Gregor Townsend set to make tough calls with World Cup hopefuls

Gregor Townsend admits it is going to be tough today when he has to ring nine of his squad and tell them they are not going to the Rugby World Cup.

It will be even harder with a couple of those calls, since he may also have to tell them that even though they have failed to make the final cut, they are still to play this Friday in the return match against Georgia.

“Some players will come into our squad next week who are not in the 31 [for Japan],” he explained. “They may be involved in the 23 [for Georgia] after missing out. If that’s a case, they’ll get an opportunity to play for Scotland and show us they’re ready if we do get injuries out at the World Cup.”

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On the plus side both Magnus Bradbury and Jonny Gray warmed up with the team on Saturday, though neither were in the playing squad. Both are expected to be available for the final warm-up match.

“Obviously we need to find out who is in our 31 first,” Townsend pointed out a few hours before he was due to sit down with his fellow coaches to pick the squad. “We wanted these guys with us so we could see what they’re able to do in terms of their availability, not just for next week but for the World Cup.

“It would have been great if Jonny and Magnus had played in one of the [first] three games. There are players who have played and put their hands up, but Jonny is in a position where he’s started most of our last two years in the second row.

“Magnus will be a conversation and a tough selection, because Matt [Fagerson] went well in Tbilisi and Josh [Strauss] came on and played well. Blade [Thomson] and Ryan [Wilson] played well last week too.”

It is hard to disagree. If both play on Friday, then only Fraser Brown is in the position where he might have to travel to the World Cup without having a game under his belt.

As Townsend, pictured, 
hinted, he’s almost certain to pick Gray on his record and what he has seen at training, but Bradbury is in a more precarious position after damaging his ribs in training.

The back row battle has always been the most contentious, though possibly it became a little easier after Sam Skinner was forced to drop out. Until then, it looked as though the plan was to take only five back rows with Skinner as the cover.

Without him they may go a lock short instead with one of the six back rows covering the role, a position Blade Thomson is perfectly suited for, having played a good chunk of his Super Rugby at lock before coming to Europe and being fielded exclusively in the back row. Hamish Watson and John Barclay probably hardened the cement around their places in the match on Saturday and Ryan Wilson completes the experienced trio likely to travel.

Until he starts making the phone calls to tell the players they are in or out, only Townsend and his confidants know which way he will go.

At least he is having to make the decisions on the back of a couple of positive performances where more players have put their hands up for selection than gone in the opposite direction.

Even a few who flopped in the opening 
defeat by France in Nice have gone some way to retrieving their positions. The big breakthrough has been Rory Hutchinson who, after a couple of interesting cameos in the first two matches, got his first start and played like he had been there for years, 
collecting two tries in an impressive performance.

He was helped by being in a side going forward a lot and Townsend was happy at the way the players had reacted to being in camp a bit longer than usual – they travelled to Tbilisi on Wednesday – which he sees as a good dress rehearsal for Japan.

The match itself was also good experience: “A big home crowd, a very noisy one even though it wasn’t full. Yokohama [where they play Japan] will be full and, although Japan play different rugby to Georgia, it’s, again, a team we’re not used to playing,” he pointed out.

“If we focus on getting our systems and detail right but also on being very respectful of the opposition and what they bring, matching that, then we put ourselves in a good position to win. We have to keep those standards up now. We can’t slip off next week, because Georgia will get some confidence out of the second half on Saturday. We will also need those standards really high when we play Ireland [at the start of the World Cup].”