Posers for Gregor Townsend in selecting Scotland's Six Nations squad
In simple terms Gregor Townsend’s pack will mostly come from Edinburgh’s ranks and the backs from Glasgow’s, that much you knew. Most of the head coach’s head scratching comes when contemplating the middle of the park, the halfbacks and especially back row.
Having been for so long a Scottish strength, breakaways are now a major headache for Scotland with the exception of Edinburgh’s Hamish Watson who is a shoo-in for the No.7 shirt presuming he stays fit. Far too many players can’t make that claim.
Magnus Bradbury has been sidelined since October and looks like he won’t be ready for the start of the Six Nations. John Barclay will almost certainly miss the entire thing. David Denton is still going through his return to play protocols after a bang to the head last September, so it must have been a bad one. He is only weeks away from playing but obviously less than match fit while Worcester’s Cornell du Preez is still missing after fracturing his larynx at the start of the season.
Until World Rugby change the rules to allow the selection of Edinburgh’s favourite Fijian, Billy McMata, Townsend’s No.8 choices are a little limited. Matt Fagerson or the Scarlets’ uncapped Kiwi Blade Thomson if the coach wants a ball handler, Adam Ashe or Josh Strauss if he opts for a ball carrier even though neither man seems to want the shirt.
The Sale Shark blew his big comeback game for Scotland last November against Fiji with an anonymous performance 17 months after his previous cap. Meanwhile Ashe was outstanding for Glasgow against Lyon in France, before disappearing without trace in the first derby match against Edinburgh two weeks later. Ashe has all the tools to do the job except consistency, which is puzzling and frustrating in equal measure.
Whoever doesn’t play at eight will have a stab at six although Jamie Ritchie is probably edging Ryan Wilson right now.
Townsend had four scrum-halves in the autumn squad but Henry Pyrgos missed out. I would pick Pyrgos at the expense of Ali Price. Greig Laidlaw remains Scotland’s best nine and George Horne offers a point of difference. Pyrgos is still the closest thing to Laidlaw available and it is much easier to speed up his service than to imbue Price with the older man’s tactical nous overnight. Did you witness Conor Murray tormenting Gloucester on Friday night?
At stand-off Finn Russell has never looked in better form, Racing 92 giving him the platform to show his stuff, after looking horribly out of sorts last season.
Behind him Adam Hastings remains the heir presumptive but he has struggled in recent weeks and he needs to manage the game better before he is handed the Scotland keys in the highly-charged atmosphere of the Six Nations. Duncan Weir is out of favour at international level but, like George Horne, he offers a point of difference even if ithe polar opposite, a closing pitcher if you like.
The midfield was a source of strength not so long ago but too many players are injured or out of form or, if it’s possible, both at the same time. Matt Scott is due back in weeks and could get some game time before the Six Nations but you suspect that the uncapped Sam Johnson and Peter Horne are both ahead of him in the No. 12 food chain.
Nick Grigg has struggled, Chris Dean sat him down in the 1872 derbies, but the Glasgow centre gets another chance this afternoon when the Warriors take on Cardiff in the Champions Cup. Alex Dunbar has been beset by a string of injuries that mean his confidence and form are both at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Huw Jones is overlooked for today’s match but Dave Rennie and the Glasgow coaching team have failed to get the best from him and Jones remains Scotland’s best attacking option at 13.
The back three is perhaps the least competitive area of the squad with five obvious names going for three places. Tommy Seymour badly needs a performance to keep Darcy Graham at bay, while Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland should start, with Blair Kinghorn waiting in the wings.
Finally there is a mini-crisis at hooker, or rather there will be a full-blown one if any misfortune befalls Stuart McInally who will be wrapped in cotton wool in between games for the next few weeks given the injuries to Fraser Brown and George Turner.
Ross Ford is an option but the 34-year-old veteran has a lot of miles on the clock and they are beginning to show. If Townsend isn’t prepared to risk Ford in the heat and humidity of Japan at this year’s Rugby World Cup, by which time he will be 35, then the coach needs to look elsewhere now.
Leicester’s Jake Kerr is a live option and so too is McInally’s Edinburgh understudy, David Cherry. He is athletic, strong and quick, showing remarkable pace to make a flying cover tackle on Newcastle winger Adam Radwan in full flight.
Cherry is not a wide-eyed ingenue, he turns 28 in March. He has been around the English Championship and France’s Fed 1 (third division) for most of his playing career but the hooker has soldiered on with belief in his own ability unshaken. Short of game time he may be, but Cherry isn’t going to rest now, with his ultimate goal within touching distance.