Coventry – well, Newcastle actually – but you get my drift? Did Dave Rennie forget all those years of excellence or did the coach simply lose patience with Dunbar’s endless run of injuries?
Dunbar has 31 caps, he played nine Tests in 2017 and he was once clocked moving faster than any Scotland player when scoring a try in Rome. More recently, injuries have undermined the centre’s confidence that never seemed hugely robust. Before his move he had started just four matches in five months for the Warriors.
The good news is that Dunbar is back on the field. On Tuesday of last week he captained Falcons’ A team in a 73-5 rout of Sharks second string. Here’s what the Falcons’ website had to say: “The Falcons played at high speed, skipper Alex Dunbar running some no-nonsense midfield lines to help create space for others… Connor Collett showed pace to score in support of a Dunbar line-break, the skipper demonstrating fine awareness to slow down his run to find the flanker.” Dunbar benched for the Falcons yesterday against Saracens but his ability to play 12 or 13 makes him a valuable asset if, and it’s a big if, he can recover his confidence and form.
7. Rory Hutchinson
The one and only potential uncapped bolter in the squad but only if a slew of other outside centres – Huw Jones, Duncan Taylor, Alex Dunbar – are unavailable.
8. Duncan Taylor
The Saracens centre remains the one man that Townsend would be tempted to take to Japan on crutches. Taylor is the defensive key to Scotland’s back line play, the on-field defensive co-ordinator, just as Finn Russell calls the attack plays. Taylor is even more versatile than Dunbar, covering 11, 12, 13 and 15 and he communicates better than anyone else in the midfield.
Taylor had repeated head trauma, although that may have been related to migraines rather than concussions. Upon his return to action the centre then injured his ACL in the first weekend of last September and underwent surgery. It is reckoned to be a ten-month injury so Taylor has an outside chance and Townsend will give his star centre every possible chance to prove his fitness before finalising his squad.