Iain Morrison: Scotland boss Gregor Townsend has some big squad selection decisions to make

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. Pic: SNS/Gary Hutchsion
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend. Pic: SNS/Gary Hutchsion
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It was an odd announcement in a way. When Scotland released the 42 names in the wider training squad ahead of the upcoming World Cup, the focus was probably more on those who were missing than the three uncapped players who made the cut.

Chief among them was Richie Gray who is getting back to some sort of form after a long injury lay-off. It made a lot fewer headlines but, one week after brother Jonny broke the record for tackles in a Pro14 game with 43 against Leinster, Big Richie managed 19 against the same Irish opposition, in the Champions Cup semi-final, the second highest count on the day.

Glasgow’s Scott Cummings is his rival for that last place and also the form lock in Scotland, so it would make sense to add them both for now and delay the decision on who gets the final nod.

The other big loser was Alex Dunbar, who was starting for Scotland only last November. He has had a wretched time with injury but Gregor Townsend prefers a Kiwi-style second receiver/distributor at inside centre rather than a strike runner, never mind that Ma’a Nonu has 103 caps, most of them in that position, for the most ambitious, high-tempo team in the world. “Alex is unlucky,” Townsend asserted, and no one was going to argue with him.

Assuming Sam Johnson, Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor are all fit and selected, that leaves Townsend with two “playmake” options for a fourth centre, an old favourite in Peter Horne or a new one in Rory Hutchinson, both of whom play a second receiver/distributor role and can step in at 10 if needs be, although Horne has never prospered in that position at international level. They are too similar in style for both to go to Japan and, from the way Townsend was talking, the uncapped Northampton Saint appears to be in the box seat. If Taylor’s body succumbs to injury again, the uncapped South African Kyle Steyn could leapfrog his rivals to add some defensive solidity.

When asked about Hutchinson, Townsend said: “He was always on the depth chart. He played 10 at under-20s for a couple of seasons. The report back then said that he wanted to play centre and I thought, ‘That’s strange? Why would you want to play centre, fly-half is a much better position!’

“But it’s great that he did play 10, he’s very confident about stepping in at first receiver. Northampton use him a lot in first phase plays when he is the main ball carrier, to release Dan Biggar out the back or hit the other centre. He has a kicking game, a goal-kicker too, and he’s playing with real confidence so we see him being able to play 13. His preferred position is probably 12, so playing 13 & 12 is a really good combination, and flexibility and being able to play 10 too is a bonus.”

That Hutchinson is a talent is without question, even if picking him would leave Scotland’s skilful back line a little underpowered, as they have been for a while.

The coach insisted that he didn’t have a set number of probables pencilled into his World Cup squad but I counted about 27 likely lads with the additional four players coming in, one in each row of the scrum, plus another midfielder as discussed.

Assuming that Townsend takes five props, then Jamie Bhatti and Gordy Reid are fighting for the last place alongside Allan Dell, Zander Fagerson, WP Nel and Simon Berghan. In the second row, presuming the coach takes Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist and Jonny Gray, then Richie Gray and Cummings appear to be fighting for the one other spot.

In the back row, if Townsend takes John Barclay, who he talked up at the team announcement, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson and Sam Skinner (as a blindside flanker or lock), that probably leaves Jamie Ritchie fighting with Magnus Bradbury for a place on the plane.

We are assuming five back-three backs will be taken – Tommy Seymour, Sean Maitland, Darcy Graham, Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn – but if Townsend wants 18 forwards, one of these five would probably have to make way for a lock/breakaway. Kinghorn’s lack of recent game time counts against him, as does his occasional lapse in defence.

All 31 of the final selections will be beholden to Townsend’s philosophy of the game, which is itself proving tricky to pin down. It was Barclay who defined his coach’s original approach to the game. In a column for the BBC in June, 2017, before Townsend’s debut Test, the flank forward announced that the Scotland boss wanted his team to play “the fastest rugby in the world”, and that expression has stuck ever since regardless of the evidence.

After Wales thumped Scotland on his Six Nations debut, Townsend pulled his horns back and instead ground out a win over France. In fact, since Cardiff he has rowed so far back from his initial stance that he ended up arguing with Finn Russell at half-time at Twickenham, the coach wanting his stand-off to kick, the playmaker determined to attack with ball in hand, and Russell won the day. Let’s see if he pays for his temerity?

Townsend looked bewildered after that game, as clueless as the rest of us, but international coaches are different animals. They are obliged to maintain an aura of omniscience in front of their players but Townsend’s mask has slipped, twice now, first in Cardiff and then in London, to reveal a very human uncertainty behind his confident exterior.

Tactics will be crucial in the World Cup where flamboyant attack usually falters in the face of defensive excellence, as heat and humidity threaten to thwart ambition. Above all, the players need certainty and, after Twickenham, it’s not certain they are getting it. That crazy Calcutta Cup was relevant for one other reason that went largely unnoticed amid all the mayhem. With a winning record of 52 per cent, Townsend has now slipped below the 53 per cent win rate enjoyed by “Stern Vern” Cotter, the predecessor who was fired to make way for the former Scotland stand-off.

The Kiwi led Scotland to within one minute of a semi-final. This World Cup campaign will go a long way to defining Townsend’s standing as an international coach.