Gregor Townsend had a reputation for changing his starting Glasgow XV more often than his underpants but the new national coach admitted that he simply couldn’t afford the same tactic with Scotland.
“Given the fact that we’re playing the top teams in the world in the next eight games we have to put our best team out there,” he said at the squad announcement last week.
“We’re going to be playing six out the top eight teams in the world in our next seven games. The only team in the top eight we’re not playing is South Africa so we’ll need our best team in every fixture.
“The way the November fixtures fall we’re playing Samoa first and then two teams in the top four so there’s no room to experiment too much. We need our best team to beat Samoa and to build momentum ahead of that All Blacks game.”
There is little doubt that Scottish rugby occupies a happier and healthier position than it has enjoyed for a while. The main reason is the regular influx of talent from the academies even if, as someone put the question to Townsend, the coach might prefer it spread a little more evenly across the field.
“Would I like brilliant players in every position,” came the rhetorical question. “Yeah, of course and that’s what creates depth, you’ve got to look at different players as well.
”We had 34 on tour, I think there’s another 13 players who weren’t on tour who’re going to come on Sunday into our squad so that’s players we’re giving opportunities to create depth.”
The depth is there in some positions but paper thin in others. Scotland has such a rich seam of second row forwards that Townsend can contemplate the absence of one, maybe both Gray brothers with some equanimity because he still has options: Tim Swinson, Ben Toolis, Scott Cummings, Anton Bresler – newly Scottish and recently added to the roster – a rejuvented Grant Gilchrist. Moreover that list excludes two of the both promising youngsters, Callum Hunter-Hill and Lewis Carmichael, just back from a summer stint with the late lamented Western Force.
In contrast there is only one loosehead prop left standing that you would risk in a Test match. In the absence of Allan Dell, Rory Sutherland and Alasdair Dickinson, Gordon Reid is shadowed in the Scotland squad by Jamie Bhatti who has one start for Glasgow.
But nowhere is the lack of back-up more pronounced and more dangerous than at stand-off where Finn Russell is in a different league to every one of his rivals.
“He’s an outstanding player,” said Townsend who knows a bit about stand-off play. “Obviously if you saw the Australia game he [Russell] was world class that day and it’s great to have a player of his ability.
“We have to have depth in that position. The players you mentioned are capable of playing a bit at ten but we are looking forward to players who aren’t in the squad putting their hands up.”
The players mentioned were far too numerous: Greig Laidlaw, Greg Tonks, Phl Burleigh and Peter Horne. So many options may look healthy but they arise from a position of weakness, not strength.
Part of the problem is of the SRU’s own making because they have pushed players out of position or out of clubs and not always to good effect. It is undoubtedly beneficial for a full-back to gain some experience of playing at ten but far less help for a stand-off to play full-back because if one position needs time in the saddle it is the team’s playmaker. Matt Scott, Blair Kinghorn, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Stuart Hogg all grew up playing some or most of their youth rugby at stand-off before being shunted elsewhere and if Hogg has ended up in his correct position it’s not so obviously true elsewhere.
Kinghorn especially looked superb in the ten shirt for Merchiston Castle School, where his huge boot, vision and distribution all caught the eye. Two years of playing full-back for Edinburgh has probably ruined him as a professional playmaker, he certainly looks out of his depth when standing in at ten.
In the 2014-15 season Phil Burleigh had a few games at stand-off for Edinburgh, took to it pretty well and declared that he would like to play there on a regular basis. “Phil is a fantastic stand-off,” said his coach at the time, Alan Solomons. Instead of sticking Burleigh at ten with one eye on his becoming Scottish qualified this year, the Kiwi spent most of the last two season in his original inside-centre slot.
Ruaridh Jackson is a natural ten who, like Russell, attacks the gain line but he was allowed to leave Scotland while Duncan Weir was allowed to leave Glasgow and Scotland’s former reserve stand-off has looked thoroughly miserable in Edinburgh ever since.
“The challenge is out there for Duncan Weir, for Ruaridh Jackson, for Adam Hastings, for guys we mentioned before, Tom Heathcote at Worcester, to play their way into the squad,” said Townsend.
“We don’t have a huge amount of players in that position for this group. Peter [Horne] and Finn [Russell] are the best two we have available so they have to show up.”
Another hopeful in the form of Hastings Jnr has generated good reviews from his Glasgow pre-season, as Townsend and Glasgow’s Dave Rennie both acknowledged last week.
Already there is talk of moving him to full-back or inside centre…