Scotland’s bolters out of the blue stake their claim for Rugby World Cup spot

Kyle Steyn has stolen a match on several rivals simply by being on the field while others have been on the sidelines. Picture: SNS Group
Kyle Steyn has stolen a match on several rivals simply by being on the field while others have been on the sidelines. Picture: SNS Group
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Already there have been subtle shifts in who may travel to Japan in the three weeks since the squad came out, writes Iain Morrison

On 7 May, Gregor Townsend announced his big World Cup squad to the waiting world and already, only three weeks later, the sands have subtly shifted under our feet. From an original position where no new caps were expected to travel, there are now four uncapped players knocking on the door after showing up well in the post-season play-offs.

Scott Cummings and Kyle Steyn were late additions to the party but both are the form players in Scotland in their respective positions at lock and centre. Cummings was my man of the match in the Pro14 final such was the effectiveness of his ball carrying close to the breakdown which, it is worth remembering, is not one of his natural strengths.

The Warriors lock managed to outshine Leinster’s star forward James Ryan, which is high praise. The pair are both only 22 years old and it is not entirely fanciful to imagine them playing together on a future Lions tour.

Steyn has stolen a march on several World Cup rivals, notably Nick Grigg, Huw Jones and Duncan Taylor, simply by being on the field while they have been stuck on the sidelines.

Grigg has not played since the Calcutta Cup. He punches above his weight but there remains the feeling that, for all his pluck, Grigg is an excellent club player who has failed to impose himself at full international level in any meaningful manner.

Jones finds himself in an odd situation. He has hardly put a foot wrong for Scotland, ten tries in 20 starts, while the 13 has barely put a foot right for the Warriors.

With only six league starts in two seasons, he shares the same problem as Alex Dunbar of having had almost no opportunity to play himself back into contention once Glasgow boss Dave Rennie showed him the cold shoulder.

Jones is in the same boat as Saracens’ Duncan Taylor – both are key players for Scotland but only if they are fully fit. With Sam Johnson sure to travel, Townsend should favour the extra experience of Jones and Taylor but only if they prove themselves in the warm-up
matches. Neither man can rely on past deeds, especially given the emergence of the uncapped Steyn and Northampton’s Rory Hutchinson, another newbie whose stock is rising.

Hutchinson won the Premiership Player of the Month in February and, more recently, Saints’ Breakthrough Player of the Year for the 2018-19 season. He can play 12 or 13 or even 10, at a pinch.

An outrageous offload by Hutchinson – he juggled the ball and flipped it up as he fell to ground, – set up Saints’ second try of the Premiership semi-final against Exeter, albeit in a losing cause. He is very much a Townsend type of player, slightly built at around 90kgs but quick, with good feet and highly skilled.

The versatile Peter Horne, a long-term favourite of the coach, may miss out. Horne has experience on his side, Hutchinson most of the other trump cards including, crucially, the benefit of good form. While he was helping Saints into the play-offs, Horne was relegated to the relative obscurity of the Warriors’ bench, alongside brother George. Why take Horne when you have Hutchinson/Greig Laidlaw as your third and fourth stand-offs?

The other uncapped hopeful is Grant Stewart who showed up well in Glasgow’s loss to Leinster last weekend after replacing Fraser Brown in the first half. Stewart not only took his try with some panache but he constantly showed up well with the ball in hand, catching and passing in the midfield like he was born to be a centre.

Stewart must be pushing his fellow Warrior George Turner, who has not played since 2 March against Zebre. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say, although, should Brown’s ankle injury be serious, both men may yet travel. Scotland’s set piece would surely come under added scrutiny should that happen.

Elsewhere in the forwards, Ryan Wilson has been a Scotland stalwart for so long that you just assume he will travel. The breakaway has made 43 international appearance since he was first capped in 2013. He is part of Scotland’s fixtures and fittings – but the Warriors’ co-captain has found it difficult getting starts for Glasgow.

Rob Harley was overlooked altogether by Townsend but the ginger-headed flanker held down the No.6 shirt in the play-offs
and Matt Fagerson brought the boundless energy and enthusiasm of youth to the No.8 jersey.

Townsend has been faithful to Wilson throughout his tenure but that has always puzzled at least some of the paying public.

Wilson is not a natural ball carrying No.8 like Magnus Brabury. As a six he is up against a rejuvenated John Barclay while Sam Skinner looks like the fifth lock/breakaway and Hamish Watson has the openside jersey nailed down. Much depends on whether Townsend opts for 17 or 18 forwards.

Wilson may imagine that he is indispensable to Scotland’s cause but Richie Gray, Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and several others who didn’t make the cut could set him straight on that score.