Asked if telling four players that they were being cut from the World Cup training squad before the first warm-up Test was the most difficult decision of his coaching career, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend was swift to give an emphatic “no”.
These decisions were always coming as the extended pool, which now numbers 40, is chiselled into the 31-man squad that will board the flight to Japan, with the final cut to be revealed on Tuesday 3 September.
After announcing that centre Nick Grigg, centre/wing Kyle Steyn, flanker Gary Graham and scrum-half Henry Pyrgos would be leaving the group, Townsend reasoned: “It’s part of the things you have to do as a coach. The players realise that too.
“They know there are 44 players here and it will be down to 31 and they are training beside players of real quality and competing hard. If they keep those standards in training up they will be ready to come back in [in the event of injury].”
The jettisoning of Grigg, who started Scotland’s last three Test matches, shows the strength the coach feels he has at centre.
“Not only did Nick start the Calcutta Cup match, he started the two games previous to that [against Wales and France], so it will be disappointing for him and it was a very tough decision for us to make. But we do have players available like Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor who were not available at the end of the Six Nations, and other guys we believe have shown really good form at the end of last season and in training, so there was always going to be a lot of competition for centre.”
Jones spoke earlier this week about his hunger to get back to the heights of a year and a half ago after a disjointed and often dispiriting time last season, and the coach is confident that the player who ran top Test defences ragged in his early international career is close to rediscovering his mojo. “He’s training really well,” said Townsend. “He’s in very good physical shape. He’s getting a lot of involvements in an attacking sense and he’s working really hard on his defence doing extras almost every day. So, he’s doing all he can to play back at the potential he was showing the season before.”
Townsend also gave a positive update on Taylor, strongly indicating that he is sure to feature against France in Nice next Saturday after missing the whole of last season with a knee injury. “He played in the game on Tuesday which was behind closed doors, which was a full-blooded training game against Edinburgh. Duncan came through it well. It was his first game in 11 months. He is ready if selected for that first game.”
Edinburgh scrum-half Pyrgos was Scotland vice-captain at England 2015, skippering the side in the pool win over United States in Leeds. But he was always facing a tough battle to get above Ali Price, Greig Laidlaw and George Horne in the scrum-half shake-up. Asked if those three are now almost certain to be Japan-bound, Townsend said: “We’ll see. You have to wait until 3 September. We have an option of three or two to go on tour. It would be unusual or rare to go with two scrum-halves, but some teams will.”
Newcastle flanker Graham was also always facing a tough task in that white-hot battle for the back-row spots.
“We know Gary did a really good job off the bench against France [in the Six Nations],” said Townsend. “These players are in the best shape of their lives. So we know if we need to call on them in two weeks’ or two months’ time they’ll be ready for that call-up. But he’ll be disappointed he hasn’t made that squad.”
Townsend admitted that it was perhaps a World Cup too soon for Steyn, the South-Africa-born 25-year-old who was brought into the Scotland Sevens set-up before impressing Glasgow coach Dave Rennie and dislodging Grigg in the latter stages of the season as the Warriors reached the Guinness Pro14 final.
“He has just burst on to the scene with Glasgow and done very well,” acknowledged the coach. “I think this World Cup has come just a bit too soon in his career because of the number of quality players we have in that position. But he’s another we can call on. We know he’d do a great job.”