There was a time not so long ago when Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott and Mark Bennett would, if all fit, be the first-choice centres in a Test matchday squad for Scotland.
The word ‘fit’ holds the key to why none have been included in Gregor Townsend’s initial extended squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
The trio have 92 caps between them but have all suffered various injury setbacks in recent years and, barring a flurry of similar misfortunes hitting those who have been selected ahead of them, their hopes of making the plane to Japan in the final 31-man squad looks slim.
Scott, who played four times at England 2015, has seen his return to home city club Edinburgh after a spell at Gloucester hit by a long-term concussion, while Bennett had a long-term knee injury followed by a ruptured hamstring. Both have returned but failed to rediscover their form.
The luckless Dunbar, who was crocked for the World Cup four years ago, has lurched from one injury to the next and after going out on loan to Newcastle has been released by Glasgow. The weekend past provided a snapshot of the former Annan and Selkirk man’s career as he was instrumental in a wonder try for the Falcons at Gloucester before hobbling off after 35 minutes as Newcastle were relegated from the English Premiership.
To add salt to the wounds of all of them, one of the centres Townsend did include yesterday, Duncan Taylor, has been out since September, hasn’t played for Scotland since June 2017, and won’t play again this season.
The Saracens centre has been out since September after damaging his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in a pre-season game but, as he returns to fitness, his past excellence in a Scotland jersey has prompted Townsend to give him the nod.
“He trained with Saracens yesterday. That was his first session with the team. He’s aiming to be back in full contact training within the next two or three weeks,” reported the coach. “We’ve kept in touch regularly with the Sarries medics and Duncan. He’s looking very good and ready to go.
“Obviously he’s not played rugby since pre-season last summer so we’ll need to challenge him during our training block, give him opportunities to play a game because he could be a very important player for us.
“He’s been in excellent form for Scotland and Sarries over the last few years and if he is back to that level that would be a real bonus.
“We have four Test matches in August and September [against France and Georgia home and away], we’ll have some vigorous training sessions the closer we get and we’ll be monitoring Duncan to see what level he’s at. But he will get an opportunity to show what he can do with us.”
The 29-year-old hasn’t featured for Scotland since the loss in Fiji in June 2017 but, when at full fitness, has produced a number of eye-catching displays, including memorable tries in the home win over France in the Six Nations three years ago and the famous toppling of the Wallabies in Sydney a year later.
“He’s someone who is held in high regard with ourselves, the coaching staff and his team-mates but also his club,” said Townsend of the Northampton-born man with Scottish parents, who has two European Champions Cup medals with Saracens, who are going for their third title against Leinster in Newcastle on Saturday.
“He hasn’t played that much for Scotland in the past two years but my first connection with him as a coach was on the summer tour two years ago when he was outstanding.
“He played at full-back against Italy and then in the following game against Australia he was superb at centre and moved to the wing in the second half. He played centre in the game against Fiji before coming off injured at half-time.
“So we already know his quality, we’ve seen it close up and he provides the glue for what a backline can do because of the work he does off the ball. It’s so good and his defensive communication is strong, and he’s also a very good attacker. If the timing works out really well that he’s back to full fitness then we have a player who we’ve not had for a couple of years who we would hope is in very good form.”
Townsend has also given an opportunity to 23-year-old former Scotland Under-20 player Rory Hutchinson, whose storming form for Northampton Saints since January has earned him a nomination for English young player of the year, which will be awarded at Twickenham tonight.
“I spoke to him a few weeks ago just initially, to make contact and tell him we were really happy with his form and if he continued that he could make the training squad,” said Townsend.
“I watched him the last two games, against Newcastle and Worcester at the weekend, and the way he’s playing he’s a strong contender for the final 31.
“Centre is a very competitive position. I made a note before coming of eight centres who have played professional rugby for top clubs in the last couple of weeks, Stafford McDowall, Kyle Steyn, Chris Dean, James Johnstone, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Mark Bennett and James Lang, and they’ve missed out. That shows you how highly we think of Rory and he does have a big opportunity these next few weeks.”