Allan Massie: Some surprising Scotland calls - one Edinburgh player has good reason to feel aggrieved

More than a dozen players who have represented Scotland in the last 12 months are missing from Gregor Townsend’s first training squad.

Jaco van der Walt has been playing well for Edinburgh since the departure of Richard Cockerill.
Jaco van der Walt has been playing well for Edinburgh since the departure of Richard Cockerill.

They are missing because they will not be available to play against Tonga on October 30. The match is outwith the period designated by World Rugby as one in which clubs are required to release players for international duty. Tonga, one should say, will also be fielding a below-strength team for the same reason on October 30. One does wonder if this match and others like it should be classed a full internationals.

Be that as it may, Townsend has assembled an impressive squad, a nice mixture of established players and young up-and-coming ones. I’m especially pleased to see Mark Bennett in it. Five or six years ago when he was very young, he seemed as bright a star as Stuart Hogg or Finn Russell, one who would be scoring and creating tries for Scotland for years to come. A succession of injuries has blighted his career, and though he has played quite regularly for Edinburgh in the last two seasons, the style imposed by Sergeant-Major Cockerill didn’t perhaps suit him. Well, he is still no more than 28, a couple of years younger than Chris Harris, the present owner of the No 13 Scotland jersey. So perhaps his future is not in the past. I hope not. Back in his youth I often compared him to Hawick’s Jim Renwick, probably my favourite of all the Scottish centres I have watched.

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There are a couple of somewhat surprising omissions from the squad called up for training. Edinburgh fans anyway will have been scratching their heads and asking why their current first-choice half-backs, Jaco van der Walt and Ben Vellacott, are missing. The fly-half was capped last season and did pretty well. Vellacott has shone brilliantly since joining Edinburgh this year.

Well, there are three scrum-halves in the squad: Ali Price, George Horne and 20 year-old Jamie Dobie, who was earmarked for stardom before he needed to shave. Price dislodged Ireland’s Conor Murray from the Lions Test side in South Africa. George Horne was first reserve to Price and snapping at his heels until he missed most of last season, injured; at age-group level he was often preferred to Vellacott. So the competition for the No 9 Scotland jersey is fierce, for you must also add Scott Steele from Dumfries, now with Harlequins, who was in this spring’s Six Nations match-day squad.

Of course, it’s almost always aye-been like that. The scrum-half position is one in which we have been richly blessed. Price himself has to play second fiddle to Greig Laidlaw for at least a couple of years. Before that, Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter and Rory Lawson were in contention. Back in the 90s we had Gary Armstrong, Andy Nicol and Bryan Redpath, while in the eighties John Rutherford’s Selkirk club partner , Gordon Hunter, spent many afternoons on the bench as understudy to Roy Laidlaw in the days when replacements were permitted only in the case of injury.

Van der Walt’s omission is perhaps more surprising. There are two fly-halves in the training squad – perhaps three if Blair Kinghorn, normally a full-back or wing, is a candidate for the role. Neither has much experience. Glasgow’s Ross Thompson has certainly been consistently impressive since he established himself as first choice at Scotstoun last season and his inclusion will surprise nobody, but the young Australian-born Charlie Savala has scarcely yet featured for Edinburgh since he joined the club last winter.

He would seem to be behind van der Walt there. Van der Walt has himself been playing more expansive rugby in the first matches this season. Previously he has been regarded as principally a kicking fly-half (and rather a good one too). No doubt he was acting under the instructions of the Sergeant-Major, no great enthusiast for running rugby. It’s probably fair to say that Van der Walt has reason to feel a bit hard done-by.

On the other hand there will be many Scots who think that there are enough South African accents in the Scotland dressing-room already. Van der Walt, like Duhan van der Merwe, and the Edinburgh prop Pierre Schoeman ((in the squad for the first time) has only a residential qualification play for Scotland.

Be that as it may, it is reasonable to think that if neither Finn Russell nor Adam Hastings was fit to play against either South Africa or Australia next month, Van der Walt would seem a safer choice than either of the youngsters, Thompson and Savala. But so too would Duncan Weir, also missing from this training squad.

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