The Bath wing is one of four uncapped players in his 40-man Scotland squad alongside Tipperary-born Ireland under-20 cap Ben Healy, Leicester lock Cameron Henderson and Glasgow’s Stafford McDowall, but it is McConnochie who is the shock inclusion.
At 31 it’s doubtful that he can be considered one for the future but he could be a useful addition as Scotland prepare to face England without Darcy Graham and with concerns about the state of Duhan van der Merwe’s ankle.
McConnochie could now become only the second player ever – after James Marsh in 1892 – and the first since the 19th century to play Test matches for England and Scotland. Born in London but with his family hailing from Perth, he was capped twice by Eddie Jones in 2019. He made his England debut in September 2019 against Italy then played in the Rugby World Cup win over the USA later that month, scoring a try in the 45-7 victory as he lined up alongside Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Lewis Ludlam, Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler and Courtney Lawes, all potential opponents at Twickenham on February 4.
The match in Japan turned out to be McConnochie’s last for England and he is able to change allegiance by taking advantage of World Rugby’s eligibility rule which permits any player who hasn’t played international rugby for three years – and who has a credible link to the country they wish to represent – to make a one-time switch.
His Scottish connections are not in doubt. When he was called into the England Sevens set-up for the first time in 2013, McConnochie said: “My mum and dad are both Scottish through and through. They’ve had a good joke about it all. They’ve not disowned me yet.” The family moved south for work reasons but his father, Rennie, made sure the bond with the homeland remained and McConnochie started playing rugby with London Scottish at the age of seven.
“He is a very good player who is available to us,” said Townsend. “I met him in October and he said one of his goals was to get in the Scotland squad and he has made it. Now the hard work continues for him and he has to try and find a way into the 15 or the 23. He has always been a player I have been fond of. I met his dad years ago, before I was coaching, at an event in London. I remember the surname. He said look out for my son, he is playing for London Scottish under-18s. It is a great story that we have a player of quality that plays Test match rugby that comes into our squad when we are missing Darcy and a few others.”
Townsend doesn’t expect Graham to be available until round four, when Scotland host Ireland on March 12, and the coach said he would have no qualms about throwing in McConnochie against England. “I’m sure he’ll be highly motivated, with his family here and having that Scottish bloodline.”
Another player switching sides is Healy, although he never got as far as winning a full cap for Ireland. The 23-year-old Munster stand-off, who will join Edinburgh in the summer, is one of three 10s in the squad, alongside Finn Russell and Blair Kinghorn, and gets his chance in the absence of the injured Adam Hastings. “We feel he’s got a game which could easily transfer to Test level,” Townsend said of Healy, whose mother is Scottish. “He’s very knowledgeable around attack-shape, decision-making, very connected, he’s got a really strong kicking game from hand and at goal. But he’s someone we’ve not worked with before, so he’s got to be integrated into our group and we’ll find out how quickly he can get up to speed with how we want to play and connect with others.”
An injury to Saracens second row Callum Hunter-Hill opened the door for Henderson, the Hong Kong-born one-time Scottish Rugby academy player who prospered at Leicester. He was called up by Scotland in 2021 for summer Tests against Romania and Georgia which were cancelled due to Covid. The 23-year-old impressed Townsend in the Tigers’ Champions Cup win over Clermont in France on Friday. “He played 80 minutes, was calling the lineouts, was physical.”
McDowall retains his place amid some stiff competition for the centre berths. He was called up in the autumn but didn’t see action and joins Glasgow team-mates Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones, Gloucester’s Chris Harris and Bath’s Cam Redpath as the contenders at 12 and 13. Mark Bennett misses out, as does Sam Johnson who has just returned from a broken jaw. Townsend praised McDowall’s work ethic.
Jones wasn’t the only back to win a recall. Sean Maitland last played for Scotland in the 2021 Six Nations against Italy but the 34-year-old is still a regular for Saracens. His ability to play wing or full-back will make him particularly useful as Stuart Hogg feels his way back from a heel injury. The Exeter man is in the squad, along with van der Merwe, Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson who are all returning from various ailments. Townsend expects the quartet to see some club action before the Calcutta Cup.
“We believe everyone in this squad will be available for us against England,” said the coach. “Hamish [who suffered a concussion against New Zealand in November] is scheduled to play [for Edinburgh] a week on Saturday. Stuart is back running and is in contention to play this week but it might be next week. Zander [hamstring], I’m not sure whether he’ll get a game [with Glasgow] but if this week goes well he should be back in full training next week.”
Rory Darge and Scott Cummings have not made the squad but Townsend is hopeful they can return for the home match against Wales in round two on February 11.