Scotland lock Richie Gray will have to earn a shot at making his third Rugby World Cup after being left out of head coach Gregor Townsend’s initial extended training squad for the tournament in Japan which starts in September.
Townsend named a smaller than expected pool of 42 yesterday, but said two more will be added, with 29-year-old Gray, who has 65 caps for Scotland and one Test for the British and Irish Lions in 2013, challenged to prove his worth in the remaining weeks of the season with his French club Toulouse.
“We know with Richie we still want to see more from him,” said Townsend, pointedly. “He has the opportunity over the next few weeks to show he can play that level, where the step up to Test level will be an easy one.”
Gray hasn’t played for Scotland since the last game of the 2018 Six Nations and has battled a back problem but has been playing regularly for Toulouse, who are leading the French Top 14 and made the semi-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup.
“Toulouse are going really well in France, they could play four more games, and Richie has that opportunity like the other guys in his position to make sure he’s the one we select at the end of the season,” added Townsend who will whittle his squad down to 31 for the World Cup.
“Experience does count for a lot, form counts for a lot, too. Playing at a level that we know he and other players can perform at – at Test level – is important. And that’s what we are looking for from all these players who are still playing in the remaining games.
“Richie is in the mix for that final position alongside other second rows who have been playing really well. Andrew Davidson’s had a great season at Newcastle, they’ve got one game remaining. Scott Cummings and Rob Harley have been playing really well for Glasgow, Tim Swinson was playing really well before his injury and we’re monitoring how he’s getting on. Those players are all in the mix for that final position.”
Four years ago Vern Cotter named an extended squad of 46 ahead of the 2015 World Cup in England but Townsend said he plans to work with a slightly tighter group through a summer which will include a Portugal training camp in July and home and away warm-up Tests against France and Georgia before that big Pool A opener against Ireland in Yokohama on 22 September.
“It’s an outside back and a forward, likely to be a second-row,” Townsend said of the two places he had left open in his squad.
Glasgow players still hoping to make the cut have a home semi-final against Ulster next weekend and, if they win, the Guinness Pro14 final at Celtic Park.
“We want to leave that [the two extra players] until the end of the season, we’re announcing the squad with some big games still to play, players due to play in huge games in their respective leagues, and we want to make that decision having seen these players perform at that level,” said the coach.
“We decided to pick a smaller squad than we originally planned so that we can have a bigger influence with the players who go to Japan and build stronger relationships. It does mean that some very good players have missed out on selection, but with injuries in rugby and having four [warm-up] Test matches and a big World Cup campaign, those players could still come into contention.”
Other notable omissions from the squad include the experienced centre trio of Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Matt Scott and stand-off Duncan Weir.
Saracens centre Duncan Taylor and Scarlets flanker Blade Thomson are included despite both missing much of this season with injury. Thomson is joined by two other uncapped players in Glasgow hooker Grant Stewart and Northampton centre Rory Hutchinson.