Scotland tour gives Gregor Townsend a dilemma
Los Jaguares have just completed a four-match tour of Australasia and emerged with four wins. If beating the Rebels and Blues is nothing to shout about, scalping the Brumbies and Chiefs, Super Rugby semi-finalists in both of the last two years, means Gregor Townsend cannot say he wasn’t warned.
The Scotland coach will announce his squad for the tour on Tuesday and he needs to balance any development aspect with the clear need to generate momentum and confidence ahead of RWC’19.
There are a couple of names who won’t be there and Townsend has already admitted that others may get a rest. Hamish Watson is resting a shoulder after an operation and he could be joined by Huw Jones. The Glasgow centre has played back to back seasons, it is beginning to catch up with him and he could be due an extended break.
Townsend is unlikely to pick a “bolter” this close to the World Cup but keep one eye on Stafford MacDowell, the 6’ 4” Glasgow centre who would certainly bring some much-needed physicality to a lightweight Scotland back division.
Townsend also needs a big bruiser in the back row. Magnus Bradbury needs to step up another gear if he is to challenge David Denton who could yet turn out at blindside with John Barclay at his club position of eight.
The coach has a headache at nine. On current form Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Henry Pyrgos and George Horne would travel although I haven’t seen enough of Greig Laidlaw in action for Clermont to judge him. Pyrgos shares most of Laidlaw’s game management abilities while being sharper about the field and has been unfairly overlooked of late. Laidlaw may go for his leadership qualities while Ali Price may benefit from a rest; not that he would see it that way.
But Townsend’s biggest problems lie one wider in the No.10 channel where the erratic form of Finn Russell urgently necessitates a strong understudy. Despite his Calcutta Cup heroics, Peter Horne still looks more of a ten than a 12, he lacks the physicality or the pace to play in the centres and both his decision making and execution when playing second five-eighth against Ireland were woeful. He is not even a safe pair of hands, as Jacob Stockdale will confirm.
Which leaves us with Adam Hastings who looks the most likely to hold Russell’s feet to the fire and he might have nailed down the standby spot had he had a little more game time this season. Six starts for Glasgow doesn’t look too shabby on paper but three of them came against the Dragons, the Southern Kings and Zebre, none of whom test a stand-off’s ability to choose and execute options under pressure.
Hastings plays a similar game to Russell. He takes the ball to the line, offering a threat himself before putting support players through the hole he has created. His kicking game is a work in progress but he isn’t afraid to mix things up and just the occasional indecision in defence counts against him.
Hastings is in a race against time. The World Cup is just over one year away and he is closing the gap on where he needs to be to make that squad but is he closing fast enough?
We will have a better idea if the young stand-off is involved in some way in the summer’s sternest Test, against Los Pumas in the northern backwater of Resistencia.