Scotland kick off their campaign against England at Twickenham two weeks on Saturday, but have injury concerns around several senior players which may lead to surprise call-ups. The head coach included five uncapped players in his 39-man squad last year and could look to blood more new talent with one eye on autumn’s Rugby World Cup.
It’s an area of the team in which Scotland are blessed with talent but injuries have not been kind. Darcy Graham is likely to miss at least the start of the championship due to a knee ligament issue. The initial prognosis was that Graham would be sidelined until February, unfortunate timing for the Hawick man who was in outstanding form in the autumn for club and country. Graham’s absence will be felt more acutely if Duhan van der Merwe is unable to shake off the ankle injury that has blighted his return to Edinburgh. Expect a call-up for Kyle Steyn but his Glasgow team-mate Rufus McLean hasn’t had much rugby recently.
With Kyle Rowe still recovering from the ACL injury he sustained in Argentina and Damien Hoyland also sidelined, Townsend may have to get creative. The coach might be tempted to utilise Blair Kinghorn on the wing. The versatile Kinghorn has started out wide for Edinburgh in their last two games despite being seen as their first-choice stand-off. It’s almost two years since Sean Maitland featured for Scotland but he is still playing at the sharp end for Saracens and started in their Heineken Cup win over Lyon. Could there be a recall for the 34-year-old?
Stuart Hogg is another concern. He did not travel to South Africa with the Exeter Chiefs for Saturday’s game with the Bulls due to a heel injury. If the England match comes too soon for the full-back, expect Ollie Smith to wear 15 at Twickenham but the prospect of going into the Calcutta Cup without Hogg, Graham and van der Merwe is one to vex Townsend.
The centre berths offer a more pleasing scenario for the coach thanks to the excellent form of the various contenders, most notably Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones who were both outstanding in Glasgow's recent win over the Stormers, but also their team-mates Stafford McDowall and Sam Johnson, the latter marking his return from a broken cheekbone with a try against Perpignan. Edinburgh’s Mark Bennett is also in the mix and the dependable Chris Harris is a shoo-in. Cam Redpath is a favourite of Townsend’s and Rory Hutchinson is another option although the Northampton Saint’s last start for Scotland came at full-back in Argentina. The biggest problem here for Townsend could be who to leave out and there is likely to be at least one high-profile omission.
Finn Russell didn’t cover himself in glory for Racing 92 at the weekend but it would be a huge shock if he was excluded again. He won a late recall after being left out by Townsend in the autumn and his performances against New Zealand and Argentina exposed the folly of the initial decision. Options elsewhere are a little thin on the ground. Kinghorn is the obvious back-up but, as mentioned above, may be needed on the wing. Adam Hastings is out after shoulder surgery, Ross Thompson is recovering from an ankle injury and Fin Smith, the bright young thing at Northampton, has been named in the England squad. Munster’s Edinburgh-bound Ben Healy could be fast-tracked into the squad if Townsend is feeling especially bold.
Ali Price has been a fixture in the Scotland No 9 jersey since Greig Laidlaw bowed out but the scrum-half has not had it all his own way at Glasgow, playing second fiddle to on-form George Horne. Both are likely to be named in Townsend’s squad along with London Irish’s Ben White. That could leave Ben Vellacott on the outside looking in, despite his valuable contribution to Edinburgh’s win over Castres. Sale’s Gus Warr has also been mentioned in despatches. The England U20 cap represented Scotland at younger age-groups.
Fraser Brown reclaimed the hooker’s jersey in the autumn, starting against New Zealand and Argentina, and has been in fine form for Glasgow. He suffered a head injury against the Stormers but Franco Smith thinks he will complete his return-to-play protocols for the Dragons game on January 25. George Turner and Dave Cherry are also likely to be in the mix, as is Sale’s Ewan Ashman and it could be a case of perm three from four. Stuart McInally has not played since failing an HIA against Castres on December 17.
If hooker offers an abundance of options the same cannot be said at tighthead prop where Zander Fagerson’s hamstring injury is a major concern. Ruled out for the “foreseeable” by Glasgow Warriors, the hope is that he can play at least some part in the Six Nations. A neck injury to his club-mate Murphy Walker has compounded matters. At 36, WP Nel is likely to have an important role to play. So too will Glasgow’s Simon Berghan and don’t rule out a call up for Scarlets’ Javan Sebastian. The picture is a bit brighter on the other side of the scrum where Pierre Schoeman, Rory Sutherland and Jamie Bhatti are likely to vie for loosehead.
Richie Gray is on form for Glasgow, as is Sam Skinner for Edinburgh, but Scott Cummings is still out with a foot injury. Grant Gilchrist returned for Edinburgh on Sunday but Jonny Gray was absent from Exeter Chiefs’ weekend trip to South Africa. Glen Young is another option.
Hamish Watson is the big concern here. The openside has not played since suffering a concussion against New Zealand on November 13. Rory Darge is also missing after needing an operation on his ankle in October, while Luke Crosbie sat out Edinburgh’s win over Castres on Sunday. Jamie Ritchie, the Scotland captain, could line up at No 7, with Matt Fagerson at six and Jack Dempsey at No 8. Andy Christie is also an option and scored a try for Saracens in their Euro win over Lyon. Skinner is comfortable in the back row and Josh Bayliss and Magnus Bradbury are other contenders.