Fraser Brown: I think Scotland back-rower will be cut and I wouldn’t want to be making that decision
It’s hard to argue against it which makes Gregor Townsend’s task of selecting his final 33 all the more difficult and one I don’t envy! He began the cull the weekend just past, with Stafford McDowall, Adam Hastings, Cameron Henderson and Kyle Rowe all dropping out of Scotland’s World Cup plans.
Stafford played and led brilliantly for Glasgow last season and did well on his Scotland debut against Italy but centre is such a competitive position. Sione Tupulotu and Huw Jones were arguably the best centre partnership in the Six Nations, Cam Redpath played well when he came on against France on Saturday, and adds a slightly different dimension to the Scotland attack as a second receiver, and Chris Harris has been the defensive lynchpin for Scotland ever since Steve Tandy came in after the last World Cup. It was always going to be hard for Stafford to break his way into that group, so that was probably a pretty obvious cut, although that’s no slight on Stafford.
Adam’s omission will be tough to take. He didn’t play a lot of rugby after being poleaxed by the big Fijian Leone Rotuisolia in November then picking up an ankle injury in the World XV Barbarians game in May. For Adam, the World XV match was necessary as it was an opportunity to get some rugby minutes under his belt because he’s been short of game-time this year, as well as play in one the best backlines world rugby could offer. Unfortunately, the injury is just one of those things in rugby and I guess he just ran out of time.
He missed the first two warm-up games, against Italy and France, and it’s a shame he hasn’t got the opportunity to play this weekend, fitness permitting, to show us just what a classy player he is. However, Ben Healy really took his opportunity against Italy, so with Finn as Scotland’s starting 10, and Blair Kinghorn more than capable of stepping into the playmaker role, there isn’t room for a third specialist 10.
I was really impressed by Cammy Henderson during the Six Nations sessions. He worked really hard and was very good around set-piece, very diligent. I thought he did well when he came on against Italy last week even though he didn’t have many minutes. Second row is such a competitive position so it’s probably no surprise that Cammy was the one to miss out at this stage but he’s certainly got a huge future in the Scotland set-up.
For Kyle Rowe, I think he was in there more as cover when Stuart Hogg and then Ruaridh McConnochie pulled out. Kyle did really well last year on tour in Argentina and it’s unfortunate that he’s been out all season with an ACL injury but the last few weeks of training will have been valuable for Kyle to be part of the squad. He’s back training at a high intensity under the watch of the Scotland coaches and he’s still in the conversation should injuries occur.The cut on Sunday took the squad down from 41 to 37 but a further four will need to drop out before Gregor names his final selection of 33. Almost certainly he will take out a hooker, a prop, a back-rower and a scrum-half, although that will depend on the extent of Ben White’s ankle injury and the disciplinary decision around Zander Fagerson’s red card.
Rugby is brutal and I really hope Ben’s ankle injury on Saturday is not serious but I thought George Horne played really well when he came on at the weekend, putting real tempo and purpose into the Scotland attack. That’s what he’s brilliant at. It’s a strong group of scrum-halves. Ben’s been Scotland’s best nine since he came into the set up, but you’ve also got Ali Price, who is a Lions Test player, and we know how well he can play. Then there’s Jamie Dobie who is able to cover almost every position it seems. Selection will depend ultimately on Ben and his ankle.I think a back-rower will be cut and I wouldn’t want to be making that decision. It’s not going to be an easy choice. The first 40 against France was not great and I thought the back-rowers were pretty quiet. Matt Fagerson did his usual dirty work, a lot of the unseen stuff, working really hard, particularly in defence. Jack Dempsey was quiet in the first half but got better after the break. Hamish Watson had moments where he was really powerful, particularly in defence, but there probably weren’t enough in attack, but that was how the first half went – Scotland had pretty much no front-foot ball.
The team that played France was far more of a first-choice XV than the side that faced Italy but in my mind George Turner is still the No 1 hooker and I think that was probably enhanced at the weekend. Scotland really missed his physical, hard running in attack and his spine juddering hits in defence. I thought Stuart McInally played well when he came on against Italy. He showed his old spark and guile with ball in hand which he was probably missing at the back end of last season having been out injured for a while.There are seven props in the training squad and they will definitely cut one and take six. All three looseheads will go – Pierre Schoeman, Jamie Bhatti and Rory Sutherland. Schoey has been a huge presence for Scotland since he became eligible and although has struggled for his best form of late, has enough credit in the bank to be the No 1. I think it’s 50-50 between Jamie and Rory, and out of the two games so far I think Jamie has emerged as the front runner to be back up. He has looked fit and fresh, has scrummed well and had good contributions in open play against both Italy and France.
As for the tightheads, a relatively simple decision before the weekend has had a bit of a spanner thrown in the works. WP Nel will go. My old friend, the squadfather, is still one of the most reliable and destructive scrummagers in world rugby. Before the weekend you would have said Zander Fagerson would obviously go but now it depends on his disciplinary hearing following his red card against France, with the third place being a straight shoot-out between Murphy Walker and Javan Sebastian.
If Zander does not receive a long ban then I think that sixth prop spot is taken by Javan. His set-piece and scrum ability just edges it over Murphy but it will depend on what happens with Zander. He will be getting a ban and it’s just a case of how long it will be. If he picks up a three-match ban then that’ll rule him out of Scotland’s World Cup opener against South Africa but make him available for the rest of the group stage. More than three or four games and then you’re struggling. But who knows, disciplinary hearings are far from simple, and it would be a brave person to try to guess the outcome of a process that has become more and more divisive over recent years
Zander is undoubtedly Scotland’s best tighthead, and not just from a scrummaging point of view. He’s so important to how Scotland play around the park, particularly in attack. He’s a great ball-carrier, very industrious and, defensively, he puts lots and lots of pressure on defensive rucks.The World Cup preparations continue this weekend with another game against France, this time in Saint-Etienne and I’d expect Gregor to pick another strong team. I think the mistake that Gregor feels that he made four years ago is he didn’t give his strongest side enough time to gel on the pitch before the opening game against Ireland in Japan. The team he picked for the first France game was close to his strongest 23 and you’ll probably see the same again this Saturday, with maybe a couple of changes. I’d expect Turner to come back in at hooker and there will be a change for Zander and for Ben White.