Summer tours can bite you on the backside but Gregor Townsend already knows that. Last summer his team claimed a first ever win against the Wallabies in Sydney exactly seven days before finishing second to Fiji in Suva.
That Sydney victory was arguably the highlight of Townsend’s brief international coaching career, especially in light of Scotland’s continuing troubles on their travels. Townsend’s team boast just two wins away from home, in Sydney and Rome.
The Sydney game was also the high water mark for Duncan Taylor. The Saracens’ centre, recently recovered from a long string of injury woes, is crucial to Scotland as his coach explained.
“I’m crossing my fingers because he’s still got two more games left and I really hope he will be available to tour,” said Townsend on his star man. “He’s a very important player for us. He’s a player who can play a number of positions, his work rate off the ball is outstanding, he’s a very creative player and he’s an excellent defender.
“When you think back to that game in Sydney 12 months ago, he was outstanding. He scored a try, created another, played the first half at centre then moved to the wing and did very well.
“Saracens rate him very highly too. I just hope he gets a good run of luck, for his own good but obviously for us as well. The more we can involve him, the better we’ll be as a team.”
That is high praise and Taylor has timed his return perfectly because Scottish centres have been falling like flies. Mark Bennett is out of form and favour. Huw Jones is currently injured but he couldn’t make the Glasgow XV when he was fully fit. Alex Dunbar, meanwhile, is threatened by the new kid on the block because Townsend has said that Harlequins bolter James Lang carries hard and comes with extras...his playmaking skills from his time as a ten.
Incidentally, this Scotland squad is top heavy with siblings, Matt and Zander Fagerson and the two Horne brothers, Peter and George. It would have boasted three pairs of brothers had Jonny Gray not been stood down.
Townsend made no secret of the fact that he had one eye on next year’s World Cup when picking this squad, and added that everyone on tour had a chance of making the cut or, in a none too subtle threat, simply getting cut.
“They could play their way into that squad and have a real lasting memory of what they did on this tour, and they could certainly play their way out of that squad by what they do.”
The squad numbers 33 (just 28 will go to Argentina). There are an additional seven senior players rested over the summer plus four who are injured and out of contention. Add the numbers up, take into account the likes of Josh Strauss who can’t be dismissed, and you are left with approximately 45 players fighting for 31 World Cup slots. So much for summer “friendlies”.
It is too close to the World Cup to expect too many of the new faces will be on the Tokyo flight next year but one, maybe two, will doubtless emerge from the pack of wannabes.
Townsend has some boxes to tick in June. He needs to unearth a big breakaway, Scotland’s answer to Dan Leavy, who can carry, tackle and jackal. He needs to see Alan Dell hold the set scrum up and he needs Zander Fagerson to lower his penalty count.
The scrum-half berth is wide open and Chris Harris may prove a better wing than centre – Scotland are short of wingers – and of course Townsend is desperate for someone to back up Finn Russell at ten because the stand-off simply cannot start every game.
“It is important,” said Townsend, confirming what everyone already knew. “Obviously Adam [Hastings] played there at Glasgow this year and played well recently, which is great. I thought he played really well in the Six Nations period and then coming off the bench against Edinburgh he looked confident. Peter Horne played very well against Connacht for Glasgow.
“Ruaridh Jackson, who wasn’t played there for Glasgow this year but has played really well for Scotland, is another player who we would potentially look to play at ten on tour but a lot will depend on what we see with Adam. He’s there as a ten and will get an opportunity this summer.”
Interestingly, Glasgow looked at their most dangerous in that 1872 Cup match when Russell and Hastings were operating as duel first receivers late in the game. The youngster will get an opportunity to show what he can do in the summer, Townsend said as much. It is up to Hastings to grab it.