The Scotland head coach’s contract expires at the conclusion of the tournament in France in the autumn and he has spent time since the Six Nations talking to Scottish Rugby chief Mark Dodson about signing a new deal. Dodson’s own contract expires in summer 2025 and it has been suggested that Townsend could agree to a similar timeframe. Clarity would be helpful in the World Cup build-up which begins in earnest with the squad announcement. Townsend is expected to name a pool of around 40 players for an initial four-week training camp which will then be cut to 33 for the tournament itself which kicks off for Scotland against South Africa in Marseille on September 10 and continues with Pool B fixtures against Tonga, Romania and Ireland.
The bulk of the squad will meet up on May 29 for the start of the training camp, with those players whose clubs are involved in the latter stages of their respective competitions given dispensation to join up later. That will include the large contingent from Glasgow Warriors who have reached the European Challenge Cup final and will be given an extra week to recover. Similarly, potential call-ups Ewan Ashman (Sale Sharks), Cameron Henderson (Leicester Tigers), Andy Christie, Callum Hunter-Hill and Sean Maitland (all Saracens) and Rory Hutchinson (Northampton Saints) are all likely to be involved in the Gallagher Premiership play-offs, with the semi-finals taking place this weekend and the final scheduled for May 27. The Guinness Pro14 final will take place on the same day, and Ben Healy’s Munster are through to the semis which are a week on Saturday. Finn Russell’s involvement in the Scotland training camp could be severely limited depending on Racing 92’s progress. France’s regular season goes on until the final weekend of May, with play-offs to follow right through to the Top 14 final on June 17. Racing are currently fourth with two rounds of regular fixtures remaining before the play-offs begin on June 3.
One group of players who will be involved from the start is those from Edinburgh whose season ended on April 21. They are likely to be joined by Stuart Hogg but not, unfortunately, his Exeter Chiefs team-mate Jonny Gray whose World Cup hopes are in doubt due to a serious knee injury. The better news for Townsend is that Rory Darge, Darcy Graham and Adam Hastings are all fit again. The trio played no part in the Six Nations due to ankle, knee and shouder injuries, respectively, although Darge was able to join the squad for the final two matches. Jonny Gray started for Scotland in those games, against Ireland and Italy, after featuring as a replacement against England, Wales and France. His likely absence will be lamented by Townsend but at least second row is a position in which Scotland are well served. Richie Gray, Grant Gilchrist, Scott Cummings and Sam Skinner are all vastly experienced Test players, while Henderson and Hunter-Hill are waiting in the wings. The latter two are uncapped but one or both are likely to be in the training squad, possibly along with John Cooney, the Ulster scrum-half who Townsend considered calling up during the Six Nations. Cooney, whose father is Scottish, has won 11 caps for Ireland but is eligible to switch sides because his last appearance was over three years ago.
Hutchinson, the Northampton centre, was in Scotland’s training squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup but did not make the final cut for the tournament itself. His club form has attracted rave notices this season and he could return to the international fray having last been capped on the summer tour to Argentina. Similarly, Magnus Bradbury is impressing for Bristol Bears and was this week named the club’s players’ player of the year in his first season in the English Premiership.
With four warm-up games to play before the World Cup Townsend has the scope to experiment in a way that he didn’t during the Six Nations. Eight players in his Six Nations squad never saw a minute of action, including wingers Ruaridh McConnochie and Maitland. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and the return of Graham could spell bad news for one or both. Stafford McDowall’s stellar form for Glasgow is likely to be rewarded with his first full cap during the summer Tests, and Henderson is also in line for a debut. Of the other unused players from the Six Nations, Javan Sebastian is injured but Dave Cherry, Josh Bayliss, and Christie are around, albeit they play in positions - hooker and back row - where competition is fierce.
The action starts for Scotland with a match at Murrayfield against Italy on July 29, followed by another home Test, against France, on August 5. The Scots will then take on the French in Saint-Etienne on August 12 before completing their preparations back in Edinburgh against Georgia on August 26.
It’s Townsend’s second tilt at a World Cup as head coach and he has hinted at a change of emphasis from 2019 when the preparations focused chiefly on physical fitness. “We learned a lot about World Cup prep,” he said after the Six Nations. “We believed we were the fittest team going into the tournament, knowing what other fitness test results came back from other countries. But we maybe could have focused more on our rugby. There’s elements of our rugby, in defence and attack, that we can now spend a lot of time on, as well as getting the players fit. But the key focus will be rugby this time round.”